by Stephen Ingram
I have three kids, ages 17, 15, and 10.
When they argue with each other or feel wronged by one of the others, bridging the gap between apology and actual forgiveness can be really difficult. According to the research found in the previous article, How We Think About Forgiveness at Different Ages by Robert Enright, the reason for the difficulty really boils down to a perceived need, based on age, for the forgiveness to be meaningful. As Dr. Enright notes each aged child has certain physiologically built-in criteria that must be met otherwise anger, resentment, and pain can fester.
As we work with our youth in student ministries this nuanced approach can not only help us work through interpersonal conflict at youth and on retreats but it gives us an opportunity to create intentional practices that can encourage and facilitate youth in their moral development towards a more holistic and faithful model of forgiveness.
Middle School Forgiveness Practices
Based on the research by Dr. Enright and his colleague’s students around middle school age, 6th-8th grade, are functioning from a conditional understanding of forgiveness. Whether it is early middle school needing to see punishment and justice or later middle school feeling the need to be compensated in order to have justice these nuances to their ability to forgive and move past are important and should shape how we handle conflict and teach.
- When a middle school student feels wronged and is obviously not moving forward after an apology, a conversation about the difference between forgiving those who wronged them and having to fully trust them again might be helpful. Focusing on the act of forgiveness while at the same time acknowledging that they can still feel hurt and that the act of forgiveness does not take that away can be a gateway to actual and more prolonged forgiveness.
- Another helpful way to embody this in your youth group might be to use the story from Acts 9:20-21,26 where the original disciples were having a difficult time trusting Saul, now Paul. It took time for them to be able to move from apology to forgiveness. The result of their eventual trust and forgiveness of Paul was a beautiful and new chapter in the story of faith.
High School Forgiveness Practices
As expected high school students’ views on forgiveness are much more complex than middle schoolers’ and move from desires for correction and compensation on a personal level to a more community/influencer standard. As the research notes their ability to forgive stems more from the standards they are intuiting from those in their peer groups and families and less from a need for some sort of conditional compensation from the aggressor. While this view is undoubtedly more complex and has more variance from student to student it still depends on an external catalyst, just this time in the form of group practices and expectations.
- This stage lends itself to being one of the areas where we in student ministry have the most influence. As we work to create intentional communities of faith and practice, the practice of forgiveness on both a personal and group level will speak volumes to high school students and has the potential to act as one of the communities of influence. In youth ministry, we have opportunities almost every week to embody these forgiveness practices and to do so with intentional verbiage to show the why behind the action. This can be done on a personal level as well as in group settings. If we can create communities in our student ministries that embody forgiveness and grace these communities then become one of the collective voices in a high school student’s realm of personal influences.
- You can also turn to the story of Jesus and Zacchaeus in Luke 19:1-10 and do a bible study or small group discussion based on Jesus’ unconditional forgiveness. It might be helpful to point out the communities skepticism of Jesus’ forgiveness of Zacchaeus the tax collector and how his action led to repentance from Zacchaeus and modeled reconciliation for those who gathered in Zacchaeus’ home.
Ultimately we want to meet students where they are in both of these developmental stages while at the same time modeling for them the next stage, giving them new ways to process and grow. At the end of high school, the hope is that students will begin to see that forgiveness is a higher good and is good, not only for the one being forgiven but also for the community and the one forgiving. This final developmental stage should be a part of our work in conversations with older high school students and the young adults in our ministry. With a focus on a greater good that extends beyond personal recompense and communities of influence we not only have the opportunity to shape students in our ministries but for the rest of their adult lives.