A child, not even one millimeter in length. Living in the uterus of his mother. Another child of the covenant, though nobody knows him yet. Sharing the guilt of his parents. Also sharing the grace God gave to them. When this child is born, he has already been sharing in God’s grace for nine months. Maybe his mother is crying a little bit: “What will become of this child? These tiny fists, helplessly searching for the little mouth, will they ever be lifted up to God in fury and resistance?” One thing is certain, God loves this child. He already knows what this child will do in the future. Maybe he will be a carefree young man. Maybe he will run away, angry or longing for adventure.
God knows that already. Yet, He loves this child. I myself would not be able to love somebody if I knew that at some time he would be leaving me. But God says He can do that. To prove love He gave him the sign of His love: in the time of the Old Testament, circumcision; today, baptism. When this child grows up, he may always hear God's inviting call: “I love you. Do you love Me too?” That child lives in the sunshine. He has to learn how to look towards the light and smile. All children have to learn that, for all children are inclined to run away, to the outside, to the shadows, to the eternal darkness. “No,” their parents say, “Stay here and enjoy the sun. It is so beautiful and warm.”
DOES GOD FORGET HIS LOVE?
Some children donot listen. They run away, longing for the darkness. Does God forget His love for them? Oh no, He says to them, time and again, “I love you! Why are you leaving Me? Do come back! You may come back!” They will hear this voice of the Lord their life long. It is difficult not to hear this voice; it takes effort to ignore it. Of course, the tone of His voice will change. At first, it is happy, joyful, “I love you. Do you love Me too?” Later it will be a warning voice, “I love you. Why do you not love Me?” Over time, the voice will become sad, and even angry. When love is rejected, it turns into anger.
And then suppose the wayward child does come back? Just like the Father in the parable who receives his lost son back, the Lord will say with rejoicing, “Yes, I love you! Do not fear!” And suppose the wayward child refuses to come back? Will there be a moment when that voice ceases? No, not his whole life long. Until he dies. At that very moment, the Lord will say it only once more: “I loved you all the time. Why did not you love Me? There was no real reason, and you know that very well.” And then He will be silent, forever. He will not say a word again.
Yes, living in the covenant is living in the midst of love. A serious, deep love. So serious that it is dangerous to despise that love. Parents have to teach their children about that danger. But the first thing they have to teach them is to enjoy that love. How do we do that? Christian parents know the answer. From the very beginning, they start singing and telling about the Lord. There is a lot to tell. There are so many stories in the Bible that demonstrate the love and the power of God. He is full of majesty. Look what He did at the Red Sea. He is full of mercy. Look what Jesus did with Peter after his three denials. All His deeds show who He is. This is how your children learn to love the Lord. You can trust Him — every story testifies to that.
TELLING “THE” STORY
It makes a difference how you tell that story. If you read it from the children’s Bible, try to read it in an exciting way. Or tell it in your own words. That often makes it easier to express your emotions. At the same time, you yourself will learn a lot from that way of teaching, because it will not only touch the hearts of your children, but your own heart as well. For this very reason, not only mothers should tell the Bible stories to their little children, but fathers also. You learn to share your feelings of love and reverence for the Lord with your children from the very beginning. They will become involved in covenantal life in a natural way.
Living in the covenant also requires a response. That is why you teach prayer from the very beginning. Maybe when they are in their cradle yet, you sing an evening prayer. Children enjoy repetition and rituals, so it is not difficult to teach them a prayer song. But that is not the only thing we want. We also want to teach them to explore the intimacy of sharing their own daily life with the Lord. Prayer is an expression of trust. We trust that everything is important to Him, because He loves us. Lovers are interested in details about each other. The little things matter.
TEACH US HOW TO PRAY
That is why you can also start very early with “free prayer.” This can be done in a natural way. After the evensong, Mother asks, “Do you know somebody for whom we can pray?” “Granny,” says Janelle, nearly three years old. “Yes, Granny often feels so sad, doesn’t she? She misses Grandfather all the time. Yes, pray for Granny.” “Lord, be with Granny, Granny sad. Amen.”
“Can you think of someone else to pray for?” “Uhh ...Jacqueline failed, Jacqueline blood!” “Yes, there was blood on her knees, you’re right! Yes, pray for Jacqueline.” “Lord, Jacqueline blood on knees. Amen.”
“Can we give thanks for something too?” “To playground.” “Yes, it’s fun going there, isn’t it?” “And swings!" "You can give thanks for that.” “Lord, thank you, swings.” Sometimes children like to pray for the Lord Himself. You can encourage that by steering them toward praising God. “Yes, the Lord is very great, isn’t He? He can do everything. Shall we praise Him, for His greatness?” In this natural way, we teach the children all the elements of prayer: praise, thanksgiving, prayer for daily needs
and prayer for forgiveness.
For little children it is difficult to ask forgiveness for the sins of a whole day. Maybe for them it is better to pray as soon as possible after a sin. Do not forget to pray very concretely about your own sins. For example, “Lord, Mom was upset because Daniel made a big mess and did not want to clean it up. She spanked him too hard; that was not fair. Will you forgive Daniel and Mom?” Short, concise prayers always have agreater chance of touching the heart. Besides, they are a good example of sharing daily life with God. Long and extensive prayers are inclined to rely on cliches. They give our children the impression that prayer means saying some formal expressions in the right manner.
“THAT IS I...”
A child of about six years old already knows a lot about the Lord. He often knows that in a very straightforward way. You do something wrong, and then the Lord will be angry, but you say “sorry” and everything is all right again. That is how it works in his family. A ten-year-old is already capable of thinking about himself to a degree. He has become aware of his own unique identity. He can be looking in the mirror and suddenly think, “That is I, Brian. There are more people called Brian, but there is only one that is I. And the only one who knows what I am thinking now is I. Even my mom does not know that.”
Maybe Brian suddenly feels a sense of deep loneliness, for the first time in his life. This emotion is not related to any specific event. But he might be thinking, “God is the only one who can look into my heart now. He knows what I am thinking.” This is an important moment. Now Brian has a choice. Does he allow God to look into his heart? That will give him a feeling of comfort. “At least there is One who knows. I am not totally alone.” But it is also possible that Brian does not like those penetrating eyes. So, he closes the door of his heart, for the very first time. A far-reaching decision. If you have done that once, it will be easier to do the next time. It is not irrevocable, but every time you close your heart, it becomes more difficult to open it again.
Maybe Brian is growing up as a well-behaved Reformed teenager. But he becomes accustomed to a closed door of his heart. Maybe he senses he lacks something. He might be inclined to accuse his minister. His sermons do not touch Brian’s heart. Maybe what Brian needs is a shocking experience to break down the walls around his heart. Usually children are not aware that they are making such important decisions at such a young age. But the parents must know that. That is why spontaneous prayer is so important. It gives the ongoing opportunity to learn that you can really trust God, that it is possible to involve Him in all aspects of your daily life — in beautiful things, in fights, in desires. It prepares the way to open up the depths of your heart to God.
This way of praying also gives the op.portunity to gradually give your child greater responsibilities. Over time, he will be able to pray about more than one topic. You do not nee? to discuss it all before prayer. He is able to improvise, to speak from the heart. You can add “Maybe there are some things you want to pray for when you are alone.” Even if he is not overly receptive, he may well consider the possibility.
.Children in this age group need a dlfferent Bible, no longer the children’s Bible. They are able to read a devotional. They may still need help with it, but that gives you the opportunity to talk with your child about his faith and his deeper emotions. I think it is important at this time to read this devotional with him alone, not in the presence of younger siblings. It will take some of your time. Maybe it is not possible to do this every evening, but try for a few times a week. In this way, the child has developed a solid habit when the stormy years come. In those years, he will be less inclined to share his feelings with his parents. Building an open relations.hip at that point becomes very difficult, but if the habit of talking about feelings is already in place, it can be done more easily in adolescence when many things change for the child. He may discover in himself a larger scope of feelings. He observes that people are often different from what they look like.
Take the case of Anna. She will have her own ideas about her fellow students and her teachers. She will be aware that others have an opinion about her! She has to determine what she wants them to think of her. At this time, it will be significant that Anna has already developed a relationship of trust with God. It becomes very important to her what God thinks of her. That can be very alarming. It may be possible that He does not like her! He has reason enough, reasons to spare, in fact. No longer can she take it for granted that He will forgive her sins. On the contrary, now that she has become aware of her inner life, she will increasingly realize her own sinfulness. The previous trust in God enters a deep crisis now. Again, there is the possibility that the adolescent Anna will close her heart, that she will run away from the sunshine. Why should Anna talk confidently to a God who must be angry with her? Why pray to a God who gives her uneasy feelings about things she would like to do! If there were no God, Anna would not have to be so scrupulous. Anna can close her heart. She can also learn something new, the mystery of grace. God has every reason to be angry, and yet. He is not.
This may be the first time Anna realizes the significance of what Jesus has done. He wanted to bear God's wrath, so that God will never punish Anna. God Himself made that plan for Anna in His great love! He must really love her. He does not say that with a deep sigh, “Okay, then, I will forgive you this time.” Instead He says, “My child, I love you. Of course I will forgive you. Tell Me what has gone wrong, and trust Me. I have found a way out.” This may be the first time that Anna realizes how pleasant the sunshine of the covenant is. Maybe she is going to look up again. “Is it really possible that He loves me? Then I want to love Him too!”
TEACHING BY EXAMPLE
Young people need to decide this for themselves. Parents cannot do that for them. It is a young person’s own responsibility. That is why parents must stress increasing responsibility. “We want you to go to the catechism class; we want you to learn your lessons. But we can never force you to confess your faith. That decision you must come to yourself.” This growing responsibility does not mean that parents should not encourage or admonish their children. But be-ware. Adolescents observe keenly how faithful their own parents are in word and deed. A young person will not take anadmonition to attend catechism classes seriously, if his parents are rei uctant in attending the worship services twice a Sunday. It is Important that the adolescent learns how to apply doctrine to his life. He will learn from the example his parents and teachers provide in their walk of life.
Parents can show how forgiveness works. If they hear a sincere “sorry,” they will no longer be angry. Their forgiveness will be generous not given with aversion. Parents can show how encouraging God is. They do not say grudgingly, when a child made the right choice: “Amazing you’re right for a change”; but rather, “That’s wonderful! Well done!” Parents can show that God is serious about sin. They do not gloss over the sin of their children but speak openly about it with thei; children, and with all others who a:e involved. They are willing to forgive, but they do not ignore sin. These parents will be serious about their own sins. If necessary, they dare to ask their own children for forgiveness.
Parents show their trust in God in very difficult circumstances, but also in normal daily events. They accept the little disappointments such as a rainy day or a flat tire. They might grumble a bit, but will acknowledge, “Okay, God must have a purpose for this.” Parents show their own joy in God. They will be amazed about God’s creation. They thank Him warmheartedly for good things; they demonstrate thankfulness for God's forgiving grace. They don't do this only in public prayer, but also in casual remarks.
LEARNING BY DOING
Parents (and teachers) are aware of the importance of learning by doing. Ask your children why they think some things are important; do not give your own reasons. Let them lead in prayer before supper. You can help them by asking, “What do you want to pray for?” From time to time, let them choose the passage for Bible reading. Let them take their turn for the daily family devotions.
An interesting exercise for Bible class might be a mock discussion with a nonbeliever. For example, “On the campground you meet a new friend, but he does not know anything about the Bible. He is amazed that after supper your father reads out loud from a book. He asks you afterwards, ‘What was your father reading?’ Write down the conversation you have about this subject.” Perhaps two students can develop this into a role-play. You can give some guidelines about the topics, and in the evaluation you can talk about the tone they used...preaching, admonishing, inviting, explaining, listening.
Parents should continue to show trust in God, even if their children turn away from God. Often, these young people think, “My parents are sad that I lost my faith, not because they are concerned about me, but because they are worried about what people will think and say.” They might be right. Parents have to search their own souls. It is also possible that parents are so concerned about the salvation of their children, that they do not dare to trust God themselves. They feel so guilty, that they do not dare to be happy about their own salvation. They are inclined to postpone their own happiness until all is well again. That is a heavy burden for their child, and he will feel it. Parents must use those difficult times to refine their trust in God. He will lead them. Then their child can make his decisions without silent compulsion, if he sees that, in fact, he cannot stand between God and you.
A PARENT’S GROWTH IN FAITH
At this point, you may think, “But as a parent, as an adult, I am still struggling with my faith. I might be ‘grown up,’ but my faith life is often still very immature.” You may not even realize that you have problems with your faith, because you do not recognize them. Yet, you sense that something stands in the way of your trust and joy. You envy others for their confidence and childlike trust in the Lord. It is very beneficial to talk about this and to try to analyze these thoughts and feelings. Maybe you grew up in a family where fights were stopped, but not solved. Forgiveness for hurting each other was never expressed in words. Forgiving meant, “We do not talk about it any more.” In the meantime, the disagreements festered under the surface, and trust became distrust. You never knew when an explosion might occur. If you grew up in this kind of situation, you may never have learned the proper meaning of forgiveness. Doctrinally you may have all the facts straight, but emotionally you cannot relate to them.
Maybe you grew up in a family where the admonition far outstripped encouragement. That may mean that you cannot accept the fact that God has prepared good works for you and that you are actually a useful servant in the Lord’s plan You may never have experienced the unconditional love of your parents. They were pleased only if you had done your chores and completed your homework. If that is the case, you may have difficulty accepting that the Lord really loves you, since you are so painfully aware of your own shortcomings. This will also stand in the way of real thankfulness, because you cannot really be grateful for something you do not dare to accept. You cannot be grateful, if you do not dare to surrender.
Living in the covenant means that our trust is founded on the facts. Not only our heads, but also our feelings must learn those facts of salvation. That is why you need the message about the facts time and again. Reading the Bible means that you let yourself be convinced by the Holy Spirit that it is really true, even though you do not experience it deeply right away. Growing up in the covenant never ends, even adults have much to learn. Be alert to that. “What will He teach me this time?”
Living in the covenant means living in sunshine, enjoying that sunshine, without the urge to drift away into the shadows. Then will come the time when we will be able to look right into the sun. Then we will see Him just as He is. And we will be just as we were meant to be.
Reprinted from Reformed Perspective, March, 1999.