Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you.
— (Ephesians 4:31–32)

What does forgiveness look like in healthy Christian relationships? This is often a touchy subject, especially when feelings are hurt by the raw welt of fresh sin. It is easy to say, “Forgive you!?” But do we really mean it, and what are we supposed to mean when we do?

True forgiveness, relational shalom must begin with repentance. While, like God, we should be ready to forgive the offender before he repents (Psalm 86:5), there can be no true forgiveness until repentance occurs (Luke 17:3).

True repentance should always include a heartfelt explanation of the sin we committed. We should use words like, “I was wrong, or, I sinned (in this particular way), I broke God’s law (here), and (here), and (here). I was thoughtless, insensitive etc., etc.” When our actions have really hurt someone, we do well to take the time to confess our sins thoroughly before them. We do this, not to earn their forgiveness through a process of self-flagellation but to assure them that we understand what we did and how much it hurt them, and that we are committed never to repeat said actions again. A lack of clarity in any of these areas can stand as a road block in the heart of the offended brother or sister, and care on our part can go a long way to allaying these fears, and opening the channel for forgiveness to flow. In all of this, of course, tone of voice and posture matter. Try not to sound angry or prideful when you are apologizing. I know one shouldn’t have to say this, but common sense is remarkably rare when feelings are hurt. Above all, do not list their sins when you are really trying to list your own. This never goes well. It always comes across as a thinly veiled attempt at self-justification. Even if you believe your “opponent” was more wrong than you were, confess your own sins, then lovingly address theirs if they don’t respond in kind after your mea culpa.

Confession should always end with the words, “Will you please forgive me?” This is of enormous importance. In saying these words, you are putting the ball firmly in the offended brother or sister’s court. You are asking them to forgive you, which is clearly the next step in the process.

Then comes the climax of reconciliation, when you say, “I forgive you.” This can be tremendously difficult, especially when you have been deeply hurt. There can be no room for bitterness or unkindness in our forgiveness. This is not the way God forgives us, yet it is often the way we forgive others. We say, “I forgive you” but in a way that lets everyone know, “You are still really hurt” and you still want to hold them at arms length for a while. For serious sins, and I mean relationship destroying sins (like adultery), such hurt and loss of trust is inevitable. “I forgive you” does not equate to “I trust you again.” Having said that, forgiveness is a promise: “I will let this matter go” – that’s actually what the word literally means, forgiveness means “to release.” In other words, I will not hold you guilty of this sin in my own heart (I will not continue to trawl your misdeeds up in my mind and review them). I will not hold you guilty of this sin before other people (I will not tell others how much you have hurt me, even if they ask). I will not hold you guilty of this sin before God. As Jesus said on the cross, “It is finished.”

Ultimately, it is to the cross that we must go. It is to the crucified Jesus that we take all our hurts, all our sense of betrayal, and all our need for justice. In His wounds, we will hear a sweeter sound, they speak better than the blood of Abel. Only they can persuade iron-fisted logic of hurt, bitterness, and resentment to let it go. Finally. Freely. Forever. Just like our heavenly Father when He forgives us.