“ For if you forgive others their trespasses, your Heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” (Matthew 6:14-15 ESV). This is perhaps one of the more frightening passages in the Bible.
We think we are teaching our kids to forgive their siblings, yet sibling rivalry often has its roots in holding grudges for the inevitable wrongs siblings commit against each other. As parents, you can force your kids to say the words, but getting them to develop a forgiving heart is a lot more difficult.
Living in our culture doesn’t make it any easier. People are encouraged to hold grudges against entire nations, races and other groups. It’s a great way for politicians to maintain their power – by convincing everyone they will “right the wrongs” their opponents “are encouraging”. At its core, it’s a philosophy of revenge – not forgiveness.
Even churches struggle with teaching forgiveness in meaningful, practical ways. Your kids will most likely only get the platitude version of the verse above, when they need more practical help in understanding and practicing forgiveness.
There are some things you can do at home to help your kids to develop more forgiving hearts. Here are some of our favorites.
- Share Bible stories in a different way. The stories of Jacob and Esau are a good example. Instead of just telling the story, stop at various points and ask your kids how Jacob or Esau must feel. Ask how hard it might be for Esau to forgive Jacob. Then read the story of Jacob and Esau reuniting. Point out that Esau had evidently forgiven Jacob before he received all of the gifts. Have your kids think of the things Esau might have done to be able to forgive Jacob. Joseph forgiving his brothers is another great example…and he even says why he was able to forgive what they had done.
- Encourage your kids to talk to God about what happened and ask for His help forgiving the other person . The best thing your kids can do in any circumstance is to turn to God for help. If you can get them to do as the Bible says and pray for the other person, it will help them develop a forgiving heart towards that person.
- Teach your kids that they can forgive even if the person never asks for it. This can be tough for everyone. There is a belief that forgiving someone who hasn’t apologized is the same as saying they didn’t do anything wrong. Forgiveness is about allowing the person to start “fresh” with you – as if the negative incident had never happened. It’s not about saying the person was right when they did the hurtful thing.
- Teach your kids that when they forgive someone, they should try to stop thinking about what happened. There may be things that remind them of what happened. They still may hurt physically or emotionally from what happened. The key to forgiving and ultimately forgetting as much as we can is to not allow yourself to continually think about what happened and get yourself angry all over again. Time will ease the pain, if your kids learn to stop themselves as soon as they realize they are thinking about the incident and redirect their thinking to something more pleasant.
- Help them see the full picture. This has to be done carefully and in the correct timing. People who are mean have often been mistreated themselves and aren’t happy people. When something first happens and your child is venting is not the best time to have this conversation. Once they have calmed down a bit, they may be more willing to think about having a little empathy for the other person. It doesn’t excuse the negative behaviors, but it can make them easier to forgive.
- Teach them to assume the best. People are often totally ignorant that they have hurt or offended others in some way. It is quite possible your child misunderstood what happened or is missing some critical details that would change the interpretation of the event. Teach your kids to start with assuming the person didn’t mean to hurt them. It’s a lot easier for most people to forgive accidents and mistakes than intentionally inflicted pain.
- Encourage your kids to keep practicing. If the incident was extremely painful, it may take time for the hurt and anger to totally subside. Teach your child that in addition to redirecting their thoughts away from the incident, they should forgive the person again every time the thought returns.
- Don’t allow your kids to keep a running list of the wrongs of others. This can be tough to do, but reminding yourself of everything the person has done to you in the middle of processing the current incident is only going to add fuel to the proverbial fire. Don’t allow your kids to say things like the other person “always” or “never” does something. Even if it were true, it doesn’t help them forgive.
- Remind older kids and teens that forgiveness is not optional. It is ultimately their choice as to whether or not they choose to forgive someone. God, however, didn’t tell us to forgive others only when we feel like it. He commanded it. This means forgiveness is one of those things they need to really practice until they are able to forgive, because it is an expectation God has of His people.
Forgiveness isn’t always easy. You may be tempted to avoid teaching your kids about forgiveness because you still struggle with it yourself. It’s okay to be honest with your kids and work on forgiveness together. Everyone will benefit as you all learn to be more forgiving.