Lady Tremaine stands motionless on the stairs, looking towards but not truly seeing her step-daughter. She utters no apology, no excuse for her horrible treatment of her late husband’s only child. She expresses regret only for herself and out of fear of her impending punishment. Her mistreatment of the now-future queen would not go unavenged, but her posture exudes unremorseful, selfish pride as if to say, “I have nothing to confess.”

Cinderella, the prince by her side, turns and looks at her step-mother. Ella’s eyes reflect sadness as if she is seeing her years of servitude mirrored in Lady Tremaine’s stiffened pose. She looks unflinchingly into the source of her misery and says without a hint of hesitation three words that are at the core of every true love story, fictional or real:

“I forgive you.”

Life is not a fairytale, but those three simple words in the 2015 version of Cinderella strike a chord that reverberates out of the fantasy world and into our everyday lives where we, too, have villains and villainesses to confront.

Most of us will not meet our significant other in the middle of the forest. Most modern dances will not result in meeting the love of one’s life and being thrust into a heart-pounding adventure with said love. Good fiction speaks to its readers (or viewers) where they are but also provides a unique perspective, often by intensifying actions and consequences. It can be said that the climax of Cinderella—and truly, of the purest archetypical love stories—is found not in the words, “I love you,” but “I forgive you.”

These phrases are more alike than we might think. For starters, the English language doesn’t really differentiate between the “love” one has for an especially majestic taco and the “love” one has for one’s spouse. There are different types of love—C.S. Lewis described several in his work The Four Loves—and, though humans are prone to confuse and bungle the definitions and instantiations, we do sometimes attempt to clarify what we actually mean. “There’s a difference between ‘love ya’ and ‘I love you,’ ” Tyler Rich opines in his song “The Difference,” highlighting the idea that there is something sacred about those three powerful words. Even when we’re playing fast and loose with the idea of what it means to “be in love,” the words “I love you” are often closely guarded. It’s as if we know the words have power, but we aren’t quite sure what we’ve gotten ourselves into by using them, and so we should be especially careful and only use them when we’re sure the recipient is worthy of hearing them.

We can treat forgiveness in much the same way. Both “I love you” and “I forgive you” are seen as statements to use when the environment is safe, that is, when there’s little if any chance that our words can be misconstrued or trick us into saying more than we actually mean. “I love you” is great, as long as whatever commitment I may or may not be intimating is mutually beneficial and causes the least amount of emotional strain to me, and as long as the person to whom I say it is worthy. “I forgive you” is dandy, just as long as whomever I say it to is really sorry for the countless ways they’ve sinned against me and are really going to try to never do it again. Have they shown me that they are sincerely repentant? Do we have a strong enough relationship that we can recover from the fallout and move forward?

“I love you” is great, as long as whatever commitment I may or may not be intimating is mutually beneficial and causes the least amount of emotional strain to me.

Our actions have consequences. Lady Tremaine suffered exile because of her actions, and oftentimes we, too, will suffer—or have to enforce—consequences for our own or someone else’s choices. We are instructed to be “wise as serpents” (Matt. 10:16), and the idea that forgiveness implies that one must stay in a situation that is dangerous mentally, emotionally, or physically is simply false. Likewise, the idea that church or societal discipline should, therefore, be eschewed is incorrect. Morality and civility here on earth necessarily imply that there are consequences when we mess up—to imply a world without consequences is to imply one that does not have a moral or civil code. In a fallen world, we do have to suffer for the temporal consequences of a variety of actions, many of which may not, strictly speaking, be our fault. Cinderella was perfectly innocent, but her step-mother chose to mistreat her anyway. In spite of all evidence to the contrary, in spite of her right to ignore or punish the one who abused her, Ella spoke forgiveness.

Who is the Lady Tremaine in your life: the ugliest, most spiteful, most contemptible wretch you know? The one utterly undeserving of either love or forgiveness?

Here’s a hint:

Look in the mirror.

We want to cast ourselves as the heroes or heroines in our stories. We want to be the beautiful, innocent, courageous ones who overcome immense prejudice and graciously mete out justice. Any flaws we do have serve to make us stronger, more empathetic, and all the more deserving of praise once we arrive at our stories’ victorious dénouements.

But we’re not.

We’re like Lady Tremaine, frozen to silence as she watches Cinderella enter the room with her prince—only we’re looking at the Son of God, the One we killed by our thoughts, words, and actions.

The thing is, in Christ, God doesn’t say to us, “I forgive you, but…”

… get your life together.

… act extra nice to that neighbor you insulted to make up for the awful things you said.

… give a little more money in the offering plate on Sunday to show me you’re really sorry for how you spent last Friday night.

In Christ, all the promises of God are ‘yes—period’ not ‘yes—but.’

In Christ, all the promises of God are “yes—period” not “yes—but” (2 Cor. 1:20). Our forgiveness frees us to forgive others. Though actions may result in litigation, estrangement, or other earthly consequences, we can freely say, “I forgive you”—and mean it. Not “what you did was ok” (sin is never ok), or “I suppose you’ve made up for it enough by now” (no one ever does), or “maybe someday I’ll forget what you have done” (odds are you won’t), but “I forgive you.” Though I may seek earthly retribution through the appropriate civil channels to uphold societal and moral order, I will not exact vengeance on you because God has already exacted it on Christ. The debt you owe me and the harm you have done me are repaid and healed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Even if I never get earthly justice, I have eternal justice because the Son of God shed His blood to settle my account before the Father. All of the sins hoarded in my heart, filling my chest to overflowing with the impending paycheck of eternal death, were laid upon the only One who is truly innocent. While we were still sinners—not only unwilling to confess our sins but unable to, since dead men tell no tales (Eph. 2:1-10)—Christ died for us (Rom. 5:8).

That is love, more unexpected than the most fantastic fairytale.

That is forgiveness, the kind that sets us free and flows into us through the Word of God and His Sacraments, and then flows out of us, through three little words, to the lives God has placed around us.