Teaching our children forgiveness without limits

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by Maria Neville-Foster

In our modern, connected world, where it is easy to take offence, we seem to have fallen into the habit of limiting how many times we forgive each other. 

Maria Neville-Foster

Working with young people over the last number of years, I have seen how they struggle with emotion around friendships and relationships with their peers. 

The online environment has added extra pressure to the situation, and unfortunately it nearly always comes back to a negative emotion. 

That negativity drives a certain type of retaliatory behaviour that often results in them receiving negative feedback. This, in turn, can get them into difficulties, and have an adverse effect on their well-being. 

They don’t feel good about themselves when they are in that space, which is understandable. Who would be able to function normally feeling like that? 

To address this issue, I believe we need more conversations and focus on what it means to forgive. 

In the Sacrament of Reconciliation, we ask God for forgiveness for our sins. We make sure we mend our relationships with him if we’ve done wrong or we’ve not followed the teachings of the Bible. We do that very naturally, but actually we need to start practising that in our own lives. 

As Catholics, we believe that God is in everyone, so shouldn’t we continue to be forgiving? No matter how many times you go back to God and Jesus, they’ll always forgive you. It’s unlimited, so why do we put a limit on how many times we forgive someone else?  

Young people often have a very one-sided understanding of what forgiveness means. They see it as letting someone who wronged them off the hook, whereas I see it as giving a gift to yourself. 

When you forgive someone, you’re not giving them something, you’re actually giving yourself something. You’re releasing yourself from that connection of negativity and discomfort, or just that anger. 

Everyone knows how to express anger, but when you are released from that anger, your well-being is nourished. 

I’ve had some young people say: “Oh, but I don’t want to forgive, I want to hold grudges.” It is a stubbornness that comes through, but what if we became stubborn with forgiveness? Wouldn’t that be a different world? 

It is our job as Catholic educators to bring God back into this space. However, this concept is not just limited to Catholics. Even if you are not religious, you can seek to bring light back into the situation.  

Ephesians 4:31-32 reminds us to “Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as, in Christ, God forgave you”. 

When we do wrong, it can have an impact on everyone around us. Admitting this, and asking for forgiveness, is a powerful action to learn.  

If we all practised forgiveness, the world would be a much more peaceful place. If we don’t teach our young people to forgive, how can we ever expect to get there? 

As Martin Luther King, Jr said: “Forgiveness is not an occasional act; it is a constant attitude.”  

When we find ourselves in situations that require us to forgive, we need to ask ourselves: “What would Jesus do?” 

Maria Neville-Foster is principal of Sacred Heart Girls’ College in Napier


NZ Catholic contributor

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