Letting someone "off the hook" is an idiom that refers to the granting of freedom. In its most specific context, it's defined as "the removal of vexatious and annoying obligation."
Before we discuss why letting someone "off the hook" can sometimes be the most loving thing we do, it's important to clarify that making the choice to grant someone freedom to leave an obligation unfulfilled is not the same as denying obligation exists. It's also important to clarify that it's not a choice that prohibits termination of a relationship. There are situations where that is the wisest thing to do, so it's imperative to understand this is not about overlooking sin, not about turning a blind eye to abuse, not about tolerating mistreatment, and not about failing to pursue justice where responsibility calls for it.
This is simply choosing not to tie a person to unmet obligation (obligation flowing from biblical instruction about love and response to offense/sin, not personal neediness) in a way that leaves no room for them to maneuver without our condemnation unless that obligation is fulfilled. It's about making the conscious choice not to hang an offender on a hook of expectation while we wait for an apology that will likely never be spoken; wait for a promised response that will likely never be given; wait for an action that will likely never be taken; wait for a humble explanation that will likely never be granted; wait for an honest connversation that will likely never be enjoyed.
When Greg Behrendt's book "He's Just Not That Into You: The No-Excuses Truth to Understanding Guys" hit the press in 2013, it was destined to be a bestseller. Finally someone (a man no less) was brave enough to tell women with brutal honesty that they were failing miserably at identifying disinterest. That in their desire for relationship, they were far too often excusing bad behavior because they were allowing themselves to be seduced by good speech. Behrendt's message was that a man of integrity and honorable intention will always give great care to aligning his actions with his words. He wrote a bestseller because he hinged his book on a statement that rings true: “A man who wants to make a relationship work will move mountains to keep the woman he loves.”
Behrendt's words don't ring true at high volume because they represent an understanding of men, they ring true because they represent an understanding of human nature. And they ring at high volume because they sound the same bell of truth given in Scripture:
Whether articulated or not, every relationship is comprised of two people who have assigned specific value to that relationship. Not value that's determined by quantity of time, but value determined by quality of time. My closest friends whom I trust explicitly aren't people I communicate with on a regular basis, but they are people who know me and yet still accept me. They never leave me questioning my value to them. Though they are far, they are always near; though they aren't here, they are always there. When I reach out to them, I'm not dismissed as someone interfering with their greater interests. Even if they're unable to interact, I'm left knowing my touch matters. Our relational investment in each other has us assigning value to our friendship that doesn't land us on the back of a dance card, wistfully waiting in line for attention until those more highly-favored aren't available.
My close friendships come with no delusions that we're selfless enough not to render a careless dismissal or thoughtless word, so the desire we possess to keep what is valued garners response if there is offense. Because the friendship holds value, the desire for relational health reigns stronger than any temptation to defend or distance ourselves, even if we initially succumb.
Hardly a week goes by when I'm not walking through deep hurt with someone who feels desperate to enjoy relational restoration with a friend or family member. Though painful to process, I always share the reality that reconciliation can only be sustained by someone who has assigned enough value to us to support it. No amount of coaxing or cajoling is going to change someone's heart if they're "just not that into us." We can fight for someone's interest and investment until our blood runs dry, but it's not going to increase our relational value. Pleas for demonstration of value often only serve to decrease it. The force-feeding of kind affection is notorious for prompting people to wire their mouth shut, activating hunger pangs of pride within them that deactivate reconciliatory response.
When a relationship that's been highly valued goes awry, it can be tempting to wield a relentless fight in prideful determination to fix a problem, when the more righteous response may be to yield in humble surrender and free a person. Free them from the hook of obligation to tend to a relationship that, for whatever reason, they don't value enough to offer kind attention. I'm all for fighting for relationships and, depending on the commitment, giving every last ounce of energy to secure them. But like all good things in this world, we can value them to the point that we idolize them too much to heed the Spirit's whisper to humbly surrender.
Not everybody in this world is going to value relationship with us enough to nurture it rightly, and sometimes not even friends we believe thought otherwise. If we desire to love well, that requires our learning how to let others "off the hook" without devaluing them in return. Hurt and humiliation come from the painful experience of offering bread to someone who now only finds it in their heart to offer crumbs, but grace is beautifully grown in the soil of humility. And as we surrender to that brokenness, God delights in gently leading us away from grace-less surviving beneath a hook that bears the shame of another, guiding us to grace-full thriving beneath a Cross where we behold a Savior bearing our own.
Life is complicated and nuanced and there are always multiple reasons for the hurtful actions of others that we will never be able to understand, reasons that often have nothing to do with us. The most we can do in the midst of relational hurt is humbly go to the table of communication and lay out our heart in raw honesty with the hope we will be received. But without mutually-assigned value, there won't be enough desire to overpower the cold threat of distance.
Have you relegated someone to a hook of unmet obligation that is only serving to hook you? In your waiting for the fulfillment of that obligation, is it merely fanning what's wrong in your own heart without fixing what's wrong in theirs? Are your eyes being humbly turned to a Cross of grace where you see a Savior bearing your sin, or are they being pridefully turned to a hook of shame that only bears their sin?
Lord, we are desperate for your wisdom. Teach us the way of love and true humility. Instruct us in your grace as you bow our knee at the Cross.