For years, my son Chance waited for the school bus in front of our house. In those days, I was looking for ways to connect with my boy more, and since Chance's schedule had him up and about earlier than I was, I'd put on my bathrobe, grab a cup of coffee and join him out on the sidewalk.
It was a great opportunity to talk about life and spend a little time together — even if Chance was embarrassed at the possibility of the school bus pulling up while he was talking to an old man wearing a bathrobe.
One morning, we were joking and I said something that I could tell went too far — careless words that cut much deeper than I intended. The moment gnawed at me all day, and I knew I had to make things right.
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"Son, I need to ask for your forgiveness," I told him that night. "The words I used this morning, and how I said them, were not right. I'm sorry. I must be more discerning, more sensitive to what you're going through."
Chance was gracious, and I could tell he was glad that I recognized my carelessness. Parents must lead by example. If we are to truly help our kids live out the principles of grace and forgiveness, we must recognize when we are the offender. How different conflict looks when the spirit of a relationship is regulated by forgiveness!
The source of forgiveness
When kids are young, forgiveness seems to come naturally. They squabble with siblings or with parents — conflicts that often result in tears and timeouts. But memories of the incident quickly fade. Children are dependent on the love of family, and they're wired to forgive and forget in order to preserve those relationships. We tell them to apologize to each other, and we apologize to them when appropriate. "It's OK!" kids may respond, before running back to whatever activity had occupied their attention.
Yet we all live in a world broken by sin, and as our children grow, they start having longer memories — holding little grudges, giving more significance to the poor decisions of others. If they don't forgive and can't ask for forgiveness, these relationships suffer and may eventually fall apart. Forgiveness is essential in maintaining any relationship.
It's also the foundation of our faith. We have all sinned and fallen short of God's glory. We all depend on His forgiveness.
Remind your kids that God is the perfect model of forgiveness, demonstrated in the words and life of Jesus Christ. There is no greater picture of forgiveness than Jesus — who was mocked, unjustly condemned, beaten, humiliated and nailed to a cross — and still said, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do" (Luke 23:34).
I used to tell my children to replace the "them" in Jesus' statement with their own name. They knew, of course, that they didn't take part in Christ's crucifixion, but in order to approach a deeper understanding of true forgiveness, every child must recognize how his or her sins are the reason Jesus had to suffer.
God's grace is the greatest motivator — and the greatest guide — for forgiveness in human relationships. When we truly recognize God's forgiveness of our sins, we are naturally compelled to forgive others (Colossians 3:13). 'It's not fair!'
From our youngest years, most of us have a deep understanding of what we perceive to be fair. (Try giving a Popsicle to one child and not another.) This internal sense of fairness affects our response to offenses against us. We may not say it aloud, but our feeling is something like: If someone hurts us, shouldn't we hurt them? It's difficult to be a good forgiver when we want to retaliate.
Teach your kids that true forgiveness is incompatible with our sense of fairness. When we forgive, we relinquish the right and the need to get even. We release the anger we feel toward someone else, recognizing that God will handle the matter in His own way. And His ways are not driven by the human sense of fairness. Indeed, the ultimate "unfairness" was when Jesus endured the punishment for our transgressions against Him.
Forgiveness is our freedom. When we release the hurt and the anger, it is our own burden that we drop, our own barrier we demolish. Relationships move forward. Friendships deepen. As the radio counselor Bernard Meltzer once put it: "When you forgive, you in no way change the past — but you sure do change the future."
An attitude of forgiveness
God's ultimate act of forgiveness may compel us to forgive others. But forgiveness is an attitude, not an action, and it's never easy. Here are some ways you can teach your children to be better forgivers:
Help them adjust expectations. We often bring rules into a relationship — unspoken rules for how others should behave. I tell my kids that it's better to have preferences and not let those preferences stand in the way of the relationship itself.
Yes, we can encourage friends to do good, but in the end, we simply can't control how others act. We don't know how life has uniquely shaped their decision-making. But we can still accept them and love them, building relationships that aren't steered by our expectations.
Encourage them to see the perspective of others. When we're hurt or betrayed, our pain can often cloud our perspective. As you talk with your children about these moments, help them try to see events from the standpoint of the other person: "Do you think your teammate is acting out in hurtful ways because of some painful times in his own life? Is your friend under a lot of stress with all she's dealing with at school?" Trying to see another person's perspective can make a big difference in helping to forgive him or her.
Explain that true forgiveness isn't conditional. Help your kids see that there are two likely outcomes when we forgive someone. Often, it results in building a new, better relationship. But it's also important to recognize that extending forgiveness doesn't depend on any actions from the person they are forgiving. If others continue to reject us, God still commands us to forgive (Matthew 18:21-22).
Indeed, not all forgiveness ends in friendship. I told my kids that just because you forgive someone doesn't mean you need to be friends with him or her. It's wise to recognize when a friendship isn't good for you and to let go of that friendship without feeling any bitterness or anger.
We need not worry about how our forgiveness is received. Whether we get the benefit of a renewed relationship or not, forgiveness is still good for us. Letting go of angry feelings — and moving on with life in a positive way — lifts a huge burden from our shoulders.
Forgiveness may not feel fair. But it is more than fair — it's freeing.
Carey Casey is CEO of the National Center for Fathering. Get his new book Championship Grandfathering.