Forgiveness Is Free . . . Trust Must Be Earned

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.

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.