As a parent I have tried to keep short accounts with my children. When I have sinned by getting angry or not listening to them, I have sought their forgiveness. Included with that asking was sometimes a statement of working on correcting this area in my life.
In addition to my asking them for forgiveness, they will need to ask forgiveness of me. Though God has forgiven all our sin on the cross, he still commands us to confess our sin to him (1 John 1:9). We confess our sin not to blot it out, but to restore our relationship with our Heavenly Father. Similarly, when appropriate, our children will need to ask our forgiveness as well. They need to be trained to ask for forgiveness and to restore the relationship.
Forbearance and Grace
Before we focus too much on forgiveness, let me give a needed balance. The Bible calls us to forbear with one another. Forbearance is overlooking a sin or an annoyance. It is realizing that we don’t live in heaven yet. In the cross, Christ has accepted us and overlooked so much in our lives (Romans 15:7) that surely we can do the same for others!
Likewise, the grace of forbearance oils our family life and covers over unintentional sins. We know that the love of God has covered a multitude of our sins on the cross (1 Peter 4:8), and therefore it is to our glory to overlook an offense (Proverbs 19:11). As a parent, a key component of our work is encouraging those in our family to forbear, thinking the best of one another, and overlooking small offenses.
We live in a sin-soaked world. All of us, including our children, need to forbear, and that applies to how our children think of us. When presented with a decision they did not like, I have often said to my children with a smile, “I know I am ‘messing up’ your life. You will ‘mess up’ your child someday. That is the nature of sin.” A gospel family loves and forbears with one another. This forbearance, in turn, reminds us of how much God forbears with us in Christ.
Jesus Taught His Disciples to Forgive
I can hear someone protest, “But there are some offenses that are too serious or injurious to overlook. What are we to do then?”
Jesus instructed every party to pursue reconciliation and peace. If you were the one who was sinned against, Jesus commands you to go (Matthew 18:15). If you know you sinned against someone else, Jesus commands you to go (Matthew 5:23). And if you have just heard about two parties that are not reconciled, Jesus commands you to seek peace (Matthew 5:9). As far as possible, God says, be at peace with all men (Romans 12:18).
Likewise, Jesus is serious that his followers forgive. Because in the gospel, our Heavenly Father has forgiven us an impossible debt, we can and should forgive others—no matter how much they have hurt us! When we have been hurt, we have a gospel moment. By multiplying the offense against us by a million, we just might be able to begin experientially realizing the pain our sin caused the Savior (Matthew 18:21-35). Being sinned against can lead us to more humility before Christ.
Teaching our children to forgive is an essential gospel skill. Jesus placed forgiveness in the Lord’s Prayer as a daily need (Matthew 6:12).
Jean Vanier’s quote on community applies to our families as well:
Too many people come into community to find something, to belong to a dynamic group, to find a life which approaches the ideal. If we come into community without knowing that the reason we come is to discover the mystery of forgiveness, we will soon be disappointed.
Likewise, C. S. Lewis comments on the need for family forgiveness:
It is perhaps not so hard to forgive a single injury. But to forgive the incessant provocations of daily life—to keep on forgiving the bossy mother-in-law, the bullying husband, the nagging wife, the selfish daughter, the deceitful son—how can we do it? Only, I think, by remembering where we stand, by meaning our words when we say in our prayers each night, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” We are offered forgiveness on no other terms. To refuse it means to refuse God’s mercy for ourselves. There is no hint of exceptions and God means what He says.
We are put in a family to learn how much we are forgiven by God and how to forgive one another. Our children will need to know how to forgive for the rest of their lives. God forbid that we should teach them how to drive but not how to forgive!
How Not to Ask Forgiveness
Unfortunately we live in a culture that has forgotten how to ask forgiveness. In most homes if forgiveness is asked for, it is a mere “I’m sorry.” This incomplete reconciliation is merely imitating what we see on TV. In fact almost all public apologies sound like “I’m sorry if I have offended you.”
Notice what’s not in there. There is no admission of guilt. There is no asking the offended party for forgiveness. We have confused, “I’m sorry,” with “Please forgive me.”
“I’m sorry” is a shortened version of “I am sorrowed” and is perfectly acceptable as a part of empathizing when we have no responsibility. “I’m sorry you had a flat tire,” “I’m sorrowed that you did not make the team,” are pleasant words to a weary soul. When we say “I feel sorrow for you” we are identifying with people in their troubles and expressing our sympathy.
Nevertheless, “I’m sorry” is not how to reconcile a broken relationship where sin was involved. For my three-year-old, saying “I am sorry” is fine. In fact, that is probably all she said that day. But “I am sorry” really is not acceptable for a young man or woman.
More than I’m Sorry
Why is “I’m sorry” not sufficient for the older Christians? In those moments when I sin against my children I incur a debt. This is the biblical description of sin by Jesus (Matthew 6:12, 18:21-35, Luke 7:36-47). Perhaps an analogy will help. If I borrow your car and smash it, I have incurred a debt to you. I can try and pay you back for the damage or I can give the car back and ask forgiveness. If you forgive me, you still have a smashed car. To make the car whole again, you must absorb the debt. Forgiveness costs you.
Similarly, when I get upset at my son, I have “smashed” his peace and joy. I have smashed his spirit. I cannot repair those. Instead, I must ask him to pay the debt himself and forgive me. Deep forgiveness is expensive and painful for the one absorbing the sin.
Husbands and wives, brothers and sisters, parents and children are constantly smashing into each other and incurring debts. The only way that a family is going to end up enjoying each other is by focusing on how much they have been forgiven in Christ and therefore forgiving and forbearing much. A unified, grace-filled, reconciled family is a powerful testimony to the gospel.
How then should we ask forgiveness? Though much has been written elsewhere, let me just summarize a quick biblical formula that has helped our family.
I sinned against you and God when I __(insert biblical term)_____. Here the offender is using the word sinned. He or she is naming the action using biblical terminology.
That was wrong. I’m sure it hurt you. The offender is admitting that what he did was wrong and acknowledging the hurt that he caused the other party.
Please forgive me. Now the offender is asking the other party to mark the debt forgiven. And the offender is committing to working on the sin that caused the debt in the process.
I forgive you. For the offended, forgiveness is an act of the will that marks the debt forgiven and paid in full. Granting forgiveness requires a spiritual response by the offended.
Peer to Peer
Younger children can be walked through the process with their siblings and with their friends. At a very early age, a simple “Sorry” and “Forgive you” with hugs afterwards suffice. As children grow older and the offenses grow larger, there needs to be a deliberate walking through the process. Rather than avoiding the conflict and letting the relationship wither, we should embrace it. God has given us a teachable moment.
Many times, as our children were growing up, they had to ask forgiveness of their siblings for some offense. We did not slavishly follow the script in the previous section every time. But the essence was there. There were also times we helped them walk through the same reconciliation with their friends. First we asked “Could they overlook or forbear?” If not, then they needed to say something. We did not want to avoid a conversation and let the relationship wither. We would send them off to talk to their friend.
Other times were a little more serious. One incident involved a time my son had sinned against a friend of his after church. That Sunday afternoon I received a call from the parents. When Sharon and I spoke to my son he immediately confessed. We walked him through what to say. Then he called his friend on the phone to ask forgiveness. Problem solved. Relationship restored.
Walking through a problem will take humility on the part of the parent. You must be more concerned about training the heart of your child than how you look to outsiders. The good news is that reconciliation pleases our Father and often results in a stronger relationship.
This blog is taken from pages 120-122 in The Disciple-Making Parent.