I’m teaching on forgiveness in a class full of freshmen, and it brings up interesting questions. For example, I was asked do we ever set boundaries with a person that we’ve forgiven? I think by that they meant that a person had sinned against them, they had forgiven the offender, but they didn’t trust them anymore. So are they justified in resisting restoring the relationship to it’s “pre-offense” status? Is it okay to put up some boundaries with this person?
One caveat for my answer is I will assume the offense is not a form of abuse. Abusive behavior has different dynamics—your greatest concern in that case is protecting the victim.
So with that caveat, I have two concerns with the question.
Boundaries Might Just Be an Acceptable Excuse to Avoid Actually Forgiving
Forgiveness is a step on the path to reconciliation. With many offenses, it’s equivalent to reconciliation. I’ve sinned against my wife hundreds of times, and her forgiveness has always reconciled us.
But what if you actually want to hold on to the hurt? In that case might you claim that you have forgiven them, but you need to set some boundaries? Those boundaries, coincidentally, will prevent you from fully reconciling. They will punish the offender for sinning against you. Remember that forgiveness is a promise not to bring it up to someone’s face, not to bring it up behind their back, and not to dwell on it. If you’re dwelling on it, you haven’t actually forgiven the offender. If you’re bringing it up to their face through an unnecessary use of boundaries, you also haven’t forgiven them. Really, you haven’t.
In fact, the use of boundaries can be a “spiritual” method to exact some revenge. And you and I don’t have the option of vengeance.
If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” Romans 12:18–19 (ESV)
So boundaries cannot be an excuse not to forgive the offender. You cannot claim you’ve forgiven him, but then refuse to work towards reconciliation; you cannot write them out of your life. Boundaries distance us from the offender. They don’t reconcile two people; they keep them apart. Is that what forgiveness should look like?
Or is your heart possibly deceiving you into thinking you forgave them, when you didn’t? You want to keep holding this sin against them.
Boundaries Might Be the Idolatry of Self-Protection
Sin hurts. Sometimes it’s hurtful because of the surprise of who did it. Sometimes it’s hurtful because of the betrayal. In those situations and others we can become very self-protective. “They’ve blown it. I forgive them, but I won’t trust them again.” I understand that impulse, but we cannot worship the idol of never being sinned against that way again.
Pay attention to yourselves! If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him, 4 and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him.” Luke 17:3–4 (ESV)
Do you think that maybe on the third time in the same day a person might think, “I should set some boundaries so they don’t sin against me again”? But that’s not what Jesus says to do. He says forgive them and forgiveness is inherently risky. It means they might sin against you again. In fact, they might sin against you seven times in a day.
You cannot make not being sinned against an idol you worship. That type of self-protection could be a form of pride. “Nobody should ever sin against me that way.” Why? Are you so important?
It’s possible that the offender might sin against you again in a very similar way. If so, you confront them again, and if they repent, you forgive them. It’s not about protecting yourself from hurt. It’s not even about what’s best for the offender. It’s about glorifying God by being a generous forgiver (Eph 4:32).
We who have been forgiven so much cannot look for reasons not to forgive. The gospel demands more than that. Jesus forgave us much; we–by his grace–can do the same.