There are traits and talents latent within you that can only be brought to active expression when you are in healthy, honest relationships. By remaining in destructive relationships, you are suppressing your unborn potential.

I recently posted the above idea on my Facebook page. In response, a number of people asked the same astute and vital question in various ways:

How do I know when to stay in a relationship and when to get out?

Connected with this question is another:

How is it okay for a follower of Jesus to walk away from a relationship, no matter how toxic it may be, since we are called upon to forgive any and all offenses, to return good treatment for evil treatment, even to the point that Jesus said we should forgive our enemies who spitefully use and abuse us?

Before I offer my perspective for your consideration, I want to emphasize that I am under construction as a human being. Like you, I am in the process of trying to understand these things, and I hold my perspectives with an open mind and heart, eager to learn from anybody who may have better perception.

An additional qualifying note: because I’m going to try to keep this short, I will not quote the passages of Scripture that I believe support my position, but rather I will simply state what I believe to be the overall perspective of Scripture and encourage you to search out the matter for yourself.

I’ll offer my thoughts in response to two questions:

  1. What is the nature of forgiveness?
  2. What constitutes sufficient reason to end a relationship?

Here we go. Offer a prayer and hold onto your heart.

What is the nature of forgiveness?

Forgiveness is often misunderstood because we live in a hyper-sentimentalized culture in which actions are expected to follow wherever feelings lead. It would be difficult to conceive of a more disastrous way to live life. Consequently, we see disastrous relational wreckage everywhere we turn.

What, then, is forgiveness, if it is not a state of positive feelings?

By contrast, from an ancient Hebrew perspective, forgiveness has little to do with the way a violated person feels about the person who has violated them. Positive feelings may or may not attend forgiveness, but they are not forgiveness itself. From a biblical perspective, it is possible to forgive a person for a violation and yet hold them accountable by means of tangible actions.

What forms might that accountability take? Here are a few examples:

You can forgive somebody while at the same time severing your relationship with them for their best good and your own.

You can forgive someone and not like them.

You can forgive someone and not have Tuesday night dinners with them anymore.

You can forgive someone and not allow them into your house or to babysit your children or to have access to your finances or to drive your car or … well, you get the picture.

In fact, you can forgive someone, and call the police on them, press charges, and put them behind bars.

We have so sentimentalized love in general and forgiveness in particular, that it takes an act of intellectual intentionality to define love and forgiveness in terms of acting in the best interest of the violated and the violator.

What, then, is forgiveness, if it is not a state of positive feelings?

Numerous times over the years I have had to walk sexually abused girls and women through a process of deconstructing and then reconstructing their notions of love and forgiveness, in order to liberate their minds and give them the courage to create necessary distance between themselves and their abusers. The conversation usually goes something like this:

My father (or uncle, brother, or some other male family member) sexually abused me as a child. But I know I have to forgive him if I want to be right with God, and I do want to be right with God, but it’s so hard, because I feel like I can’t bring myself to forgive him. I know the way I feel is wrong, and I’ve tried so hard to forgive him, but I just can’t and I don’t know what to do.

I always respond with a series of questions that almost always yield the same answers:

Do you hate what he did to you?

Yes, of course I do, very much!

Do you hate it so much and does it hurt so deep that you wish he would see it for what it is—for the ugly and horrific and evil thing that it is—and really, truly, deeply repent of it to the point that he would become a different kind of person who would never do that kind of thing to you or anybody else ever again?

Wow, yes, that’s exactly what I wish would happen.

And do you wish that, having seen it for what it is and so deeply repented of it that he would become an entirely different kind of person who would be incapable of doing such things, that he, as a new person, would have eternal salvation?

Yes, that would be incredible.

OK, then, listen very carefully to what I’m about to tell you. Look straight into my eyes and listen to my words, because if you understand what I’m about to say to you and you believe it, you will be set free:

You have forgiven him.

What!? Have I, because it doesn’t feel like I have?

You want what is absolutely best for him, you’ve just said so yourself. You want him to see what he did to you for what it is, deeply repent of it to the point that he would never do it to you or anybody else again, be transformed into a different kind of person who is completely free of that evil thing he did to you, and, as a new creature in Christ, have eternal life. Is that correct?

Yes!

Well, then, you have forgiven him.

But I’m so angry at him for what he did to me.

Yes you are, and you should be. I’m angry for what he’s done to you and it wasn’t even done to me. Anger at evil is completely compatible with love.

But I don’t trust him, and he says that if I don’t trust him I haven’t forgiven him.

But I don’t trust him, and he says that if I don’t trust him I haven’t forgiven him.

He’s wrong. Forgiveness and trust are not synonymous. You can forgive someone, and not trust them, which is exactly what you have done with him.

But he says that if I had really forgiven him, I would let him back into my life, let him be around my children, let him take them on camping trips with him, and let them receive gifts from him on holidays.

He’s trying to manipulate you. If there is one person on earth that you should never allow your children to be alone with or build an emotional connection with through social gatherings and gift-giving, it is the man who sexually molested you. And yet, barring him from your life, you have forgiven him. How do I know? Well, because you want what is best for him, which is for him to experience deep repentance, transformation, and eternal salvation as a totally different kind of creature incapable of sexually abusing another human being. Isn’t that right?

Yes, that is right, that’s exactly what I want, and at the same time I know that I can’t let him back into my life. But you’re saying I shouldn’t feel guilty about that, right?

That is exactly right.

So, wow, I guess I have forgiven him, haven’t I?

Yes, you have.

And in that moment, she is liberated. I can sense the burden lifting from her shoulders and a whole new freedom flooding into her awareness.

The bottom line is this:

Forgiveness is not a mere good feeling toward someone, although in certain circumstances, depending on the nature of the violation, good feelings may attend forgiveness. But forgiveness itself is the principle of love acted out toward a violator in the form of willing what is best for them, turning them over to God, and holding them accountable for what they have done in the form of tangible actions.

Depending on the nature of the violation, depending on whether there is or is not repentance, and depending on the mental constitution of the violated person and the level of damage done to them:

  • fondness of feeling may or may not enter into the equation
  • trust may or may not be rebuilt
  • social contact may or may not be reestablished

But—and this is the crucial point—forgiveness itself is not equivalent to fondness, trust, and social engagement. Forgiveness is the act of the mind in giving a person over to God and wanting what is best for them, as opposed to harboring vindictive hatred for them and wanting them to suffer and be eternally barred from salvation.

So, then, for the follower of Jesus, the question is never, “Should I or should I not forgive a person who has wronged me?” The answer to that question is always, “Yes, you should.” Forgiveness is not optional for the follower of Christ. It is the law of His kingdom and the way of all His followers. But remember: you have forgiven every person for whom you want what is best, even if you know that what is best is that they be held accountable for their actions and cut off from your life.

Now for our second question:

How do I know when a relationship must be ended even as I take a posture of forgiveness toward the person?

The short answer is, a relationship should be ended when it is exerting a destructive influence upon you and/or your children, even after you have taken proactive measures to mend the relationship by clear, honest communication and third-party intervention in the form of a qualified mediator/counselor.

No relationship should be ended easily and without valiant efforts to save it.

No relationship should be ended easily and without valiant efforts to save it. But all relationships are not of the same level of covenantal bond. It should be easier to quit a job in which you are subjected to toxic treatment by your boss than to end a relationship with a toxic friend, and it should be easier to end a relationship with a toxic friend than to end a marriage to a toxic spouse. In each case, due course and sufficient efforts to save the relationship should be expended consistent with the significance of the bond and taking into consideration the level of damage that will be done by ending the relationship.

Marriage is the most significant and intimate bond of all human relationships. As such, it should not be entered into lightly and only entered into with the full intent that the relationship will be lifelong. Heroic efforts should be made to save your marriage. But having done so, there are legitimate causes for legal separation and/or divorce:

  • sexual infidelity for which you find that trust is permanently broken
  • sexual abuse against you and/or your children
  • physically violent abuse against you and/or your children
  • verbal and emotional abuse of a consistency and gravity that it is causing potentially irreparable mental, emotional, social damage to the functional fabric of you and/or your children

No, you should not divorce your husband because he is annoying. You should not divorce your wife because she is frustrating. You should not get divorced because you argue and have differences of opinion. But even in these cases, you should get help, because if you don’t get help you will be tempted to try to get out of the marriage even though you know you shouldn’t, and you might find yourself looking for companionship elsewhere and violating your marriage vows.

In all my years of helping people navigate marriages that are on the verge of divorce, I have found that the single most powerful psychological/spiritual/behavioral principle is this:

The way you feel toward a person will tend to follow the trajectory of your actions toward them.

When a husband or wife says to me, “I just don’t love him/her anymore,” they almost always mean they don’t feel positive or romantic or friendly feelings toward their spouse. And I always prescribe actions that simulate the feelings they want to see restored.

Speak positively to and about your spouse, not negatively. Say things about them that you want to be true, even if you feel they are not presently true. Things like:

You are amazing.

I’m so glad I’m married to you.

You are the best thing that ever happened to me.

You are absolutely adorable.

I love your sense of humor.

You are brave, beautiful, kind, cool, funny, selfless.

I just plain ol’ dig you, you fantabulous human.

Perform actions toward them that reflect the person you want them to be:

Play scrabble with them (or whatever).

Share with them the funniest thing you’ve seen or heard all day.

Laugh your head off with them.

Go on dates.

Eat at least a couple of meals together each week.

Hold hands.

Flirt with one another.

Have sex.

Take walks together.

Go paddle boarding together.

Write notes to them.

Give gifts to them.

And guess what? They will begin to aspire to be all that you see them to be, and you will begin to see past their defects to discern their good traits. It’s not magic, it’s just a powerful relational law. Feelings follow the trajectory of actions. If you wait to feel good feelings before you perform good actions, you will never restore good feelings. In fact, you will follow your bad feelings right out of the marriage, or at least into a state of cold coexistence void of the warmth of matrimonial bliss. So act how you want to feel, and your feelings will begin to morph in the direction of your actions.

And if you say to me, “But he/she doesn’t deserve any of that and I don’t feel like doing any of it,” my response is, “Of course they don’t deserve it and of course you don’t feel like doing any of it, but do it anyway and you will find that good actions lavished upon a human being almost always generate goodness in them and cause them to reciprocate. Before you know it, you’ll feel like they do deserve it and you’ll feel like you want to do it.”

Say things about them that you want to be true, even if you feel they are not presently true.

I say, “almost always,” because there are exceptions. The human being is a free moral agent capable of defying all the love in the universe if they so choose.

And so, if, after putting forth honest and fervent efforts to break abusive cycles in a marriage—ongoing cycles that are causing destructive ruin to you and/or your children—you should take action to sever the relationship for the best good of all involved, including the abuser.

For what it’s worth, that’s my perspective. This became longer than I intended, and I apologize for that. But hopefully you have found it to be, at a bare minimum, worthy of your prayerful consideration.

Director at Light Bearers | Website

Ty is the Director of Light Bearers Ministry and pastor of Storyline Adventist Church in Eugene, Oregon. A passionate communicator with a message that opens minds and moves hearts, Ty teaches on a variety of topics, emphasizing God’s unfailing love as the central theme of the Bible. Ty and his wife Sue have three adult children and two grandsons.