Maybe Peter, one of the 12 disciples, had a loved one with an addiction. After all, the question he puts to Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew is one that can plague many who, in an effort to love a friend or family member with a substance use disorder, wonder about the limits of Christian forgiveness.

“How many times should I forgive a brother or sister who wrongs me?” Peter wonders aloud. “Up to seven times?”

And, in a similar vein, a spouse might wrestle with how to extend forgiveness when a significant other with a sex addiction continues to act out in ways that could endanger both partners’ health. Or a parent might ask whether there is a limit to their forgiveness when their son has already lied and stolen from them multiple times to feed his drug habit.

One Mother’s Journey to Forgive and Not Enable Her Teen’s Substance Abuse

That’s where “Marie” (whose name has been changed to protect her son’s identity) found herself. Her son began using drugs in early adolescence: at 12, he was drinking; at 13, he was using marijuana and stealing from Marie to finance his drug use; at 14, between “rehabs one and two,” as Marie recalls, he “became addicted to Spice” (synthetic marijuana).

Marie’s prior acquaintance with addiction was as old as her Christian faith, going all the way back to childhood. When Marie was a teenager, her mother died from cirrhosis of the liver due to alcoholism. Four of Marie’s five siblings had faced substance use issues.

Such experiences still could not fully prepare Marie for the first time she discovered her 13-year-old was already knee-deep in a developing addiction. Nor did they equip her for how to respond in the coming months. “I was hyper-focused on helping my son get well, to the extent that I was losing myself,” she recalled.

Christian Forgiveness — Forgiving ‘70 Times Seven’ in Jesus’ Words

Marie’s quandary helps to illuminate Peter’s question. “We all have limits,” Peter seems to be saying when he asks Jesus how many times we should forgive. “Forgive too many times and we might just lose our own self.”

But Jesus overturns Peter’s sensibilities about what’s an acceptable limit to forgiveness: “I do not say to you up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven” (Matthew 18:22).

In other words, forgiveness is at the heart of the Gospel message — God’s infinite capacity to forgive human beings countless times — and it can’t be quantified, which means Christians can be prepared to forgive those who wrong them countless times. Seventy times seven.

But what does unlimited forgiveness look like in the context of helping a friend or family member in recovery? Is there a fine line between Christian forgiveness and what addiction recovery experts call “codependency” (an unhealthy way of relating to our brethren that actually enables their addictive behaviors) — and if so, what is it?

Christian Forgiveness vs. Christian Codependency

As the clinical director of the Christian treatment program Three Strands at The Recovery Place, Jonathan Benz, MS, counsels family members about what forgiveness looks like in an addiction recovery context and how Christian forgiveness differs from Christian codependency.

Here is what forgiveness does not mean, according to Benz:

  • Forgetting that a wrong has occurred and acting like nothing has happened
  • Taking responsibility for the actions of the person who has wronged you (and the consequences they alone must face for the wrong they’ve committed)
  • Forgiving out of a sense of needing to appease, take care of, or depend on the person who has wronged you

Unlike codependency, forgiveness is as much or more about taking care of one’s own mental, emotional and spiritual health. “Forgiveness opens us up to receive more love, maintain peace of mind, and ultimately live this life in more spiritual abundance,” Benz says.

In contrast, codependency arises when we allow another person’s wrongs to so control us that we become sick, letting their behavior destroy our own health and peace of mind. In this sense, forgiveness is a much-needed antidote to codependency.

How to Know If You’re Forgiving or Enabling

Knowing the difference between life-giving forgiveness and life-sucking codependency can be as simple as knowing the signs of Christian codependency. Ask yourself:

Am I seeking to forgive because of low self-esteem or an excessive desire to please, take care of or fix this person?

Do I continue to experience negative emotions and/or a desire to control the relationship after I have forgiven this person?

In the act of forgiving, am I failing to set healthy boundaries?

And in the context of family recovery, setting healthy boundaries actually belongs to the act of forgiving. Benz explains:

[Forgiveness] sounds something like: “You are forgiven for all, even as God has forgiven you. But you still are responsible for the consequences of your actions and must make amends as you are able. This means we will have healthy boundaries with you, so that the insanity of your addiction doesn’t make us crazy as well. We forgive you, and you are allowed in our family’s life with healthy boundaries that protect your emotional and spiritual health as well as our own. The longer you are sober and demonstrate a healthy lifestyle, the more you will be invited back in. We will work our own program of recovery so that we don’t enable your addiction and unhealthy behaviors any longer.”

Treating Codependency

If you find yourself having trouble establishing such boundaries with the addict in your life, codependency treatment can help you learn how to set not only rules, but also realistic consequences for your loved one and communicate them firmly and effectively. Because codependent behaviors can get worse if left unaddressed, treating codependency has increasingly become a focal point of substance use and addiction rehab. When treating codependency, clinicians and therapists help the individual unlearn the behaviors and habits that are keeping them and their loved one stuck in an unhealthy place both physically and mentally. Groups such as Codependents Anonymous can also be invaluable in helping people break the cycle of codependency.

Forgiveness: Setting Boundaries, Letting Go

It has been several years since Marie, now a member of Al-Anon, a 12-step group for families in recovery, first connected the dots between her son’s lying, stealing and drug abuse. Her son, now 17, continues to be in and out of treatment for substance abuse. Last year, as a junior in high school, he relapsed again. He ran away from home, managing to survive on the streets by selling nearly all of his clothes on consignment.

Eventually, Marie convinced her son to get back into treatment, but in the meantime he would need something to wear.

What did forgiveness look like then? For starters, “boundary setting,” Marie said: her son had to pay her back for a new wardrobe by doing yardwork and/or getting a job; and this time around his clothes came from the local Goodwill store.

But forgiveness also meant letting go. “I don’t hold on to what he did,” Marie said. “I don’t hold on to the fact that he sold his clothes, or stole my property and sold it to a pawn shop. These are things that happen in active addiction. His mind has been hijacked by this disease, so understanding that, I forgive and take measures to keep our family safe.”

Today the lesson Marie takes away from the heartrending experience of loving a child with the disease of addiction is this: if being a Christian means loving the people God puts in our lives, then “in order to love the people God puts in my life, I must first love myself.” And if Marie is right, forgiving “70 times seven” may be one way to do both of these things.

By Kristina Robb-Dover, M.Div.

Follow Kristina on Twitter @saintplussinner


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