How (Not) to Teach Children about God

Mrs Lee was looking for some nice children’s songs to play to Boaz the other day and came across an album called ‘Sunday School Sing Alongs’ on Spotify.  You might think, ‘What could be more harmless than that?’ Well, indeed, that’s what she thought.  The first song in the album is entitled ‘Open Up Your Heart and Let the Sun Shine In’.  How utterly lovely!  That is, until you start to listen to it…

The first words are:
‘Mommy told me something
a little kid should know.
It’s all about the devil
and I’ve learned to hate him so.’

What?! That’s how you open your song for children. Really? ‘It’s all about the devil’.  Sure, that’s the way to warm their hearts and inspire their young minds in their journey in faith: get them obsessed with Satan and looking for him under every rock.  Even allowing for the fact that it’s probably a good idea for children to be aware of the devil, I’m pretty sure that it’s not ‘all about’ him.
Other gems later on in the song include the mildly terrifying, ‘When you are unhappy,
the devil wears a grin’ (better watch out if you fall and scratch your knee. It might hurt a bit, but that’s nothing compared to having the Prince of Darkness on your case if you start crying, so get smiling. Now!) and the pastorally sensitive ‘Smilers never lose and frowners never win.’  Man, that Jesus guy was such a loser in Gethsemane, wasn’t he?  Not to mention David in the Psalms (what a wimp!) or Jeremiah in Lamentations (lighten up a bit!).
Overall, I’d probably advise against unleashing this travesty of a song on your children or Sunday School anytime soon.  To top it all in the weirdness stakes, here’s the song as sung by Pebbles and Bamm Bamm from the Flintstones. Bizarre.

All this reminded me of something else I’d read that was, how shall I say, less than uplifting in it’s discussion about how God looks on children.  However, this was from a very different source and one that I’m loathe to be overly critical of.
The source in question is a little-known book called ‘The Life of our Lord’ by Charles Dickens.  The book itself is one that I’m rather pleased with – it’s a 1934 first edition, which I picked up for £2.50 from a second-hand bookshop a few years back.  I must confess to not having actually read the whole thing yet, only the final few pages.  The book is a series of stories written by Dickens for his children, which he insisted be published posthumously as he was very guarded about publicly discussing his religious convictions.

However, I mention it here because of a line that comes in a prayer on the very last page meant for use in the evening, presumably just as the children are drifting off towards sleep…

“Make me a good little child, and let me never be naughty and tell a lie, which is a mean and shameful thing.  Make me kind to my nurse and servants, and to all beggars and poor people, and let me never be cruel to any dumb creatures, for if I am cruel to anything, even to a poor little fly, God, who is so good, will never love me.  And pray God to bless and preserve us all, this night, and forevermore, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”

Wait, what?  You can’t argue with a good proportion of the sentiment expressed there about behaving well, even if you find his use of commas a little on the liberal side, but to say that if they hurt even a tiny fly then ‘God…will never love me’ seems just a  little bit draconian, don’t you think?  “I’m sure God’s not cross with you, little Timmy, oh wait, was that a gnat you just swatted? Lo, the wrath of the Almighty is now settled on thee, O son of cruelty and disobedience!”  Evidently tiptoeing around rooms, avoiding treading on insects was a daily hazard for children in the Dickens household…

Why do I bring these up?  Obviously, there’s the funny side and it’s easy to poke fun at extreme examples, but there is a serious point here too.  I’ve talked to too many people who’ve grown up attending Sunday School who have inculcated a highly moralistic understanding of the Christian life, worried about the malignant influence of the Devil should they put a foot wrong.  Certainly the first part of that is something I find reflected in my own experience.  There’s a real need for those who have responsibility for teaching children about God and guiding them in their fledgling faith to not slip into the well-worn groove of legalism and a mentality that places greater emphasis on ‘being good’ than ‘loving God’.  Yes, training in right behaviour is important, but if we fail to emphasise that this is not the basis of our right standing with God, then we are leading them away from the opportunity to get their first taste of the goodness of God’s grace.  Children need to know that God loves them, no matter how many insects they’ve trodden on, and that He longs for them to come to Him as His children.
As to the song I mentioned at the start, we need to be clear that it’s all about Jesus, not about the devil.  Satan is a conquered enemy, whose fate is sealed and children of God need not fear Him.  Being happy or sad is a reality of the mix of emotions we experience in a broken world, however what is important in all of them is to continue to trust in God and His goodness.  It’s only when we start to lose sight of this reality that we give the devil a foothold to lie to us, telling us that God won’t accept us as we are etc.

So the bottom line is, what we teach children about God and the Gospel matters.  As it says in Proverbs 22:6, “Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it.”  We cannot afford to have a mentality that says, ‘Make them behave well when they’re young and worry about grace and all that later.’  For some more thoughts on how Jesus related to children, here’s some thoughts from Mark Driscoll on the subject.

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