I can't remember exactly how old Dacey was - time has softened the edges of those hard memories, and the need of precision in recollection is replaced by the power of the lessons learned - when I first confessed to her that I had sinned against her, but I know she couldn't have been more than a year old. She was definitely not yet at the age where she could understand a word of what I was saying, and yet it was the first of many times I would say to her, "I am so sorry. Will you forgive me?"
The formations of this spiritual practice were not anything I came up with on my own. They were, rather, spoken into my life by my dear friend Karen. This mothering mentor and I have never lived in the same zip code, but through the wonder of the internet, she has grabbed my hand and steadied my feet in countless ways on this journey of parenting.
I was having a bad day - a miserable day, more accurately - and I had yelled at Dacey. Me, the grown-up, yelling at an infant. Again, I can't even remember now what triggered this outburst of desperation, all I know is that I felt so incredibly guilty and ashamed. I poured my heart out on the mothering message board that both Karen and I were members of, and amongst all of the commiseration and soothing words, Karen's advice was to acknowledge to Dacey that I was wrong to yell at her, and to ask her to forgive me. She assured me that it would feel incredible weird at first, asking a baby to forgive you, but that it would do wonders for my mama heart in my own ability to recover from the moment instead of wallowing in shame.
And so as I rocked her before her nap, I whispered tearfully, "Mommy shouldn't have yelled at you. That was wrong. Will you forgive me?" She drifted off to sleep, and I laid her down in her crib, already feeling remarkably lighter, free from the weight of my guilt.
I've read from some approaches to parenting about an insistence upon a child asking a parent's forgiveness for the wrong they committed, but I am going to go out on a theological limb here (oh, who am I kidding? I live on the limbs of theology!) and say that has always felt like putting the cart before the horse to me.
One of the most important parts of parenting is the process of disciplining our children, of coming alongside and teaching them as they grow, always with an eye on Christ and how He served his disciples by teaching them with patience and love. This practice of confessing when I have sinned against one of my children and asking their forgiveness has allowed me to create a model of how we respond to sin in our home. Young children learn about abstract concepts like sin and repentance and forgiveness when we create concrete applications of those lofty ideas.
As they've gotten older, I've added to my confessional script a reminder about how the sin in my life is a reminder that I need Jesus, that only HE can take the yucky stuff out of my heart and replace it with the good stuff that He brings us.
And so many are the moments in the day when, if eavesdropping in our home, you would hear something along these lines:
"Hey, AJ? I'm sorry I spoke harshly to you. God wants us to speak to others with love, and I didn't do that. It's a reminder of how much I need Jesus. Will you forgive me?"
This confessional script creates space for these things:
1) It acknowledges why my action was sin, and it gives my children a vocabulary for confessing their own sin. It translates sin from some big, bad word we only talk about at church into an everyday part of conversation as a family.
2) Humility, humility, humility. It reinforces my humble need for Jesus in every moment of my life.
3) It empowers my children in the process of repairing our relationship. Too often, when we know we've done something wrong to someone, we leave it at "I'm sorry." That puts the wronged person in an awkward position of knowing how to respond. When I've been wronged, my initial response to "I'm sorry," is "well, yeah! You should be!" But I usually end up saying, "It's okay." But you know what? Sometimes it's not okay. Asking for forgiveness shifts the emphasis to the heart of the person who was wronged. Asking someone to forgive you, even if that person is a child, puts us in posture of humility, acknowledging that they have a choice in whether or not the relationship will be repaired.
Honestly, sometimes when I would ask one of the girls to forgive me, they would say no! And that's a good lesson in remembering that the entire reason God invites us to confess our sins to Him as well to others when we have wronged them is that sin fractures relationship.
The fall of man in the garden of Eden was not primarily a breaking of a moral code; the fall of man was a fracture in the relationship between God and His children. As adults, we are conditioned to say yes to forgiveness, sometimes only because it's the polite thing to do. Children provide an unvarnished response that reminds us of the heaviness of sin.
It has taken years for the fruit of this practice to come to bloom in their lives, but beginning when Dacey was about eight, a moment of disrespectfulness or mean words was quickly followed by her running into my arms, brown eyes brimming with tears, saying, "Mom! I'm sorry! Will you forgive me?"
And lest all of this sound a little too self-congratulatory, please know it is with a heart of humility I share this today. Just yesterday, I had to pull each of them close to me in church as people sang praise all around us and whisper in their ears, "I'm sorry I acted like a maniac this morning while we got ready for church. I really need Jesus to help me with my temper. Will you forgive me?" They nodded their heads and went back to nibbling on their donuts, and I was able to offer a heart of praise to our Father without the distraction of guilt and shame.
Confessing our sin daily - hourly sometimes, even - allows us to move through our days, serving those around us with a heart of shalom, at peace with God and those He has placed in our lives. Though it is painful to acknowledge how often and how badly I need this practice, I am filled with gratitude for it. It reminds me that confession is the first step of repentance, and repentance brings freedom, and freedom allows us to live into who we are In Christ, fully alive to ushering the Kingdom ever closer to this earth.
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Make this your common practice: Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you can live together whole and healed. The prayer of a person living right with God is something powerful to be reckoned with. -- James 5:16, 17 The Message