Forgiveness Is Free . . . Trust Must Be Earned

Photo by Melodi2 - MorgueFile

When I was somewhat younger a local pastor committed a sexual sin with a member of his congregation. It was not a good situation, but the church leadership didn’t seem to be doing much about the issue. He was a gifted leader and much of the growth of the church had been built upon his charisma and ability.

Somehow the situation went public and several other pastors in the community met with the church leaders to encourage them to deal with the problem. The pastor was soon asked to step down from his responsibilities, declared forgiven, and then restored to his original place of authority and influence after only a week.

What the leaders of this church failed to understand is that forgiveness is not equivalent to trust. Forgiveness can be immediate. Restoration of trust is a long, slow process. Betraying trust is somewhat like skiing downhill without a lift. The ride down may offer some momentary pleasure, but it quickly passes and one must soon face the consequences of being at the bottom of the hill. The walk back to the top will certainly be slow and painful.

We’re all human. We all have our frailties. We all make mistakes. But there is a significant difference between a Christian leader eating too much for Thanksgiving dinner as opposed to using his position to entice another person into a sexual relationship.

This particular pastor had broken a sacred trust and he should not have been permitted to serve in any leadership capacity without first going through a restoration process by which that trust could be restored. To the best of my knowledge he never did anything illegal, but what he did do was just plain wrong nonetheless. His call was to care for the sheep—not to feed off of them.

Not surprisingly his problem did not simply go away. Over the years, from time to time, small groups of emotionally damaged people would leave that church. Finally, after more than 25 years, he violated somebody in the congregation who was unwilling to allow the church leadership to ignore the issue any longer. At last the pastor was forced to step down from his leadership role, but nobody really knows how many precious and vulnerable lives had been unnecessarily damaged over the course of those 25+ years.

Photo by the Sharpteam - Creative Commons License 2.0

My point is not to condemn that man (or anybody else involved), but this unfortunate story provides a fitting example to help us understand the difference between forgiveness and trust. Forgiveness is letting go of the debt owed to you. Trust involves putting confidence in a person, relying upon his/her proven track record to faithfully do what’s best for those involved.

Forgiveness is free. Trust must be earned.

I think that sometimes we are unwilling to forgive because we think it means that we are obligated to fully trust those who have hurt us. How wrong and how dangerous is this line of thinking! God’s call to forgive others doesn’t mean we should immediately trust those who have proven themselves unworthy of our confidence.

We would do well to forgive quickly and often, but also to remember that the foundation of trust must be slowly built brick by brick over a long period of time.

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3 thoughts on “Forgiveness Is Free . . . Trust Must Be Earned

  1. Yes, this is a great point! Growing up, my family taught me something similar but they used the word respect. Respect is freely offered to everyone but once it has been lost, then one must work, and sometimes work hard, to get it back and frankly that may never happen. It’s not a lack of forgiveness or love but really a matter of damage control. The instruction we find in Matthew 18 is quite clear. Forgive my paraphrasing summery: We are told that if someone sins against us to take the matter up in private and if that doesn’t work, to involve someone in authority and if even then a satisfactory result isn’t achived, to simply stop extending the kind of trust that was previously offered. That person’s position has changed at least so that we don’t experience the kind of damage again.
    While this Pastor’s abuse was sexual and clearly an obvious abuse of power, we are well advised to remember that abusing our position or authority in any way is equally questionable and can be as damaging, just in different ways. Thanks for the post.

  2. I haven’t visited your website or blog for many months, and “coincidentally” visited it today with this current post. I’d love to share with you sometime from an “insider’s” viewpoint about all that the church you are referencing has experienced in the past year and a half. I personally am SO thankful to have seen the faithfulness of my God to me and my family, and to be able to say without a doubt that God is good, all the time, even in the midst of the storm. Thanks so much for your honest and inspiring posts, and I just “liked” your ministry on Facebook 🙂 !!

    1. One of the potential drawbacks of using real life examples in a post is that there are potential readers who may have first-hand knowledge of those specific situations. I try to be really careful with these things so as not to add more damage to an already difficult situation. In this case I felt that the contrast between forgiveness and trust is so significant that I needed to go ahead and use this particular example. I have talked to several former “insiders” over the years, but must admit that my knowledge of the situation was still very limited. I hope that I did it justice by explaining things accurately. I applaud your efforts for standing strong in the Lord through all of this and would definitely like to hear your perspective on things. Ministry and life can be so challenging sometimes and I always feel as though I have much to learn!

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