What Do We Say?

You can picture the scene.  A parent and child are interacting with another person when the child’s manners pull up noticeably short of acceptable.  The parent leans down and prompts, “What do you say?”  A heavy silence descends.  The earth stops spinning. Birds are still.  Bees cringe.  Then —  whew!  It is heard.

Please.  Thank you.  I’m sorry.  Excuse me.  I love you too.

The words are finally, painfully ground out by the somewhat resentful child, who is chagrined at having been reminded in public.  The child’s reluctance does have a natural logic; after all, any expression loses a lot of its genuine power if it is forced, right? To have to say it with prompting seems somehow worse than not saying it at all.  Yet, the common parental impulse thrives, because parents continue to hope that if the right words are compelled at the right time, children will grow to internalize the need to say the words before being forced.  And, then, by using meaningful words at the appropriate times, children will eventually learn to effectively engage in the complex and necessary task of relationship-building: the work of love.

Well, if that is the ideal mission of instilling good word-habits in our Christian children — or even nurturing them in ourselves — we need to take another look at the list of key phrases above. What’s missing?  Need a clue?  Our Father in heaven could lean down and whisper the prompt in our ears. Jesus on His cross speaks of nothing else.  And The Holy Spirit dwelling inside us yearns to unleash its genuine power.

The missing phrase: I forgive you.

Its absence from our modern-manners repertoire makes me imagine the smirk on Satan’s face as he scratched that task off his to-do list.  “Make ‘I forgive you’ seem archaic, uppity, or (Ooo, a favorite device!) a sign of prejudice. Check!” or perhaps…  “Encourage people to slide into substituting apathy for grace with response of, ‘That’s okay, no big deal’ after an apology. Check!”

Now it’s true that we cannot force forgiveness, any more than we can force gratitude, humility, repentance, or any other choice which builds love.  But it’s also true that encouraging the development of the free and well-thought use of the phrase can build a word-habit that will become a heart-habit, that will become a lifetime of mercy.  One way I do it with my own children is to prompt, “Are you ready to forgive now?”  Another way I do it is by honestly saying the words, “I forgive you” – and of course its corollary, “I’m sorry” – often.  It’s not always received well (I could tell you a story about being in line in Kroger one day….), but it’s still absolutely necessary.   See Matthew 6:12 for proof.  Imagine how pleased our Father would be if we rebuked Satan by making such language — such love! – commonplace in our hearts, our homes, our community, our world.