One of the most difficult exercises in practical Christian living is learning the distinction between forgiveness and trust, as well as the distinction between forgiveness and qualification for office. Forgiveness is hard enough to do without confusing it with things that are impossible to do.
Let me state the general problem first, using different illustrations. Suppose a wife discovers that her husband had a secret porn habit. They hash the whole thing out, get counseling, he seeks forgiveness and she grants it. Suppose further that she wants him to agree to never surf the web after 11 o’clock at night. Does this condition mean that she has not forgiven him? Suppose an employee has been caught pilfering from his employer, and is fired. The employee comes back a week later, seeks forgiveness, and makes full restitution. The employer forgives him. The former employee then asks for his job back. If the employer refuses to rehire him, is that a lack of forgiveness? Suppose a pastor is caught in an adulterous relationship and is both excommunicated and defrocked. He repents, and is restored to the Table. But suppose further he asks to be restored to the ministry. If the church says no, is that a lack of forgiveness? If you have forgiven someone for repeated instances of drunkenness, does that forgiveness require you to hire that drunk to tend bar? Of course not.
The answer in all these situations is that forgiveness is not the same thing as trust, and forgiving a man is not the same thing as granting that he is qualified for whatever office he might be asking to occupy. They are different actions entirely, and they call us to use different criteria in evaluating them.
Forgiveness is restoration to fellowship. It is not restoration to office, and it is not a prediction about future behavior. When someone has sinned against you, and sought forgiveness, you know that you have forgiven them when you are delighted to come to the Lord’s Table together with them, and you heartily wish God’s best for their future, from the heart. You do not charge them in your heart with that offense. That’s forgiveness.
Forgiveness does not mean that you have to close your eyes to obvious weaknesses. Forgiveness is the most clear-headed activity in the world; it is not stupid. When David showed his forgiveness to Saul in the incident at the cave, that episode did not conclude with David going back home with Saul. David forgave Saul, but he did not trust him.
Another reason this gets muddled is because often a lack of trust is mingled with an ongoing resentment. That resentment is inconsistent with forgiveness, but the lack of trust need not be resentful. Sometimes a person maintains that someone should not be restored to their office (employee, pastor, husband, etc.), and they are quite right — the person should not be restored. But their malice in maintaining this position is mixed together with it. The issue is not whether lack of forgiveness can be combined with lack of trust. Of course it can be, and when that happens it increases the confusion, as sin always does. But the point at issue is whether they can be separated. They can be, and they need to be.
Parents who have caught their children in some sin need to keep these distinctions in mind all the time. A child’s repentance may be so dramatic and deep that it brings about a restoration of trust, as well as a restoration of forgiveness. But they are not the same thing.
We are required to forgive the repentant. We are to trust the trustworthy. We are to keep the qualified in office, and remove the disqualified.