This series was refined and enhanced to become Making Sense of Forgiveness, published by New Growth Press in 2021.

It can be easy to fall into the “to a man with a hammer everything looks like a nail” trap when talking about forgiveness. We can get so excited about forgiveness that we start to forgive everything that annoys us. Would anything be wrong with that? Yes.

Take a moment, before you read further, and brainstorm. What are things that bother or annoy you but don’t need forgiveness? Relationally healthy people can create a long list of answers to this question.

  • Chewing your food too loud
  • Forgetting someone’s name
  • Leaving unwashed dishes in the sink
  • Vibrating your leg so that is shakes the next chair
  • Saying “I’m sorry” after every awkward moment
  • Being an exaggerative hand talker
  • Having the sniffles and refusing to blow your nose
  • Not standing to one side on an escalator
  • Putting the milk carton back in the fridge nearly empty
  • Wearing too much cologne or perfume
  • Not replacing an empty toilet paper roll
  • Unnecessarily TYPING IN ALL CAPS (I’m testing you)
  • Standing too close in a checkout line
  • Incessantly clicking a pen
  • Heating fish in the microwave at work
  • Creating excessively long lists to prove a point
  • Starting group texts (okay, this one may require forgiveness)
What are things that bother or annoy you but don’t need forgiveness? Relationally healthy people can create a long list of answers to this question. Click To Tweet

The entire premise of this reflection is: we forgive sin, but we excuse mistakes. Oopsies don’t need to be forgiven. We shouldn’t cry (or yell) over spilled milk, nor should we forgive the spiller of milk.

When we try to use forgiveness as the method to resolve relational irritants that are not moral in nature, several bad things happen.

  • We establish our preferences as the moral standard for our spouse – pride.
  • We begin to feel as if we forgive more than we are forgiven – self-righteousness.
  • We gain an increasingly negative view of our spouse – judgmental.
  • Our marriage begins to be built around an elaborate number of rules – performance-based acceptance.
  • We begin to feel as if God were asking too much of us – God-fatigue.

To help us not over-apply the practice of forgiveness, here are three categories of relational strain which do not call for a response of forgiveness.

1. Human Weakness

Being clumsy, being weak with a particular aptitude, experiencing the limitation of a physical illness or injury, succumbing to the degenerative influence of aging, immaturity in a child, and similar experiences are weaknesses. These things can be frustrating, but they’re not sinful. Therefore, they don’t need to be forgiven.

The appropriate response to human weakness is compassion, patience, and assistance. Friends should be able to discuss the impact that each other’s weaknesses has on the other. Taking these conversations out of the “moral sphere” decreases the sense of shame commonly associated with our weaknesses. One of the most trust building aspects of any relationship is the freedom to acknowledge our weakness and be loved anyway.

2. Differences in Personality or Perspective

Being extroverted vs. introverted, optimistic vs. pessimistic, cautious vs. adventurous, concrete vs. abstract, and organized vs. fluid are all examples of difference in personality or perspective. These differences impact a relationship in many ways, but they are not moral, and, therefore, do not need to be forgiven.

The appropriate response to differences in personality or perspective is appreciation, learning, and cooperation. Well-managed and humbly discussed differences promote an iron-sharpening-iron dynamic within a relationship (Proverbs 27:17). Placing moral weight on differences in personality creates a sense of shame.

3. Attempting to Do Something and Failing

There are plenty of times when we will try to do something nice for a friend (i.e., cook a meal we haven’t prepared before, help with home repair, etc.) and fail in the attempt to bless them. These moments may elicit a sense of disappointment, but they are not moral, and, therefore, do not need to be forgiven.

The appropriate response to differences in these instances is affirmation and encouragement. Attempting to do a good thing and failing should still be viewed as a good thing. It is at least two steps ahead of attempting to do a bad thing and failing, and one step ahead of being passive.

Responding to these unsuccessful attempts to do good is an essential part of creating an atmosphere where both friends feel free to take healthy relational risks. The freedom to fail is an important part of any healthy relationship. Over-applying forgiveness can throttle this freedom.

Questions for Reflection

  1. Which negative effects of over-applying forgiveness (pride, self-righteousness, judgmental, performance-based acceptance, God-fatigue) are you most prone towards?
  2. What is an example of when it would have been easy for you to moralize a moment of weakness, difference in personality, or unsuccessful attempt to do a good thing by offering forgiveness to resolve the tension of the moment?