“I Forgive You, but I Need to Establish Some Boundaries”

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.

Self-Confidence and a Near Death Experience

I passed my driving test when I was sixteen—barely! Not that I passed it barely, but I was less than three months from my 17th birthday. It was winter in Wisconsin, and I managed to get the car temporarily stuck in a snowbank when I was trying to parallel park. Maybe I did barely pass. Fortunately I got it out, and the examiner didn’t hold it against me.

American car culture never really enticed me. Lots of teenage guys get their driver’s license and then buy their first car. I didn’t own my first car until my junior year in college. It was more practical than romantic—I knew I would need to pay my own way through college, and cars are expensive.

But during my junior year I started looking for a used car, and with the help of some guys in my church, I found it. It was a Mazda GLC 4-door station wagon late 70s or early 80s edition—can’t remember the exact year. I told you I wasn’t a car guy. Google it; it was quite the vehicle. GLC stood for Great Little Car which sounds like what an ad agency would come up with for a car that was little, but not great.

It was my first car, and it was a manual shift. I hadn’t ever driven one before, so my dad took me to the local stadium parking lot and gave me 30 minutes of lessons. Then I dropped him off and started my 90 minute drive back to college. My Dad was not a helicopter parent; it turns out 30 minutes might not have been enough.

I killed the engine a few times, but mainly the drive was a two-lane highway all the way there, and once I got up to speed, I could maintain it. At one point I decided to pass a car that was going too slow. Now my Dad’s instructions didn’t include advice on passing another vehicle while driving a stick shift. So I was in fifth gear going the top speed for a Mazda GLC when I pulled out in opposing traffic to pass this vehicle.

If you’ve googled the picture, you realize that I was not driving a muscle car. It didn’t accelerate very fast, and I didn’t know that downshifting to fourth gear would help me accelerate. I wasn’t making much progress when I noticed an 18 wheeler coming right at me. I willed the car to go faster and still didn’t get anywhere, but now I was too far into passing to pull back into my lane. The semi was getting closer and finally I jerked the wheel to the left shoulder of the road as the semi went between me and the car I was passing. I hit the brakes on the gravel shoulder hearing the semi honk long and loud. My heart was beating fast; I was sweating. I was scared. I immediately prayed, “Oh Lord, thank you for saving this stupid, stupid boy.” I caught my breath for a few minutes, and gently pulled out onto the highway crossing the road to get into my lane and continued my way up to college.

That near-death experience reminds me of my tendency to be self-confident. God’s goodness includes Him reminding me that I am dependent upon Him. His reminders are most often not as dramatic, but they are always necessary. I am prone to look at any little success as saying something about me, so I need reminders that I am dependent upon God.

Jesus said,

I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. John 15:5 (ESV)

It’s not that I can do some things, but that I cannot do anything without Jesus. Certainly not anything that bears fruit for God’s glory. But give me a little ministry success, and I will be tempted to believe that it’s because of me. And I’ll be inclined to attempt greater things in my own strength. Just like when I was 21 and thought because I’d been driving a stick shift for an hour, that I was a pretty decent driver. Self-confidence is a dangerous thing for a believer.

It’s good to remember that I cannot bear fruit on my own. I need Jesus.

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