Forgiveness in the church

I would like to get input on what forgiveness in the church looks like. To make things more concrete, I will provide a made up example, but since it is made up, I am looking for responses that do not depend on the particular details of the example.

X borrows an heirloom car from Y and causes substantial and irreparable damage to it. The damage is not accidental but instead arises from actions X took that X knew were wrong, although not expecting the magnitude of the resulting damage. X does not have the money to fix the car, and there are some things that money will not fix. Y forgives X, and the two are reconciled.

  1. Has Y truly forgiven X if Y still feels hurt by what X did, although not mentioning it to X or anyone else and trying to carry on as before?

  2. If X wants to borrow another car from Y, is it wrong for Y to say no, not because he expects X to do wrong again, but rather because letting X drive the second car would bring back painful memories of what X did to the first car.

  3. If X feels hurt that there is division between him and Y, is that division caused by Y’s unwillingness to loan X another car or X’s prior wrongdoing with the first car?

  4. Should the church come alongside Y and remind him of the great wrongdoing he has done before God and the great forgiveness he has received in Christ so that Y would be more willing to loan another car to X?

I would appreciate hearing what people think since I am trying to understand what true forgiveness looks like at a practical pastoral level.


The issue here is the tension between forgiveness and justice (=consequences). If I loaned my car to Y and it came back damaged, I would be honour-bound to forgive him for what happened. But it would be foolish for me to loan him another car, I think - sin has consequences.

At a personal level, if this helps - years ago I was badly affected by what one friend did to me, and it took years to get over it. I did forgive him, in the end. But leopards don’t easily change their spots, and it would have been foolish in the extreme to put him in a position where he could do again what he did.


Dear Joel,
It would be hard to be helpful without the facts of a specific case. The story makes me feel sympathetic to the lender and resent the people trying to get him to lend again.

I also don’t know where I am in the story - If I’m counseling the lender, I’d want to know if the church has been helpful to him in the past, identifying his sins and calling him to repentance. If so, I’d tend to trust their judgment.

If the church leaders are coming to me for counsel on how to handle this situation, I’d want to know if love of money or a care for things over people are besetting sins of the lender.

If the lendee is coming to me for counsel, I’d probably tell him it’s not his business what the lender does, be thankful for what you’ve already been given and work hard to have to share with others.



If only forgiveness was once and for all with us. It should be and we should strive for it but we should also realize that our own weakness will necessitate that we continue in the forgiveness we gave. There can be true forgiveness while the pain lingers. The pain is likely to do more damage (to the offended party) if there is a lack of forgiveness. People are not robots (not suggesting that you think we are) and how forgiveness is drawn up on paper and how it actually works out in our lives are very different things. Whether it should be that way or not really isn’t the point when it comes down to the practicality of continuing to relate to those that we have sinned against or have sinned against us.

Forgiveness and trust/healing often travel at different speeds. Forgiveness may arrive much earlier than trust and healing. In your scenario, it’s possible and probably advisable to avoid drudging up painful memories for a time, perhaps an extended amount of time depending on how the trust and healing is going. However, there are situations that don’t allow for avoidance to be the status quo (e.g. reconciliation after adultery).

There are a lot of missing details here (is X the sort of person who minimizes their failure; Are X and Y working on rebuilding trust and healing; how long it’s been since the initial offense, etc.). But given the situation as you’re presented it, I’d counsel X about the necessity of patience and asking God to help them understand the significance of their initial failure and that their impatience isn’t helping the situation. I wouldn’t talk to X about how it could be Y’s failure to forgive since X’s failure is what caused the situation in the first place. X needs to take responsibility for the consequences of his actions, learning that some of the consequences will much longer lasting and harder to accept.

If I were talking to Y, I would ask them if he feels the same division and ask him why he thinks it exists. I’d expect that each of them would point at the other person as the reason for the division and I’d encourage them to strive for peace with one another in every way possible.

The church should be helping the situation but I’m not sure that this counsel is what’s needed. If Y just can’t get over the fact of the offense, then this counsel would be helpful. If they’re working through it, I don’t think this counsel would be that helpful since it could come across as strong arming them and minimizing the initial offense. If Y is demonstrably angry and not working through toward reconciliation, I’d also want to know who they’re talking to about the situation because there may be people who are stoking their anger and lack of forgiveness. Whether he ever loans another car to X is only one indicator of where Y is at spiritually. I wouldn’t want to pigeonhole Y into that being the only indicator of their forgiveness. As I said earlier, there are situations where continued resistance to getting back to normal interactions would be much more harmful and Y wouldn’t be able to refuse for very long without creating another, potentially more serious, problem.

More could be said about any of these questions but these were my initial thoughts.



But there’s no requirement for reconciliation in this case. And even if it is pursued, it can still be delayed. Therefore, your original point still stands—giving it time can be helpful.

This is important. In fact, trust and healing might never arrive in extreme cases. I know the example isn’t about an unrepentant non-Christian, where we may still forgive, but not put ourselves in the way of being harmed again. However, a Christian man can remain stuck in the same sin that hurt the relationship in the first place. While that sin is still present, depending on its gravity, it could be wise not to trust that man in that area.

The gravity of sin is another part that makes this theoretical situation difficult to evaluate. Love covers a multitude of sins. Does your brother often show up late? Love covers a multitude of sins. Don’t stop setting up appointments with him. Endure the harm and continue to forgive. Sometimes immediately trusting a man again simply tempts him to serious sin again or puts you or others in danger or is going to be damaging enough that I’d recommend against trusting him again.

I might trust a man with a cheap or even regular car again in the situation above, but if I had another irreplaceable heirloom car, I’d want to see real fruit of repentance and track record before I let him borrow another. In either case, I wouldn’t feel that I need to let him borrow another car to prove I’ve forgiven him.

The situation you’ve outlined is also one where the choice is clearly up to the individual at all times. Nobody is compelled to lend their car, let alone an heirloom. Just because he’s been sinned against doesn’t suddenly mean he needs to lend his car to be a faithful Christian anymore. A perfectly reasonable decision arising from this experience might be to never let anybody borrow it again, or to never let that man borrow it again, because the risks are too high. Relationships could be further damaged, etc. Perhaps there are situations where there’s an explicit command, so we are compelled, though?

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Thanks for the replies, @Hobbit, @danielmeyer, @dabusara, and @jtbayly.

In the example above, I will posit that X has good reasons to want to borrow a car from Y again, but without a need so absolute that Y would be compelled to loan it out. Beyond this, I won’t follow up on issues raised with respect to particular details since my example was entirely contrived but instead speak more abstractly now.

When X sins against Y, it can result in a loss (not necessarily of something material) that cannot be remedied or restored. Since the loss is permanent, there is no simple fix for getting rid of the pain that Y feels, and depending on the sin and loss, this pain may linger at some level for decades even if Y is not bitter or angry. X and Y may be fully reconciled except when it comes to a matter that touches on the sin, in which case a barrier is still present due to the lingering pain Y feels. The fact that X and Y have a barrier in one aspect of their relationship may make others around them feel uncomfortable.

So I am wondering how to handle this sort of situation. One approach would be to accept the situation as it is and let it continue on as it is with the view that it may not be possible to heal all hurts and remove all barriers in this life. Another approach is to encourage Y to move past the hurt so that the barrier would be removed with the view that the grace and forgiveness we have received in Christ is so overwhelming it ought to flood over any sins we have against one another.

Actually, this is another good (but made up) example of the situation I have in mind. Since the Westminster Standards permit the offended spouse to divorce in the case of adultery, does their have to be reconciliation? What if Y forgave X for committing adultery and reconciled with respect to being brother and sister in Christ, but felt that the pain of the memory of the adultery was too much to continue sharing a life with X. Should we accept the dissolution of the marriage as a regrettable but irremediable outcome of the sin of X? Or should we have the view that since we have been reconciled to God in Christ despite our great sins, Y ought to be able to stay married to X despite the adultery?

Very tough question and it’s impossible to answer without the details of a particular situation. I’d advise against any quick decision for divorce but at some point (not years after the fact) a definitive decision has to be made. I don’t think Christians should ever decide if they have grounds for divorce without lots of counsel and guidance from their pastors/elders. That sort of sin is tragic and the support and care will be ongoing for a long time. Divorce doesn’t change that.

I will also say that it’s hard for me to conceive of meaningful forgiveness being given without trying to save the marriage, at least for a first time offense. It’s more conceivable if it’s a repeated offense. Divorce doesn’t erase the pain of the adultery (which is the reason given for the divorce in your example) and if there are children involved then the amount of separation from the spouse will be minimal.

I think this is a better starting point but there would need to be extensive counseling and clear expectations for both spouses so that the progress (or lack) is evident. Feelings shouldn’t be the guiding light in this sort of situation. We have to keep in mind that it’s possible for Y to respond very sinfully to X’s sin and that is Y’s problem.


I don’t disagree with anything you say, but I don’t want the question I am asking to be narrowly oriented around the question of divorce.

In general, should we accept that when X sins against Y, there may be lingering pain and a partial barrier between the two as long as we are in this life? Or should we expect that because the great forgiveness we have received in Christ, Y ought to be able to get to the point where there is no barrier between him and X?

As much as we might want it to be completely resolved, the pain may linger and there’s no switch that we can flip to simply turn it off. So the answer to your question is yes, though it’s not a satisfying answer.

Not always. That level of reconciliation is a gift from God that Y should seek but may not attain for along time or ever. If it seems as though Y is overreacting then that should be addressed but even if that’s the case, they may not be able to completely move on. Sin is really destructive.



Thanks, @dabusara. I am inclined towards the perspective you articulate, but if someone has a different view I would really like to hear it.

The nature of the sin really does matter. A lot. Take, for instance, adultery: when we work with souls who have committed this sin, we try to keep the issue of forgiveness on a back burner for quite a while. Putting pressure to forgive on victims of sexual sin is not helpful, at least for a long while. We counsel the couple not to sleep in the same room for some time (maybe to move out for a few months) in order to allow the gravity of the sin to be reckoned with—and by both parties, the innocent and the guilty. We do not want the innocent spouse to feel pressure to make love to prove to themselves and to force the gulty spouse to show they are still attractive and attracted.

Sexual abuse is another similar case. Abusers are manipulative and are likely to pressure their victims or spouse to forgive as they have been forgiven, by Jesus. Rarely does their demand for forgiveness demonstrate any conviction of the gravity of their wickedness, and so the job of the church officer is to counteract that pressure in order to allow the weight of the offience to descend on the innocent and guilty, alike.

These are examples of how difficult it is to mediate the question of forgiveness. As I said at the beginning, the nature of the sin really does matter. A lot. So I wonder if any counsel can be given outside of knowledge? Maybe a private discussion would be helpful?



Or to put it another way, “A man might lay down his life for his friends, but laying down his car keys is a whole new level of difficult” :wink:


I couldn’t start to speak to adultery but I would look for someone who has forgiven property damage, and is rightfully wary about inadvertent repeats, to demonstrate a restored relationship in another way. Perhaps they’re now spending more time together socially, or teaching home auto repair. :slight_smile: Just a lay opinion.

Yes, I agree and beg the pardon of everyone here for providing contrived examples and otherwise being vague. However, it’s been useful to have my intuition confirmed. I also appreciate the offer of a private discussion but think it is not necessary at this point. The situation is not so dire as some of the examples raised here, although minor does not mean nothing.

No pardon needed. Thanks for the good question, dear brother. Love,

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Are you asking this because I didn’t want to forgive my brother the other week for always being annoying and mean to me, Daddy?


I was not thinking of you at all, dear daughter, but perhaps your conscience is urging you towards repentance.


Now that was tenderly funny, dear Lydia. Well done.


I’d like to update the scenario I laid out in the original post.

Let’s say X sins against Y, and Y feels hurt for good reasons, but X does not feel all that contrite. X may recognize the wrong to Y from a biblical and intellectual standpoint but does not feel the wrong at an emotional level. Perhaps it can be said that X is not truly repentant. In this situation, can we expect that Y might forgive X but find it difficult to fully reconcile with X until X agrees at a heart level that he wronged Y and that Y justifiably felt hurt?

Yes. So much as it depends on you, be at peace with all men. It’s hard when the offending party doesn’t feel the gravity of the situation but Y has to move on as best as possible. Hopefully X comes to feel their offense more deeply against Y and ultimately God in the future, but until then, the situation you describe is probably going to be the status quo.

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