Justice and fairness loom large in a child's concept of the way the world should work. So forgiveness can be a difficult habit to establish in the hearts and minds of children who are still in the process of expanding self-focus to include empathy, concern and compassion for others. But the Bible teaches clearly on God's expectation of his people to forgive one another freely. Object lessons and hands-on Bible activities help communicate what it means to forgive in terms children can understand. Practicing the words and manners of honest repentance and forgiveness will give children practical knowledge of what forgiveness looks, sounds and feels like in action.
Humans, whether adult or child, are more likely to stay angry at someone who hurts their feelings or pride and try to get back at the them. But the Bible teaches Christians that God's perfect love offers the way for all wrongs to be erased and remembered no more. As He loved, so Christians are to love and forgive one another without resentment. Illustrate this concept of erasing the stain of sin using silicone putty and the Sunday comics. Show children how to "stain" the putty by pressing it over the comic strip to transfer the image. Explain that when someone hurts your feelings, it leaves a mark or stain on the friendship. If you want to be friends again, the stain needs to be washed away. Ask the children to roll the putty into a ball and watch the image disappear. Discuss how this is like God washing away everyone's sin so they can be friends with God again. He wants us to do the same for others. With older children, you can give them a misprinted verse, such as Matthew 18: 21 to 22 or Colossians 3:12 to 13. Ask them to erase and correct all the mistakes using an eraser and pencil or whiteout.
Object lessons on forgiveness translate the abstract into a mental picture to which children can relate. For example, fastening a single ply of tissue paper over a disposable cup with a rubber band and setting a marble or coin on top sets the stage for illustrating how God's love dissolves any barriers that keep people away from him. The cup represents God while the marble or coin is the child. Explain how God loves you so much, he doesn't want anything to separate you from his presence so he sends his Spirit, represented by a few drops or spoonfuls of water poured over the weighted objects onto the tissue until it breaks, allowing the "child" to enter the presence of God.
Hurtful words and actions can leave people feeling yucky on the inside and weighed down by regret, sadness or guilt over the broken friendship. Clean out a squash or pumpkin as you talk with children about how forgiveness washes all the yuck away and leaves you clean on the inside so you can be friends again. Another idea is to bring in a heavy suitcase and let the children try to carry it across the room. Explain that just as they struggle with fatigue and lack of strength to accomplish this task, so unforgiveness weighs heavy on you when you won't let go of the hurt, whereas forgiveness lightens your load.
Create a forgiveness poster or bulletin board in your home or classroom illustrating a bare tree. Talk with the children about how forgiveness makes dead friendships grow again, so they need to help the tree grow by adding forgiveness leaves to the branches. Every time anyone in the family or class forgives someone who has hurt them, they can record the incident on a leaf and add it to the tree. Another reminder to choose forgiveness over retaliation and revenge is to make a "70 x 7" birdseed container in remembrance of Jesus' instruction in Matthew 18 to forgive one another not once or seven times but seventy times seven. Glue seven seeds to the top of a small plastic container with a lid and fill the rest with birdseed. Label the container "70 x 7" and attach a tag with the caption, "Forgive as the Lord forgave you. Colossians 3:13." When someone hurts you, look at the container to remember that God's forgiveness is not limited and neither should yours be.
It's easy to talk about forgiveness and know what you should do. It's quite another when the issue hits home and the hurt is raw and fresh, the desire to punish the person who hurt you bubbling up inside like a boiling cauldron. Perhaps your brother wore your favorite shirt without asking and ripped it. Or maybe your friend took another person to see the new movie you really want to see and didn't invite you. Perhaps someone wronged you and now the tables are turned and you have the chance to take your revenge and let them know how you felt by making them experience the same humiliation. What do you say? What do you do? How do you handle the situation in a way that pleases God? Role-play can help you practice the thoughts, words and actions that you will need when these circumstances arise so that you are prepared to act and not just react.