Have you ever noticed how often you hear someone say something along the lines of, “I don’t real have a relationship with my parents. When I was growing up, they…..”. Now I am not suggesting there are not some parents who are so toxic that they are genuinely dangerous to their children and grandchildren. Most of the time, however, the reasons given for the broken relationship(s) boil down to differences of opinion, style and other more mundane disagreements. While they may never be fully resolved, forgiveness would go a long way to healing broken families of origin.
The problem is that most of us have an extremely warped view of forgiveness – even biblical forgiveness. These mistaken ideas added to other natural barriers to forgiveness, tend to make us dig in our heels and hold onto our grievances. While talking about forgiveness as a concept involving ”other people” can be interesting, we can stay emotionally removed from the impact a lack of forgiveness can have on our own lives.
What, however, if those “other people” become your children? What if you are the person they refuse to forgive because of one or more of your parenting mistakes? Let’s get real. No parent is perfect. Even the most godly, most intentional parent errs. We just assume or hope our kids will forgive and forget. I am sure the parents of those adult children who refuse to forgive them thought the same thing. If you want your children to forgive you now and in the future, you are going to have to teach them about true, biblical forgiveness.
So what are some things you need to teach your children about forgiveness?
- The overarching story (and many of the other stories) in the Bible is ultimately about broken relationships and forgiveness. The Fall ushered in sin and by choosing to disobey God, Adam and Eve fractured their once perfect relationship with Him. The remainder of the Bible is in reality about the Messiah coming to Earth to make it possible for mankind to repent and receive forgiveness and a restoration of that perfect relationship. Share this overarching story with your children. Teach them the other stories involving forgiveness. Share with them God’s commands about forgiveness. To be truly forgiving of others, it helps if they understand the enormity of God’s forgiveness of them.
- Don’t accept the reluctant ”Sorry” as an apology or the even more reluctant “Fine” as forgiveness. This is probably one of the most common mistakes parents tend to make. Accepting a non-apology as an apology and non-forgiveness as forgiveness doesn’t teach your children anything about forgiveness. In fact, it encourages them to fake their way through the process rather than actually learning how to do the emotional work often needed to apologize and forgive with humility and grace.
- Acknowledge that apologizing and forgiving can be difficult and take hard work on both sides of the equation. Sure, some things are easy to forgive and forget. The older your children get, however, the more likely they are to encounter a situation that is difficult to forgive. Or one where both parties are firmly convinced they did nothing wrong and don’t need to apologize. These situations break relationships and can cause all sorts of negative life consequences. Teaching them how to handle those situations when they are young is a great way to prepare them for the future.
- Encourage humility in all things. A huge stumbling block to forgiveness is often pride. We would NEVER do those things that we are angry about…. except, when we hold on to our anger, it becomes bitterness and rage. We can easily become the person with whom we were initially angry. Humbly remembering that they make mistakes and sin, too – even if it is in different ways – and need forgiveness from others, can help your children be a little more empathetic when others sin towards them.
- Forgiveness does not mean we are saying that what happened was acceptable. Forgiving a murderer does not mean that the murder was justified. It merely means we are no longer going to let our thoughts ruminate on the hurt and anger that murder caused. Will some trigger remind us of our pain from time to time? Quite possibly, but then we make the choice once again to forgive and move on with our lives.
- Refusing to forgive means our lives will continue to be ruined by that incident. In fact, the repercussions from not forgiving can impact our lives in ways even worse than the initial incident. Did you know refusing to forgive ruins your physical and mental health and can cause fractures in other relationships? The list of the possible negative consequences from refusing to forgive is probably much longer than the list of negative consequences from the original incident. Even if it isn’t, do you really want to add more problems to the ones with which you are already dealing?
- An effective apology mirrors repentance – stating what was done that was wrong, saying what changes will be made so it won’t happen again, asking for forgiveness and attempting to make atonement for what was hurt in the incident. “Sorry” should be sincere, but is only the beginning. Teach and enforce the rest of the steps. Atonement isn’t always possible, but should be encouraged.
- Emphasize that forgiveness and apology are about the “heart” even more than the words and actions. Your children should work towards being truly sorry and truly forgiving – not just check off the boxes.
- Teach your children how to redirect their thoughts when they start thinking about the negative incident. You can’t forgive something you never let yourself forget. Teaching your children how to redirect their thoughts, instead of continually ruminating on the incident, will make it easier for them to forgive.
- Teach your children to pray for their enemies. I think God knows it’s very difficult to simultaneously be furious at someone while praying for them. By giving us the command to pray for our enemies, God is nudging us towards forgiveness.
- Discuss the idea of “hurting people hurt people”. I don’t know if this is accurate all of the time and it certainly doesn’t excuse someone for hurting others. For those trying to forgive, however, it can remind their heart to show compassion in spite of their pain.
- Model godly repentance and forgiveness. Apologizing to your children when you are wrong does not undermine your authority. It can actually increase their respect for you. Children need to be taught, but they also learn from observing you. If they see you forgiving others, they are more likely to do the same.
Even Christians struggle with repentance and forgiveness. Just because you may have not mastered these qualities yourself, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t teach them to your children. You might just find that teaching your kids helps you improve, too.