Forgiving the Repeat Offender
If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him, 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
A repeat offender, like the addict who has relapsed over and over, loves Christ’s message of forgiveness. It doesn’t matter how many times I fail. If I say I’m sorry, God says you have to forgive me. The one who has been repeatedly hurt by the addict doesn’t love this message quite as much. You mean I have to continually forgive someone, no matter how many times he hurts me?
It’s important though to understand what forgiveness does and doesn’t mean. It’s a common phenomenon for the addict, after a couple days of jail or treatment, to find God and forgiveness. In the exuberance of experiencing God’s mercy and grace, he goes to his family, asks forgiveness, and expects that the past be erased. He wants forgiveness to mean that all the consequences of his destructive behavior be removed immediately. God has forgiven me! Why can’t you?
The one who has been hurt repeatedly hangs on to the debt owed, because he or she thinks the same way. If I forgive, I have to go back to the way things were, pretending it never happened and I’m going to get hurt all over again.
This isn’t necessarily what forgiveness means though. When God forgives the man in jail or treatment, the man isn’t delivered immediately from jail or treatment. If he stole, he still has to pay the practical consequences. The forgiveness of God doesn’t mean that life returns to normal as if nothing ever happened. It means that the offender is restored to a right relationship with the father who no longer holds the spiritual debt over his head.
Likewise, when someone apologizes to us, we must forgive, letting go of the debt owed us. This doesn’t mean that we have to forget and return to the same relationship. The abused wife doesn’t need to go back to the abusive relationship to forgive. She can forgive and separate. The family of the addict doesn’t need to continue to allow the addict access to their money. They can forgive and maintain appropriate boundaries.
For our own spiritual health, we must forgive the repeat offender. This doesn’t mean we must pretend nothing ever happened.