This article is one post in a series entitled “When Talking about Forgiveness.”

We are continuing to think through the interpersonal dynamics of forgiveness. More specifically, in this reflection, we are going to be thinking about the restoration of trust after forgiveness. We will be assessing a common misunderstanding of trust that can cause us to inadvertently rush the person who has been hurt.

Simply put – trust is a proportional virtue. What does that mean? What other kind of virtues are there? The alternative to a proportional virtue is an absolute virtue. By contrast, honesty is an absolute virtue. You should always be honest (sometimes with more tact than others, if you are evaluating your children’s artwork). There is not a time when we would say it is good to lie.

That gives us a contrast for understanding what it means for trust to be a proportional virtue. It is good (i.e., wise) to trust someone in proportion to their trustworthiness. It is foolish or naïve to trust someone more than they are trustworthy. It does not represent Christ well to that person and gives them a falsely positive assessment of their life choices. When we treat the virtue of trust (proportional) like the virtue of honesty (absolute), we rush restoration.

When we treat the virtue of trust (proportional) like the virtue of honesty (absolute), we rush restoration. Click To Tweet

Let’s seek to understand the idea of proportional trust a bit more before we talk about the relational implications. We will begin with a numeric scale that is more concrete than life ever can be. Let’s assume you have a friend who is 70% trustworthy. Wise trust relates to them with 65-75% trust. 50% trust is too skeptical. 90% trust is naïve.

Now, if only our friends came with color coded trust bars – like battery gauges on cellphones – over their heads and each trust-choice came with the same bar?!?! I get it. The illustration is clear, but it’s not practical.  However, if we understand the point better, that’s progress. We can now see that over-trusting and under-trusting can be equally problematic. In a discussion about forgiveness, we can be prone to only see the problem with under-trusting.

So, let’s move to a non-numeric example. Imagine you have an adult child who struggles with alcohol addiction. They are willing to admit it’s a problem and attend a support group. But they resist being transparent about their schedule, insist on carrying cash, and keep in touch with several close drinking buddies.

For the purposes of this reflection, we’ll say you forgave them for embarrassing you while intoxicated at a family reunion. How much to you trust them? Now the concept of proportional trust allows us to ask better questions. Trust is no longer all-or-nothing. What trust-actions affirm the good steps they are willing to take? What trust-actions falsely affirm that their current efforts are adequate?

This example is too truncated to go into much detail. But, based on the information given, it would be too soon to force the adult child to move out of the house, but naïve to allow them to borrow money. The parents should be willing to BOTH complement their child for their good choices AND willing to address the wise choices the adult child is still unwilling to make when its timely.

You can already tell, as if you didn’t already know it, how messy trust can be. The point is not that every family would (or even should) make the exact same decision in this situation. The point is that parents should, even after forgiving, think principally and proportionally about what wise trust would look like in response to their adult child’s some-good-some-bad response to a drinking problem.

Even after forgiving, we need to think principally and proportionally about what wise trust looks like. Click To Tweet

Now, let’s return to the idea that all-or-nothing trust is unhealthy for both parents and the adult child (sticking with the example above). If trust were an absolute virtue the parents would EITHER say they forgive their child for the family reunion fiasco and treat them like everything was fine, OR say they refuse to forgive because they cannot trust their child’s incomplete addressing of the problem.

You can quickly see that if we treat forgiveness as tightly correlated with trust and trust as an absolute virtue, things do not go well for the person on either side of the relational strain. The parents would either be harsh or permissive. Neither is optimal for their child. We can see this in an anonymous case study, but how often do we get trapped in this kind of either-or mindset when wise trust gets murky after forgiveness?

So, what does a conversation sound like when the child in this example asks the parents to borrow money? It might sound something like this:

“We’re proud of you for being willing to admit you’ve had a problem with drinking. That takes courage and humility. We appreciate how you’ve been engaging in recovery. We want to encourage you to continue with that. That’s why we’re happy to have you at home and provide room and board. If you stay engaged with recovery, you don’t have to worry about that changing.

But you have chosen not to be open about your schedule, insisted on carrying cash so we don’t know how you spend your money, and hang out with friends who have encouraged your drinking. Giving you additional money would be more trust than the quality of your current choices warrants. We want to trust you more, but we believe it is best for everyone if our trust is proportional to your commitment to change. We love you and that’s why we’re not going to loan you money.”

This example goes into details (like any form of trust always does), but do you notice the pattern:

(a) affirmation of the good/wise choices and
(b) detailing the actions of trust
(c) followed by identifying the problematic behaviors/choices and
(d) explaining why proportional trust is the loving response

That outline is transferable. The details may change. But the outline can be used in most situations.

Having a plan for a principle-based response built upon a proportional assessment helps us be calm, warm, and compassionate in how we communicate. We do not want our response (too cold or too hot) to become a distraction from the wisdom we are trying to apply. When we bring a better disposition to the conversation, it gives a difficult conversation a much better opportunity to be effective.

A brief reflection like this cannot create the script of what you need to say. It can allow you to reconcile one of the factors that frequently causes you to feel like “tough love” is unloving.

Questions for Reflection

  1. How would you explain the idea of trust being a proportional virtue to a friend?
  2. Can you think of a few examples of when this concept would have helped someone emotionally reconcile with a wiser approach to a difficult situation?