I heard this question in a BBC Heart & Soul documentary today about a family where the father had sexually abused his young daughter. The wife described how she had come to a place where the question, “Do I believe in the forgiveness of sin?” arose when considering her husband’s actions towards her daughter.

Her answer was, “Yes, I do.” and she forgave him. She did so with an unopened envelope in her hand — inside the envelope was his confession to the police, which she had not read until that point! Wow. That forgiveness was the start of another journey, but still, Wow.

One of the common promoted ‘benefits’ of forgiveness is a sort of self-preservation — we forgive others for own own sake, not theirs, necessarily. (The conditions, if any, we may seek to place on our forgiveness is another subject.)

graphic: Forgiveness: Breaking the Chain of Hate by Michael Henderson

graphic: Forgiveness: Breaking the Chain of Hate by Michael Henderson

We forgive, so the theory goes, to prevent ourselves carrying toxic bitterness, to counter an aspect of the ‘spiritual risk’ I referred to in my previous post on Animosity. It’s better, we’re encouraged, to ‘move on’, ‘let it go’, ‘get over it’, to not hold a grudge.

And generally, I would agree with that. But it doesn’t mean you forget

As John F Kennedy said:

“Forgive your enemies, but never forget their names.”

What Kennedy’s injunction says to me is, ‘Forgive your enemies — and remember that they cannot be fully trusted.’
This approach dovetails with the wisdom of Bob Burley’s advice to ‘believe’ someone if they show you (by their actions) who they are. In other words, learn your lesson about that person. We are, after all, learning organisms.

It’s perfectly natural, for instance, for us to learn that certain foods don’t agree with us, or that we don’t enjoy books or films by particular authors, or that we find some types of entertainment/holiday/pastime more refreshing than others. I can’t stand horror movies, for instance. That’s not ‘holding a grudge’, it’s just working out what suits me.

Reconsider the abusive father. While he has returned to his home and family, and is reconciled to his wife and daughter, his sin isn’t forgotten. Far from it. He and his family have had to adjust to a new set of boundaries. Given his history, there are some things it’s not appropriate for him to do: baby-sitting, for instance. He may be perfectly trustworthy now — as the result of his jail sentence and the counselling work he’s undertaken — but why take the risk?

People don’t change their ways just because you’ve forgiven them.

It has surely happened to all of us: you take someone at their word and expect them to keep a promise, and they don’t.

Now you have some choices: ask for an explanation and assess its veracity, or let go of your expectation that the person is trustworthy. If they continue to request or expect your trust (judging by their words or actions) you have more choices: chiefly, either to extend your trust to them … or to withhold it.

‘Once bitten twice shy’ comes from this. (‘Fool me once shame on you, fool me twice shame on me’, also.)

Withholding your trust from someone who has proven themselves unworthy of it isn’t unforgiveness, surely.
Isn’t it just learning a lesson?

What do you think?