There are many degrees of hurtful offenses we experience in life. Many are completely unintentional, the result of insensitive interactions. The best way to handle those is to ignore them. The offender is human, bumbling around just like you do sometimes. There is no need for conversation or confrontation. Of course there are deeper, more painful and significant offenses that may have gone on for an extended period of time, or those in which the offender was intentionally cruel or so self-absorbed they abandoned you. Offenses over which we begin to become bitter must be forgiven.
[1.] God calls us always to extend vertical forgiveness. Vertical forgiveness is between God and me. It is something I do in prayer. It is unconditional and is done whether or not the offender admits the offense and asks forgiveness. This usually happens only after I come to the realization that unforgiveness is accomplishing nothing but bitterness in my own soul.
In order to be free of that bitterness I come to God and identify the offense, telling Him that I have been wounded, it hurts and I am angry! But I don’t want to be additionally wounded by the bitterness any longer. I tell God I am extending forgiveness to the offender “in absentia”. I tell God the offender no longer owes me anything in regard to the offense. I write “cancelled” across the legitimate debt.
Only one person is needed for vertical forgiveness: ME. I don’t even tell the offender about this vertical forgiveness. This is a work of grace within my own heart and my walk with God. I am going to trust God to provide any consequences He decides the offender should bear. “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’” Romans 12:19 (ESV) Now I am released from trying to hurt or pay back the offender, or to anxiously await their acknowledging the wrong of their offense and come to apologize. I am free!
[2.] What needs to happen between me and the offender? Sometimes nothing! If approaching the offender would only inflame the situation, be at peace with the vertical forgiveness (above).
If approaching the person is a reasonable option horizontal forgiveness is done person to person. Luke 17:3 says “So watch yourselves! If your brother sins against you, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him.” Being careful of my own heart, I am to rebuke the offender (express an appropriately stern, sharp disapproval of the offense)! Then I determine not to bring it up anymore. I have done what is mine to do.
What happens next is up to the offender. There must be a softness and genuine repentance (thinking differently, reconsidering, feeling sorry for the offense). That will be confirmed by “fruit that is consistent with repentance” and behaviors that prove a change of heart (Matt. 3:8). If/when that happens I can forgive face to face, person to person. Relationship may be restored if there is genuine repentance and the possibility of trust being rebuilt between the offender and me.
[3.] We do not always achieve reconciliation.
I can do my part, all that is mine to do, (vertical forgiveness and appropriate rebuking) and the relationship can remain fractured. If there is no genuine repentance on the part of the offender there can be no rebuilding of trust and respect and therefore no genuine relationship.
Some offenders are better left out of my life. They may be toxic. Their presence may be too painful, hindering me from maturing in healthy ways emotionally and spiritually.