Teaching Our Children To Seek Forgiveness

by Clay Gibbons

two children hugging one another

Recently I have paired reading through the Pentateuch with a study in the book of Numbers at our local church. In Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers Moses is preparing the Israelites to journey together and eventually live in the Promise Land together. Moses pre-emptively instructs them on dealing with problems of resistance, disorder, sin and uncleanness. God knew it was coming; Moses knew it was coming. These things were already happening and would continue. How were they to deal with it? Moses provides the answers.

Parenting has more than a few similarities with Moses leading the complaining ungrateful company through the desert. In our families, we need to anticipate sin and teach our children how to respond to their own sin. In every family, sin against each other is happening and is going to happen. At times there will be anger, lies, broken promises, jealousy and biting words all before lunch!

So what do we instruct our children to do? How do we teach them to respond to their sin against others? The Lord does not expect anything less from our children than He does from us.

Repent to the Lord

Before they can be at peace with their brother or sister, mom or dad, they need to look to God for forgiveness and grace. Their sin is against God and man. They should repent to the Lord and seek grace to make things right. Everything on the horizontal level is only as effective as their repentance on the vertical.

We must truly repent to the Lord first before we attempt to make amends with each other. This step is probably best instructed but not tested. We can’t quiz them “Did you mean it?” Nor do we want to give them words to say or boxes to check. Encourage them to speak to God sincerely and in their own words.

Confess right away

This is a big one. No one likes to be wrong and certainly no one enjoys being caught in the wrong. Our tendency, (like Adam) is to first hide, shore up the defense and to deny wrong-doing. Teaching our children to apologize is teaching them to repent and take responsibility for their actions. Teaching them to apologize right away helps to stem further trouble.

When sin is left unconfessed it grows in size and potency. Paul teaches us to not let the sun go down on your wrath (Eph. 4:26). We should deal with the problems as soon as possible and no later than before the day is over.

State the sin

Clearly state the sin and avoid the exchange of the cowed but reluctant 8 year old:

  • child: “I’m sorry”
  • father: “For what?”
  • child: “For…you know” (staring intently at his shoes)
  • father: “No, I don’t know. What are you sorry for?”

The sin should be confessed (James 5:16). It should be stated and owned, no skirting around it, no blaming, no justifying it. For example, we teach them to say “I am sorry for stealing your lego mini figures. That was wrong” or “I am sorry for breaking my promise to watch you in your last match; I was wrong.”

Request forgiveness

Paul tells us to submit to one another (Eph. 5:21). Part of that is humbling ourselves before each other when we have sinned against someone. In order to deal with sin properly there must be a request for forgiveness. We should teach our children to ask “Will you please forgive me?”

Ideally, the offended party will be merciful and ready to grant forgiveness. Often this is not the case because real hurt has occurred and they may not be ready to let go of it. Regardless of the other party, we must teach our children to do the right thing.

Look and Listen

After they have apologized, stated their sin, sought forgiveness, they should look and listen. All of this can be pretty one-sided but true repentance is ready and willing to hear the hurt they have caused. We should teach our children not to demand immediate forgiveness nor manipulate each other to giving it, nor to dash away after making a quick apology.

The loving response is to consider how the sin has affected them. See their hurt by watching their face and listen for their hurt in the words. This can be as simple as ensuring the child looks at them while speaking and then asking “How have I hurt you?” and then listening. This will help the child see the effect and seriousness of their sin. Hopefully, it will also serve as a deterrent for future sin.

Make restitution

The story of Zacchaeus in Luke 19 gives us the model of true repentance. It helps us see that there should be a repayment if something has been broken or lost because of our sin. Truly, “I’m sorry” and “please forgive me” doesn’t make the hurt go away. True repentance is exemplified by an acceptance of consequences and willingness to make amends. Usually, the repayment is more than the value of what was lost. Logistically, this can be tricky but we need to emphasize this principle. There may be some allowances shifted, chores exchanged, toys replaced in order to help them repay.

Help them follow the steps

The question may arise, should I force my child to do this? What if they are not repentant? Should I still require them to apologize and ask for forgiveness even when they don’t want to? I think we need to be careful here. Outward obedience and inward rebellion is not pleasing to the Lord. Our parenting must always strive to reach their heart, their thinking, feeling and deciding.

With this in mind, these steps should be what we require from them; we have to help them through it. The matter cannot be fully resolved until they follow these steps both inwardly and outwardly.

Be an example

Here is where we can really help our children. We must live this out before our children. We must say to our children: “I’m sorry for _______, that was sin, please forgive me.” I have to deal with my own sin against my children and my wife. We have to lead by example.

For this, we desperately need God’s transforming grace. Our hearts are no different than our children’s; they are continually bent toward sin. May God give us the grace to deal with our sin properly and to lead our children to do the same.

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