The earlier our kids can comprehend, embrace, and live in an attitude of grace, the less destruction they’ll experience in their relationships over the course of their lives.
When I was 15, our family “vacation” was an all-day trek from Denver across the Kansas Serengeti to visit my mother’s relatives in Missouri.
I hadn’t seen my cousins in a few years, so I was startled to see Debbie, six years older than me, dragging her left leg behind her and then awkwardly swinging it forward when she walked. I think I remember someone referencing a chronic disorder of some kind (multiple sclerosis, I found out later), but back then, my nerdy teenage-guy sense of humor used every odd observation as raw material for a joke. One day I was walking behind Debbie down a sidewalk toward our car, and I thought it would be funny to imitate her exaggerated gait by dragging my leg, just like her. I laughed at myself and quickly checked to make sure others were laughing, too. But they weren’t laughing. And, suddenly, the reality of what I’d done sank in.
The shame hit me like a tsunami. My face was burning with embarrassment, and I begged God to let me go back in time so I could erase those five seconds of cruelty. Instead, I wallowed in my sin for the rest of my family’s visit. I feel the faint burn of shame even now when I describe my brutally immature behavior.
Shame is Unforgiving
It all happened four decades ago, but the details are etched forever in my memory. Shame is an unforgiving master. It taunts our God-given identity, distorting how we see ourselves and the people who relate to us. When we sin, we open a trapdoor in our soul into a dark basement filled with “basic shame.” Clinical psychologist and author Joseph Burgo says, “When things go wrong between parent and child in the first two years of life, you [the child] are permanently damaged by it in ways that cannot be erased. The awareness that you are damaged, the felt knowledge that you didn’t get what you needed and that as a result, your emotional development has been warped and stunted in profound ways—this is what I refer to as basic shame.”
Everyone born into the world passes through a “spiritual birth canal” that infects us with sin, filling our soul’s basement with basic shame. It’s inescapable. And that puts the spotlight on shame and forgiveness as a crucial teaching focus in our ministry to children. Learning to forgive others is directly tied to our willingness to receive forgiveness ourselves— remember, Jesus made “love your neighbor as yourself” a vital kingdom of God imperative, second only to loving God with all our heart, soul, and mind.
Jesus Targets Forgiveness and Shame
In response to the disciples’ questioning Jesus about the limits of forgiveness, he obliterates their man-made boundaries around grace by setting a new standard, then undergirding that standard with a shocking parable.
Then Peter came to him and asked, “Lord, how often should I forgive someone who sins against me? Seven times?” “No, not seven times,” Jesus replied, “but seventy times seven! Therefore, the Kingdom of Heaven can be compared to a king who decided to bring his accounts up to date with servants who had borrowed money from him. In the process, one of his debtors was brought in who owed him millions of dollars. He couldn’t pay, so his master ordered that he be sold—along with his wife, his children, and everything he owned—to pay the debt. But the man fell down before his master and begged him, ‘Please, be patient with me, and I will pay itback.’ Then his master was filled pty for him, and he released him and forgave his debt.
“But when the man left the king, he went to a fellow servant who owed him a few thousand dollars. He grabbed him by the throat and demanded instant payment. His fellow servant fell down before him and begged for a little more time. ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it,’ he pleaded. But his creditor wouldn’t wait. He had the man arrested and put in prison until the debt could be paid in full.
“When some of the other servants saw this, they were very upset. They went to the king and told him every- thing that had happened. Then the king called in the man he had forgiven and said, ‘You evil servant! I forgave you that tremendous debt because you pleaded with me. Shouldn’t you have mercy on your fellow servant, just as I had mercy on you?’ Then the angry king sent the man to prison to be tor- tured until he had paid his entire debt.
“That’s what my heavenly Father will do to you if you refuse to forgive your brothers and sisters from your heart.”
Make a Big Deal of Forgiveness
Yes, forgiveness of sin is a really big deal in the kingdom of God. And the earlier our kids can comprehend, embrace, and live in an attitude of grace, the less destruction they’ll experience in their relationships over the course of their lives.
Shame’s impact grows overtime for a simple reason: Living in a fallen world exposes us to an environment fraught with “shame triggers.” This is one reason people living in the United States have the world’s highest rate of social anxiety disorder, whose defining characteristic is the fear of negative evaluation by others. Shame itself is a worldwide epidemic. In the Asian world, for example, shame and “saving face” are primary psychosocial forces, shaping the soul of both the individual and the culture. The Japanese have a word, hazukashii, for the cultural expectation that one must at all costs avoid bringing shame to the family name. In Chinese culture, there are 113 unique shame terms embed- ded in the language.
Harvard researchers have boiled it down to this: “Shame functions as a social control mechanism that makes use of the emotion’s aversive properties.” In other words, shame exerts a powerful leverage on us, and that’s exactly why Jesus insists that we immerse ourselves in an attitude of grace and forgiveness—for others, and ourselves.
Freedom From Unforgiveness and Shame
How would you feel if you were asked to share the worst thing you’ve ever done? That’s basically what happened to a woman caught in adultery (see John 7:53–8:11). She was on the verge of being stoned for her sins when the Pharisees sought Jesus’ input. After pausing to write in the dust, Jesus says, “Let the one who has never sinned throw the first stone!” (John 8:7). And, of course, the accusers slip away. But Jesus isn’t finished. To the woman, he offers not condemnation but forgiveness—as well as the charge to “Go and sin no more” (John 8:11). Forgiveness was a priority for Jesus. The Old Testament prophet Isaiah speaks for God when he proclaims: “God will never think of [our sins] again” (Isaiah 43:25).
So what does it mean to be a forgiven follower of Jesus? Not only does Jesus set free from sin, but he commands us to extend the reality of that forgiveness to others and to receive it ourselves. Here’s a sampler of ideas, experiences, and questions that will help you help your kids begin to regularly embrace a life of grace.
Adopt a “foot-washing” mentality.
On the night of his betrayal, Jesus showed his disciples the full extent of his love by washing their feet. Peter initially protested, because he knew his feet were dirty. And Jesus knows our dirt, too. All of it. But like Peter, we’re ashamed to let others see it, including Jesus. But Jesus is trying to make sure the disciples—and all of us—know that he wants to clean our dirt. Unless we let him deal with our dirt, our relationships—with him and others—will suffer. When we spill our “dirt” to Jesus, we invite him to wash our feet. And Jesus reminds us, “A person who has bathed all over does not need to wash, except for the feet, to be entirely clean” (John 13:10).
In John 13:14-15, Jesus gives this command: “And since I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash each other’s feet. I have given you an example to follow. Do as I have done to you.” We can “wash each other’s feet” by extending forgiveness when others sin against us, and we invite Jesus to wash our feet when we show him our dirt and receive his grace.
Every so often, plan for “grace pauses” in your ministry. Have kids write down (privately) whatever sin or mess-up they’re struggling to let go of on that day. Each time, have them offer what they’ve written back to Jesus—an offering of “dirty feet” to him. Change what they do with their scribbled struggles each time—one time they could crumple them and throw them into a trash bag that you seal and toss, the next time they can rip them to shreds to make confetti that they throw in celebration of the grace Jesus offers them.
Let go of hurt.
All kids struggle to extend forgiveness to others— and to themselves—so have them write a letter (or email or text) they’ll never send. They can begin with these questions:
- “What happened?”
- “How did I feel at the time?”
- “How has this affected my life?”
- (Depending on the focus of the letter) “What do I want from the person who hurt me now?” Or: “What do I wish I could change about what I did?”
Have them save or print this unsendable letter and keep it for reference.
Then have them write another letter (or email or text) that they do intend to send (to the other person or to themselves). For this one, begin by praying with them to discern exactly what to put in the letter, knowing that it must end with an offer of forgiveness (for the other person or for themselves). Pause two or three times as they do this to invite Jesus, again, into this process. This letter-writing process can help them embrace grace.
Don’t elevate, or denigrate, certain sins.
Jesus targets all sin equally, and we must do this as well. There are no “little” or “big” sins in the kingdom of God. Treating sin on this sliding scale diminishes the sacrifice Jesus made on the cross, and it narrows the boundaries of his grace. Jesus’ “Parable of the Unforgiving Debtor” in Matthew 18 is pointedly targeting our desire to “own our dirt,” then release others (and ourselves) from the penalty of shame. Simply put, don’t elevate some sins over others.
It starts with you.
John Maxwell, the Christian leadership guru, says, “We teach what we know, but we reproduce what we are.” How do you interact with people who struggle with particular sins? Do you model love, or do you model judgmental stereotypes? Your kids will, in the end, follow what you model.
Rethink the way you speak.
Challenge your kids to banish offensive, judgmental, or destructive speech in response to others’ mess-ups. They must sense that your group is a grace-first zone. It’s never okay to laugh and joke at the expense of another’s sin. Again, this is really at the heart of Jesus’ parable in Matthew 18. We don’t mock the dirt on another’s feet because we’re well aware of our own dirty feet.
Love our enemies, including the enemy in the mirror.
Jesus is our living example of unconditional agape love. In Matthew 5, he upends conventional thinking about sin and forgiveness with this: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matthew 5:43-45, NIV). So what happens when we are our own worst enemy? When the “voice of the accuser” sounds a lot like our own?
Have your kids play the Hand- Slap Game. Tell them to each find a partner (preferably of the same gender) and stand facing each other. Then have them tackle the following discussion questions with their partners.
Say: The person with the most hair on their head is #1, and your partner is #2. All the #1’s should extend an open hand, palm down, toward their partner. All the #2’s should extend an open hand, palm up, an inch or so underneath your partner’s hand. The goal of this game is for the #2’s to slap their partner’s hand before he can jerk it away. We’ll play this for 30 seconds. After each attempt, the #2’s put their hand back under their partner’s hand and try again until I call time. If you’re a #2, see how many times you can slap your partner’s hand in 30 seconds. If you’re a #1, see if you can avoid getting slapped altogether.
After 30 seconds, have partners switch roles and play for another 30 seconds.
Then have them discuss these questions. Ask:
- What feelings or emotions did you have as we played this game?
- This game naturally promotes feelings of revenge—why is our first response to hurt often a desire for revenge?
- Here’s a popular saying: “Hurt people hurt people.” Why do hurt people tend to lash out and hurt others?
- When you’ve hurt someone else, how have you “exacted revenge” on yourself?
Close this discussion with a “Benediction of Grace”: Proclaim what’s true, referencing the mission of Jesus to bring freedom. Say: Jesus has come to set you free from the tyranny of shame in your life. He came to offer you the grace of his love, which is like a Get Out of Jail Free card. He’s giving you that card right now. (You might even get creative and produce little cards that simply say “Get Out of Jail Free” and then give each child one to keep.)
Rick Lawrence is the longtime executive editor of GROUP Magazine, general editor of the Jesus-Centered Bible, and author of Jesus-Centered Youth Ministry, The Jesus- Centered Life, and Spiritual Grit.