Let all bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, and evil speaking be put away from you, with all malice. And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God in Christ forgave you. – Ephesians 4:31 – 32
Forgiveness is such a fundamental requirement of our Christian faith and one of the most difficult things we are charged with. It is absolutely clear in scripture and in Jesus’ teaching that forgiveness is something we must work at constantly if we want to live in relationship with God. No ifs, ands or buts…
We, as parents, are given the gift of love for our children so vast that forgiveness is much easier to practice – not just seven times (a day) but seven times seven and beyond. Our children also forgive us with a capacity that seems extraordinary – again streaming from the well of love for us that they carry. And, thankfully, young children are not ones to bear a grudge or hold anger in their hearts for long as we too soon grow very capable of. Yet teaching the concept of forgiveness from this tender age is still so vital. Is there a chance the concept of forgiveness could become a habit at this young age and help to prevent some of the heartache and struggles with forgiveness we have as adults? I don’t know, but I do believe with God anything is possible.
What does forgiveness look like at this age?
Some may think that forgiveness in children is all about saying sorry. But I think that apologies and forgiveness are not the same thing. While one is an outward show the other is an inward state. And while young children are not generally deceptive we can force their hand (and do) to make them behave ways that do not always align with their inner sentiments.There have been many interesting articles written on the detriments of forcing children to say “I’m sorry” (I like this one.) I greatly respect and admire the sentiments in them and still find them so hard to implement. The idea that you need to say the words “I’m sorry” is so deeply ingrained in me (not that I always do it, Lord forgive me) that I always expect it as “good behavior” from my children. My two year old is so programmed already that when one of us says “what do you say?” he immediately goes to either “Thank you” or “I’m sorry” – sometimes even in the wrong context.
Using forgiveness language
A few posts ago I wrote about the power of the words we choose to say in my post “Bozhenka” and the concept applies well here too. Being intentional around the language that we model and suggest can be very powerful. If we truly feel that forgiveness is at the core of things then perhaps we should make the word “forgive” more a part of our day to day conversation? Rather than “I’m sorry” we could model “please forgive me for…”. And could we also model in our speech “I forgive you”?
The idea for this post came after talking to my husband one evening after he had put the children to bed. Right before we read aloud our evening prayers with my two oldest we have a few questions we always discuss to review the day and say some personal prayers to God. Right now our three questions are:
1. What do you want to say thank you to God for?
2. Who do you want to say a special prayer for?
3. What did you do today to make God sad?
My husband was sharing with me that after the children say their answers to #3 he always ends with “God forgives.” I thought it was a beautiful sentiment and a beautiful idea. I especially love how it brings the powerful words we all speak to one another on Forgiveness Sunday into every day of the whole year. I also love that it seems a beautiful antidote to the possible shame that reflecting on our own sins can bring up in us.
Avoiding toxic shame
While awareness and repentance are to be cultivated and ingrained in childhood, shame is something I feel should be avoided and alleviated at all cost. While shame is defined strictly by Merriam-Webster as “a painful emotion caused by consciousness of guilt, shortcoming, or impropriety” it can grow into that feeling of “I did something bad and that makes me a bad person” – the sense that “good” people don’t make mistakes or do things that make God sad.
Some psychologists make the distinction between mild shame and toxic shame and, from what I understand, the difference lies in what happens after our bad behavior is identified. Are we reassured that we are still acceptable and loved? Or are we told we are “naughty”, a “bad girl” – sent away because we don’t “deserve” to be with the rest of the family? While I honestly feel that toxic shame is at the root of so much suffering and even keeps people from being able to fully enter into a loving relationship with God I struggle with my learned and fallen tendencies to want to make my children really feel sorry (ashamed even) when they hurt each other or aren’t considerate etc. And it’s a fight (as with all worthwhile spiritual endeavors) to focus on condemning the behavior and not the person. The person (my child or whoever else’s actions I am judging) is a child of God and loved by our heavenly father.
Do you really know how much you are loved?
We are so loved we have no idea. Do you truly believe that you are loved deeply and unconditionally by God? Do you truly believe that God forgives YOU? I can’t say that I always do in the depth of my heart and this translates itself into action and reaction in my life, work and parenting. I have a dear work colleague with whom I had a small miscommunication and found myself feeling profoundly ashamed of they way I had gone on the defensive. I wrote her a small note to apologize and, in return, she left a simple note on my desk with the words: “Sasha. You are loved. You are enough.” It still brings tears to my eyes to remember this note. God wants us to hear these words. God wants us to know we are loved by a love greater than anything we can imagine. God wants us to know that we are enough – that if we come to Him and acknowledge all of our brokenness, selfishness and pride He will forgive us and welcome us with open arms – as with the prodigal son. We don’t need to be perfect. We do need to be honest with ourselves and with God about how much help and grace we need.
Do our children know how much they are loved?
Even as we continue to struggle to ever more fully internalize our understanding of God’s love for us, we are called on to transmit this deep understanding to our children. They must know always that they are loved – by us and by their heavenly Father. We do this not just with words, but with actions and with our presence and our sincere interest and joy in each of their unique beings. And we can build in rituals to strengthen the message. One such ritual in our family is now adding “God forgives” after our evening repentance. Another is using forgiveness language in our day-to-day with each other. By God’s grace we will continue to add to our repertoire. I’d love to hear what rituals you feel help nurture love and forgiveness in your home?
With love in Christ.