How Do We Teach Our Children Forgiveness?
Lessons from the Amish
The now infamous and often parodied line from an old movie went, “Love means never having to say you’re sorry. I imagine this means if you really love someone you will never do or say anything to them you regret, or for which you need to apologize. We know that is nonsense, since we all are sinners and have not attained perfection. And besides, even when we do the “right thing the other person may not think so and still expect an apology. It is so much more difficult to say, “Love means I will always forgive you, no matter what the offense. Before you say, “that’s not so hard, consider the Amish parents and families of six slain little girls, and four seriously wounded, by a crazed man who took them hostage in their one room school house in recent days. Forgiveness may be easy to talk about or tell your children to practice one with another. In reality, it is far more difficult to do yourself, much less expect your children to forgive because you tell them.
Forgiveness is not easy to teach because it must be exemplified. You cannot just tell your children to do it. You have to live it out before them. And that is exactly what these Amish parents did in Lancaster County a few weeks ago. Having been devastated by the sudden and violent taking of their beloved daughters’ lives, they not only verbalized forgiveness of the killer himself, but reached out to the wife and family of this man who committed the heinous act. They took his wife and children food and provisions. They invited them to their own child’s funeral. They attended his funeral. They said in essence, “How can we say we believe in a Savior who forgives us our own sins, and whose own blood washes away those sins, and not forgive one another, even one who has slain our children. The example of forgiveness, by those who could not reverse this result of demonic behavior, will not easily be forgotten, especially in the Amish households of Lancaster County.
The very words of their Savior were on their minds even as they lived out their forgiveness: “For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your Heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins. (Matthew 6:14-15) “Our blood-red sins He will wash white as snow, said one Amish parent. “Forgiveness is a choice, but it is not an option if we want to be saved, he said. This same parent went on, “I feel the most sorry for the person who did it, and I’ll tell you the reason why because he can’t get forgiveness no more, what’s done is done. After death, there is no more change. Two eternal lessons stand out in his words: the necessity of forgiveness for our own well-being and salvation, and two, the finality of death in changing our eternal destiny. Jesus puts the second this way, “Work [now] for the night is coming, when no man can work. (John 9:4) In other words, now is the time to pursue salvation and sanctification, because the day is coming for each of us when we can do nothing more to change our eternal home. Both the practice of forgiveness for our salvation and sanctification, and the finality of change at death are vivid reminders of the seriousness of both living and teaching our children forgiveness.
Every day presents opportunities for forgiveness. This is as true for us, as for our children. A father and mother can practice forgiveness toward each other before their children. Without it, it does little good to tell them to do what you cannot or will not do yourselves. Parents must forgive neighbors, extended family, even strangers before their children, if they expect their children to take hold of forgiveness. Do not be fooled by their childishness! Children observe and take in far more than you anticipate. They often will not mention it or speak of it, but they are learning from you all the time. Keep that truth in the forefront of your mind. Learn to love it rather than fear it. We fear our children will follow in our footsteps, because we know our walk is sinful. How much better to walk honestly and forgivingly, because we know our example will not go unnoticed in their eyes. We ought to love the fact that our children learn best from us.
Speak about the vital importance of forgiveness to your children, for their own well-being and especially for their relationship to their Savior and Heavenly Father. Memorize the verses of Scripture that speak about forgiveness, so that they are on your tongue when occasions arise to encourage them to forgive. And use the example of how you forgave one another as parents in something they observed, to remind them that they are to do the same. You may even tell them of a personal occasion of forgiveness in your life they did not observe, which will encourage their own thinking.
The preeminent example, which is the foundation for any forgiveness within our own hearts, is the truth that we ought to forgive, because God in Christ first forgave us. What kind of forgiveness do you think He gives us? Temporary or permanent? Paul exhorts us to forgive as the Lord forgave you. (Colossians 3:13) This must be at the heart of what we teach our children about this, because there is no other example that is as powerful or life changing. And for us to forgive our life must be changed. Forgiveness is difficult. It is deeper than words. It is backed by actions. Consider again the Amish parents and their response in actions.
Forgiveness that moves beyond the initial response into the weeks and months that follow is true forgiveness. It is like God says he treats our sins when He forgives us. He buries them in the depths of the sea. He separates them from His sight as far as the East is from the West. In other words He completely removes them and remembers them no more. His definition of forgiveness must be ours. We too often say we forgive, and then weeks later bring up what we forgave. True forgiveness buries it, even though in our own hearts we still remember, perhaps for a long time. But we do not bring it up, because it was forgiven.
The act of forgiveness is not only a benefit to the one you forgive, it is the medicine necessary for your own heart. An unforgiving heart is a sick heart. It will lead to bitterness, that if not rooted out will fester into infection and kill you; if not physically, spiritually. Your spirit will die. There are too many “dead men walking, and you do not want to be one of them. Warn your children about the results of an unforgiving heart. The earlier in life they learn its truth, the healthier they will be to serve God and others while they are young. There is an indefatigable strength in forgiveness that cannot be denied. It will overcome evil and the evil One. Forgive as He forgave you!
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