You know the story, pictured in so many children’s Bibles and Sunday school literature: Jesus and the Children. When the officious grownups—his own followers—tried to brush off women who were bringing their babies for him to bless, his rebuke stopped them cold and still warms every mother’s heart: “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for to such belong the Kingdom of God.”
This implies a lot—that little children would run to Jesus if they had the opportunity, that they are often hindered from coming, and that they possess some quality that preeminently suits them for membership in the kingdom of God. You’ve heard sermons on the “for such belongs” part, so I won’t dwell on it here. I’m interested in “Let them come” and “do not hinder.” Two questions: Would little children freely come? And if so, how are they “hindered”?
The answer to the first question is probably yes and no. In himself, Jesus is inherently appealing, as every excellent and beautiful thing we cherish in this world owes its very existence and character to him. But our minds are clouded by less-than-excellent and beautiful motives, distractions, and impulses. If we could see him clearly, we would all run to him, not just the little children. But we can’t, so most of us don’t, and that includes little children.
However . . . let’s say our motives are honorable and we have welcomed Jesus as our Lord and Savior and earnestly desire our children to do the same. Can we still hinder them?
Yes—with the best motives in the world. Here’s how:
- A too-literal interpretation of Deuteronomy 6:7: “You shall teach [God’s law] diligently to your children, 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 . . .” It’s one thing to apply God’s law in ordinary conversation, and another to drop leaden exhortations. Character education was a thing back in the 80s and 90s—remember that? (And did you notice any general improvements in character as a result?) Often this came in the form of reminders to “Be diligent” or “Be kind” coupled with mini-biographies of people who modeled these virtues. Too often it sounded like school, as though everyday relateable Mom or Dad switched off for a moment to let Preacher Mom or Dad make an announcement. As soon as Preacher Mom comes on, the kid tunes out.
- “Jesus” training. You know the Sunday-school joke about the right answer to every question being “Jesus”? (It happened to me just a couple of Sundays ago, when I asked what the first five books of the Bible were. The answer, of course, is “Jesus.”) The statement “Jesus is the answer” is literally true but not always truly literate. That is, it takes a few steps to get from the problem to the answer, so when the kids come to you with a problem (or clearly have one they don’t want to talk to you about), don’t be so quick to solve it with the Jesus answer. Take some time to explore the issue, and as you do, you’ll find that Jesus almost certainly said something that applies. And if he didn’t say it, he did it.
- Shutting down honest doubts. If you ever get a fluttery feeling in your stomach when your kindergartner wonders how all those animals could have fit inside the ark, or your pre-teen asks who made God, or you high-school senior demands where God was during the Holocaust . . . relax. It’s often a good sign; it means they’re thinking. Talk through their doubts, share (where appropriate) your own questions and uncertainties, explore possible answers, and offer to look into it further. You can be sure every question has been answered and no doubt necessitates unbelief all by itself.
- Non-engagement with the culture. You will not protect children by isolating them from the world. Their main problem is within, not without. The question about how much to “engage” is a vexing one that parents need to think through carefully, since what may be appropriate for one family could be damaging for another. A mom’s background in literature or psychology, for example, could help guide her teen daughter through a suicide novel like 13 Reasons Why, where another mother with a super-sensitive son might be well-advised to skip the novel altogether (and the TV series even more). Don’t ever forget: They’re going to grow up. They’re going to leave you. They’re going to have to make these decisions about engagement on their own. Your job is to prepare them, not protect them.
- Creating your own “culture.” As a homeschool mother from 1985 to 1996, I encountered parents who told me that homeschoolers were God’s new shock troops who were going to change the culture. They related everything to religion, scattered Bible quotes throughout the house, referenced Jesus everywhere, spoke in a certain vocabulary and dressed a certain way. Especially around their children. Many of these kids turned out just fine, but many others broke loose at the earliest possible moment. And by the way, they didn’t change the culture.
- Relying too much on ourselves and our own resources. See “Creating your own culture,” above. With some parents, the impulse is almost frantic: If I don’t do x, my kids will fall into y. Chances are, they’re going to fall into some kind of sin; you may steer them away from drinking but they’ll stumble at sex. Or if they avoid all the fleshly pitfalls, they’ll fall prey to spiritual pride, which is even worse. Your Savior is also their Savior, and he is supremely able to do what you can’t.
- Failing to be genuine. Is your speech more “religious” when speaking to your kids than when you talk to your peers? You can be sure they pick up on that, too.
If none of these apply to you, you are the perfect Christian mom or dad. Bad news: You’re not. Good news: Though you have a vital job to do, its success doesn’t depend on you. Even better news: God is fully aware of your weakness and has already accounted for it. That’s what the cross is about. So everybody take a deep breath and then we can get practical.
Once we become a little better about not hindering, we can start encouraging. The children in the story didn’t come to Jesus on their own accord; their mothers had to bring them. Even today, in a society vastly removed from first-century Palestine, it’s usually the mothers who bond early and teach their little ones to walk and talk and eat what’s good for them . . . and take their first steps toward God.
One very basic step along that road is learning to pray. Chances are, the very first person a child hears praying is a parent. It should be so easy, yet it’s hard to teach. In fact, the inspiration for this blog post is a mother asking me for advice in teaching kids to pray. She had little confidence that her children, ages 10 and 12, had never learned to pray on their own, in spite of all her modeling and teaching.
I told her I could at least think about it. So I did, and I came up with some thoughts. But you’ll have to come back next week to see what they are.