POSTED - 2/15/2003
Teaching Your Children Spiritual Truth
- Phil Johnson
Teaching Your Children Spiritual Truth
And these words, which I am commanding you today, shall be on your heart; and you shall teach them diligently to your sons and shall talk of them when you sit in your house and when you walk by the way and when you lie down and when you rise up (Deuteronomy 6:6-7).
Copyright © 1996 by Phillip R. Johnson. All rights reserved.
My earliest childhood memory is a pre-kindergarten Sunday school class. I suppose I was four years old—maybe even younger. Our church was an old, imposing building that smelled like someone's attic. The windows in our classroom were huge, and I loved the way the sun shone in. I was mesmerized by those little particles of dust that dance in the sunbeams in a dusty room.
I clearly remember one Sunday sitting in that room and learning the song "Jesus Wants Me for a Sunbeam." Our teacher eagerly pointed to the huge streams of light coming in the windows, and she tried to make them an object lesson.
The only trouble was, none of us understood anything about metaphors. All I could think of when we sang that song were those shiny little specks floating in the shaft of light, and I couldn't figure out why Jesus would want me to be one of those. I loved the song, but I have to admit it made no sense to me.
That memory is so deeply etched in my mind that even today when I hear "Jesus Wants Me for a Sunbeam," I am immediately transported back to that old room with the big windows, and those little flecks of sunlit dust come to mind.
My own kids are now older than I was then, and one day several years ago it suddenly occurred to me that the earliest memories they would carry to adulthood had already been formed. Nearly everything they are learning now will stay with them for the rest of their lives. That's a scary thought for a parent.
Most Christian parents will admit to being somewhat intimidated by the weighty responsibility Scripture places on us. Our task is outlined in simple terms by verses like Proverbs 22:6: "Train up a child in the way he should go" and Ephesians 6:4: "Bring [your children] up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord."
Understanding our solemn duty as parents ought to provoke a certain amount of fear and trembling. Then again, it needn't paralyze us. Teaching spiritual truth to children is a joy. No one is more receptive, more hungry to learn, or more trusting than a child. Chances are, you'll never find more eager disciples than your own children. Don't squander the opportunity.
Let me suggest five practical principles to remember as you teach your children spiritual truth.
1. Understand that children can grasp the essence of almost any truth.
Among all the biblical admonitions for parents to teach their children the Word of God, not once is there a disclaimer or warning of any kind. There's no PG rating on Scripture—none of it is inappropriate for younger audiences. All Scripture is for all ages.
Don't hold back teaching your children because you think they aren't ready. Though they may not fully understand some of the more difficult spiritual concepts, children can grasp the essence of almost every truth. In fact, they are better equipped now to assimilate spiritual truth than they will be when they are older.
That's why Jesus called for childlike faith: "Truly I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it at all" (Mark 10:15). What makes a child's faith different from an adult's? Simply that children refuse to be troubled by what they cannot understand.
Face it, few of us understand the concepts of infinity, eternity, or omnipotence any better than we did as children. We may speak of those ideas with more sophisticated terminology now, but our finite minds still cannot grasp the complete reality. Don't be afraid to admit that to your children.
When my youngest son, Jonathan, was in kindergarten, he was fascinated with the truth of God's omnipresence. He constantly tried to think of someplace God can't possibly be. "Dad, does God go to the Cubs' games?" he asked. I explained to him in simple terms what David said in Psalm 139: "Where can I go from Thy Spirit? Or where can I flee from Thy presence? If I ascend to heaven, Thou art there; if I make my bed in Sheol, behold, Thou art there. If I take the wings of the dawn, if I dwell in the remotest part of the sea, even there Thy hand will lead me, and Thy right hand will lay hold of me" (vv. 7-10). I assured Jonathan that if God is in all those places, He must endure the Cubs' games, too.
And then I admitted to him that I'm just as baffled by this truth as he was. So was David. He wrote, "Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; It is too high, I cannot attain to it" (v. 6).
Amazingly, Jonathan was not the least bit troubled by my admission of ignorance. On the contrary, he seemed greatly comforted to know that he was not alone. He accepted the truth with the purest kind of faith.
2. Avoid figurative language and unexplained symbolism.
Often adults—like the woman who taught me the sunbeam song—mistakenly believe an allegory or figure of speech will clarify some great truth. With children, those things often only obscure the truth.
Unfortunately, the language most frequently used in children's evangelism suffers from this flaw. "Invite Jesus to come into your heart," we tell children. What child doesn't think of a red, valentine-shaped organ with a little door? It is actually easier and more precise to explain faith as complete trust and unconditional surrender. Most young children can grasp those ideas sooner than they can understand the metaphor of a door in their heart.
Children think in vivid imagery. When we talk, for example, of a heart dark with sin, the mental picture they see is quite literal. Ask a group of children to tell you what the song "Climb, Climb Up Sunshine Mountain" means. You'll begin to understand just how literally they think.
Nothing is wrong with using symbolism or figurative language to illustrate truth to children. Many excellent children's stories, fables, and fairy tales demonstrate how effective allegory can be. But all the symbolism must be carefully explained. Younger children especially do not have the ability to interpret figurative language independently.
3. Clearly separate reality from fantasy.
Children today are bombarded with fantasy and make-believe. Saturday-morning television, super-heroes, and fantasy toys have all reached unprecedented levels of popularity.
Even Sunday-school curriculum feeds our kids huge doses of fantasy. Some of the finest material available includes stories of personified forest animals and other imaginary creatures.
There's nothing necessarily wrong with that approach. Fantasy can be a legitimate and valuable tool for teaching children. But don't neglect to draw the line clearly between what is reality and what is fantasy. If the lesson includes both a tale about Ronald Raccoon and the story of David and Goliath, make sure your kids know which story is make-believe and which one is actual history.
I'll never forget a conversation I had a few years ago with a three-year-old girl. "The Incredible Hulk" was her favorite television program. David Banner, the character who turns into the Hulk when he loses his temper, was the only David she knew anything about. She sat through an entire Sunday-school lesson thinking he was the David her teacher was talking about. In the version of David and Goliath she recounted for me, David "hulked out" and ripped the giant's head off! It took me a while to sort the story out for her.
4. Find out what your children are thinking.
Debrief your kids after Sunday school. It's great fun, and you'll find out exactly which truths they are learning and which ones are going over their heads.
One of the most interesting people I have ever known was a four-year-old named Holly. My wife and I used to watch her for several hours each day while her mother taught half- day kindergarten. Holly and I quickly became close friends, and we had many profound conversations.
Holly was exceptionally well behaved and had an extraordinary interest in spiritual things. One day, however, she seemed determined to be naughty. I don't remember exactly what she was doing wrong. It was nothing serious, but it was out of character for her. After having to speak to her about her behavior several times, I asked in frustration, "Holly, what's wrong with you today?"
"I don't know," she sighed. "I just can't seem to get my life straightened out."
Her tone was so solemn and sincere that I had to suppress the urge to laugh. "Well, what's the problem?" I probed.
"I think it's the Disciples' fault," she said in dead earnest.
Thinking she was talking nonsense to try to cover for herself, I spoke in a tone that said I was irritated: "Oh, come on, Holly. How could the Disciples have anything to do with whether you misbehave or not?"
Her eyes got wide and she leaned forward as if to let me in on a deep secret. "They were very evil men."
Now I felt caught. I didn't want to dismiss the conversation without addressing this notion that the Disciples were sinister, but I was reluctant to let her steer our talk away from the issue of her impish behavior. Knowing this had the potential to become a very long session, I nevertheless decided to deal with one issue at a time.
"The Disciples were not evil men," I challenged her.
"Oh, yes," she corrected me. "They wouldn't let the little children come to Jesus."
"OK," I conceded, "they did wrong things sometimes, but they were mostly good men. They were Jesus' helpers."
"That's right," Holly said, as if she were the teacher and I were the student. "They were Jesus' helpers—but they tried to keep the children away. They were the bad guys." This was cut and dried to her, and she was visibly shocked at my willingness to defend anyone who would try to keep little children away from Jesus.
I quickly decided it would be prudent to abandon that part of the discussion. "Holly, the Disciples were not evil," I said with finality. "But even if they were, I don't see what that has to do with your bad behavior."
She exhaled impatiently and explained: "I asked Jesus to come into my heart and wash away all my sin. I think He must have let the Disciples help, and they didn't do a good job!"
Think about it. Holly's logic was impeccable. Using all the theological knowledge she had, she had concocted the most coherent explanation for sin in a Christian's life that her four-year-old mind could put together. In some ways it makes much more sense than the excuses we adults come up with. Yet I would never have understood what she was thinking if I hadn't kept asking questions.
5. Don't expect them to get the lesson the first time.
Holly and I had many discussions about the Disciples after that, and it took me quite a long time to convince her that they weren't bad guys. But she came around.
Children rarely get the whole message right the first time. That's why the best Sunday-school curriculum has a lot of built in repetition and review.
My eldest son, Jeremiah, was only three when his Sunday-school class began to have formal lessons. I loved having him retell the stories for me, and I was amazed at how accurate he was with most of the details. I was even more amazed that his little mind could absorb so much.
But he didn't always get the minutiae quite right.
One Sunday he was recounting Jesus' baptism for me. He rehearsed the narrative rapid-fire, without pausing to breathe: "Jesus came to this man—John—who baptized people, and He said, 'Baptize Me.' And John said he couldn't do it because he wasn't good enough, but Jesus said do it anyway."
"That's right," I said, congratulating myself that my son was such a good listener.
"So John baptized Jesus," Jeremiah continued. He lowered his voice to a dramatic whisper. "And then a very strange thing happened."
"What was it?" I whispered back.
"This big duck came down," he said.
I looked at the picture he had colored. Sure enough, John was baptizing Jesus while a bird descended from the sky. Jeremiah, who thought the teacher had said "duck" instead of "dove," had decorated his bird with Mallard rings and an oversized beak.
Well, at least he had understood the core of the story. I was glad he had learned as much as he did. And He was quite impressed to discover that I already knew the story. He spent most of the afternoon pressing me for more details. By the time Jeremiah was six, he was something of an authority on John the Baptist. Now he's in his teens, teaching Bible lessons to other kids.
Deuteronomy 6:6-7 records God's charge to the entire Jewish nation: "These words, which I am commanding you today, shall be on your heart; and you shall teach them diligently to your sons and shall talk of them when you sit in your house and when you walk by the way and when you lie down and when you rise up."
The principle still applies. Teaching our children spiritual truth is a never-ending, non-stop duty. But it is also a tremendous privilege and great joy. You are your child's principle spiritual guide. Don't back away from that role. Don't allow yourself to be intimidated or frustrated into abdicating this responsibility. It is the best thing about being a parent.
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