Forgiveness is a central teaching in the Bible. Christians are called to forgive others, as God has forgiven us. But does forgive mean we must also forget the offense?
If you’re short on time, here’s the quick answer: The Bible tells us to forgive unconditionally, yet also gives wisdom for dealing with people who continue unrepentant sin. True forgiveness comes from the heart, even when trust needs time to heal.
In this comprehensive article, we will unpack what the Bible teaches on offering both forgiveness and second chances while maintaining healthy relational boundaries with those who continue hurtful behaviors.
The Bible Commands Us to Forgive Others
When it comes to forgiveness, the Bible gives clear instructions that we should be quick to forgive others just as God has forgiven us. As Ephesians 4:32 (NIV) states, “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.” What an amazing model we have in God’s boundless mercy and grace towards us!
Though we are all sinful people who have rebelled against a holy God, He has lovingly forgiven us through Christ’s sacrificial death on the cross. We must follow God’s example by readily forgiving others.
Forgive as God Forgave You
God’s forgiveness towards us is truly remarkable – He forgives completely and unconditionally! Romans 3:23-24 reminds us that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.” What great news!
No matter what wrongs we have committed against God, when we repent and put our faith in Christ, He completely blots out all our transgressions. God forgives and forgets our sins so fully that He even transforms us to be like Christ.
This is the kind of forgiveness that we as Christians should extend towards others. Though it can be challenging to forgive people who have deeply hurt or offended us, God calls us to supernatural Christlike forgiveness where we let go of grudges and desire for revenge.
As Christ taught in the Lord’s prayer, we ask God to “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matthew 6:12). May we aim to forgive others in the same wholehearted and complete way that God has forgiven us.
Forgiveness Does Not Always Mean Trusting Someone Right Away
Jesus Offers Grace yet also Gives Wisdom
Jesus teaches we should forgive others just as God forgives us (Matthew 6:14-15). However, Jesus does not say we must automatically trust someone again who has hurt us. He offers grace and second chances, yet also gives wisdom.
For example, when Jesus restored Peter after his denials, he asked him three times, “Do you love me?” (John 21:15-17). Peter had to re-commit. Jesus offered forgiveness, but still had Peter demonstrate change over time before fully trusting him as a leader again.
Biblical Examples of Establishing Relational Boundaries
The Bible includes other examples of maintaining boundaries in complex relationships, even when forgiveness is offered:
- When Jacob reunited with Esau, he approached cautiously since Esau had wanted to kill him (Genesis 33).
- Joseph forgave his betraying brothers, but tested their hearts by demanding they bring Benjamin to Egypt (Genesis 42-45).
- Paul warned the Corinthians not to prematurely trust a disciplined member until he showed fruits of repentance over time (2 Corinthians 2:5-8).
These cases show it is wise to allow time and space after reconciliation, to observe consistent changes in behavior, before fully lowering your guard again. Forgiveness and trust may come sequentially, not simultaneously.
|Weeks to months
|Months to years
|Years (counseling often needed)
Research by counseling organization Mental Health America confirms that the greater the sense of betrayal, the longer rebuilding trust takes. Patience, wisdom and boundaries enable forgiveness while allowing time for consistency.
What True, Heartfelt Forgiveness Looks Like
It Lets Go of Bitterness and Revenge
When we have been hurt or offended, it is natural to feel resentment and a desire to get even. However, holding onto bitterness and plotting revenge only hurts us in the end. True forgiveness means letting go of those negative feelings and freeing ourselves from their power over us.
As the Bible says, “See to it that no one misses the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many” (Hebrews 12:15).
Forgiveness also means not seeking revenge when we have been wronged. Rather than trying to hurt back those who have hurt us, we bless them and wish them well. As Romans 12:17-19 (NIV) instructs us: “Do not repay anyone evil for evil…If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.
Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath.” When we let go of bitterness and revenge, we open our hearts to peace, joy and better relationships.
It Blesses and Serves Even Enemies
True forgiveness goes beyond just letting things go – it actively seeks to bless even those who persecute us. Jesus said in Matthew 5:44 (NIV): “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”
He demonstrated this himself when nailed to the cross, praying for his executioners, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). Stephen followed Jesus’ example, praying for those stoning him to death (Acts 7:60).
Loving and serving enemies tests our forgiveness but also powerfully demonstrates Christ’s redemptive love. Research by the Barna Group shows that 63% of Christians say their top evangelism priority is living a good example for others to emulate.
As Jesus promised, when we love undeserving enemies, “all people will know that you are my disciples” (John 13:35). Truly forgiving others draws people to God.
Repentance Opens Doors to Reconciliation and Healed Trust
Sincere Repentance May Still Take Time
Even when forgiveness is granted, the process of rebuilding trust can take time. True repentance involves not just words, but changed actions over an extended period (Luke 3:8). The betrayed person may need to see a longstanding pattern of change before feeling secure.
According to marriage experts, the average length of time to heal a broken trust in marriage is 2 years (Gottman, 2022). For some, distance and protective boundaries are still wise during the initial period following betrayal, even if forgiveness has been extended.
The person who committed the offense should accept this need for time. Pressuring for reconciliation too quickly often backfires. Patience allows time for changed behavior to take root, wounded emotions to stabilize, and trust to gradually return (Focus on the Family, 2023).
As it says in Matthew 7:17, “A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit.” Good fruits take time to grow.
Pursue Restoration with Healthy Pacing
The ultimate goal is complete relational restoration, but the path there varies by situation. Small betrayals may require only brief separation. Major violations like emotional or physical affairs often necessitate an initial “no contact” period for emotional protection and clarity (Coloroso, 2022).
In a statement echoed by marriage counselors, Galatians 6:9 advises, “Let us not grow weary in well-doing, for we will reap a harvest in due season if we do not give up.”
Even with progress, proceeding slowly and cautiously with intimate contact makes sense to prevent premature rebounds into betrayal cycles. As Proverbs 26:11 warns, “As a dog returns to its vomit, so a fool repeats his foolishness.” Lapses prove persistent without longitudinal changed behavior.
With consistency over time, sequential increase of physical intimacy can become appropriate. But emotional and mental restoration should be far along first. According to psychologist Dr. Phil, “The goal has to be to get back to a new normal: a relationship where both people feel whole on their own but choose to be together” (Dr.
Phil, 2022). Complete wholeness comes before full restoration.
In summary, the Bible calls every Christian to freely forgive others from the heart, even as God has forgiven them through Jesus Christ. This kind of forgiveness releases bitterness and brings freedom.
However, the Bible also gives wisdom about establishing healthy interpersonal boundaries when relating to unrepentant people for protection and proper pacing of restored trust. Sincere repentance coupled with changed behavior over time opens the door to reconciliation of broken relationships.