To the reader: How are we doing at forgiving offenses these days? The author Arthur Brooks speaks of an American “culture of contempt” that results more in toxic exchanges than in a forgiving attitude that seeks the good of the other, sometimes disagreeable, person. If adults can’t get along, what should we expect from students? Teachers can lead the way by not only teaching about forgiveness, but modeling it as well.
Forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who sins against us.
– Luke 11: 4a
Is it possible to say “I’m sorry” and not mean it? How about “I forgive you”? I remember provoking a fight in the sixth grade and receiving a swift kick in the shin for my annoying comments. The reason for the fight is long forgotten, but I remember the teacher insisting that the kicker apologize, and that I should forgive him. We obeyed the teacher, but I don’t think either of us really meant it.
Perhaps Christian schools should teach a course on repentance and forgiveness. Several years ago when I was evaluating a number of Christian schools, I found that many students pointed to unhappy student relations as a major problem in their schools. Students can treat one another cruelly leading to bitterness and broken relations, and it’s hard to forgive when “getting even” feels better.
A good place to begin with students is the fifth petition in the Lord’s Prayer. There we ask God to forgive our sins as we have forgiven those who sin against us. It is true that God’s choosing to forgive us is not based on our doing the same for others, but, as John Calvin points out, we can have confidence in our own forgiveness when we banish from our hearts all ill-will and revenge against others.
Having such a forgiving heart is not easy. We want to excuse our own behavior even while our tempers flare at the offenses of others. As C.S. Lewis says: “In our own case, we accept excuses too easily; in other people’s we do not accept them easily enough.”
Teachers can help by pointing out to students that Christ, in his death on the cross, took upon himself what we deserve and gave us what we don’t deserve. Christ forgave the inexcusable in us. He wasn’t overlooking our sin; he was paying for it and forgiving us of it.
To help younger students understand forgiveness, some teachers have chosen to take the punishment that their students deserve. In Mrs. Smith’s kindergarten class, disobedient students are not allowed to play outside during recess. Instead, they have to sit on the “time out” bench while their classmates play. David, who was one of Mrs. Smith’s students, often provoked the other students and spent much time on the bench. One day, Mrs. Smith said to David: “David, you’ve broken the rules again, and you deserve to be punished. But I love you David and I will take your punishment for you today. You can play and I will sit on the time out bench in your place.” Mrs. Smith decided David had a more important lesson to learn than punishment could provide. She took the discipline herself so that David could learn about sacrifice and forgiveness. Although David didn’t stop misbehaving, Mrs. Smith’s lesson in forgiveness began to work a change in him.
The same is true when one student offends another. In order to forgive, the offended student will have to give up trying to get even. Forgiveness isn’t about justice so much as it is about mercy. In forgiveness, the student says, “Even though what you’ve done is inexcusable, I don’t have it in my heart to hold it against you.” Only someone who has been forgiven can forgive that way.
Thou art giving and forgiving, ever blessing, ever blest, well-spring of the joy of living, ocean depth of happy rest! Thou our Father, Christ our brother, all who live in love are thine; teach us how to love each other, lift us to the joy divine.
– Hymn by Henry Van Dyke