Friday, June 10, 2011

Communicating the Gospel to Children

Let me start out by saying it is not my job to convert my children. There is no gaurantee that my husband and I will raise godly adults. It is the duty of Christian parents to teach and train their children according to Scripture in a Gospel-centered home. (The Gospel is simply the Good News for my bad news brought by God the Father, God the Son, and God the Spirit.  It is not limited to salvation, or even sin, but also the effects of sin.) It is the Holy Spirit's job to convict and save. I do not believe anyone can be convinced, debated, manipulated, scared, pushed or begged into a real relationship with the Lord. As parents, we can not be stumbling blocks, but stepping stones towards Christ.

My husband and I teach our children every night by reading Bible stories. The following book for children was given to us by my in-laws. The one on the left is the 4th our family has owned. The one on the right is what the other 3 look like.

Our children have combed these pages. Though we have found this book to be accurate, it does not give every story, or the full details of the stories it contains. So here's what my husband purposed to do since our first child was two years of age: It is his philosophy that we will let the Bible raise the questions for our kids. He reads the story nightly. I read on the nights my husband isn't home. He will ask the kids questions to see if they have grasped the information, and give them an example of how it applies to every-day life. The kids ask a lot of questions. Sometimes the answers are directly quoted in the Bible, so we'll further explain it or show it to them from the pages of Scripture. Now that our oldest is 8, we are starting to read more texts of Scripture and less out of the children's book.

The "training" comes when they need to be showed what to do or how to think. We hold out the "law" or the rules to our children. When they fall short, we show them their need for a Savior. Here are some practical ways we have made our children aware of their need during specific situations:

Mom: "you need to share with your sibling."
Kid: "I don't want to."
Mom: "Of course you don't. That's why you need Jesus to help you." or
"God shared His Son with us. Jesus shared His life with us. We have been given a great example, and God can teach you how to share."

Family Conflict
We seldom let our kids work out their conflict by themselves because God stepped into human history and taught us how to deal with ours. Once they have been trained, then I can say "talk to your sibling first and if you can't work it out, come to me."

We purposely use the language of forgiveness. It's okay for my child to say "I'm sorry" if she really means it. More often than not, the child is not sorry for their sin, only for the discipline they are about to incur. I can not make my kid feel any emotion that leads to repentance. But I can make them practice by admitting what they did wrong and asking for forgiveness. Example: "Would you forgive me for biting you? I shouldn't hurt you." "Would you forgive me for ripping up your drawing? I was being selfish, and it is wrong to mess up other people's things."

Defiance towards parents
After my husband had finished disciplining one of our children, I noticed the child stomp out of the room and mutter under breath, "I don't love you anymore." What did I want to do? Shame our kid for disrespecting Dad like that. What did my husband do? He got eye-level with the child and calmly said: "that makes me very sad. I want you to know that I will always love you. God loved me a long time before I loved Him."
Wow! What a perfect example of "while we were still sinners, Christ died for us." It is God's kindness that leads us to repentance, and this father's kindness softened that kid's heart.

When they feel shame
One of our girls feels easily embarressed when she gets caught sinning. She will run away from us and bury her head in her bedsheets. We remind her this is what Adam and Eve did in the Garden. They hid because they were naked and ashamed. But what did God do? He covered them with animal skin clothes. "Sweetheart, you do not need to run away or be afraid of us. We love you and you're covered by grace."

One of our children is notorious for tattle-telling. The kid runs to me with that obvious whiny tattle-tale voice and says "____ did such-and-such." I reply "It sounds to me like your brother/sister needs Jesus just as much as you do. Do you think you are better than them?" Ahhh, yes, Jesus is the solution for self-righteousness.

Competing against one-another
When Kinley and Cade were toddlers, they would race in the living room. Cade became very frustrated, emotional, and upset because Kinley could beat him. I tried several solutions:
"Don't worry, when you get older, you'll get faster and you'll win a lot."
"Cade, you're good at other things. You can catch a ball, jump really high, etc, etc."
"Winning isn't important. Having fun is what matters."

None of that satisfied him. He can't have fun unless he's winning. It doesn't matter if he can beat her in other things, because he sees this one area where he just doesn't match up. It's that awful comparison game we all play with other people. A Christ-focus is the only solution.

"Okay kids. New game." I went to the other end of the living room and got down on my knees. I spread both arms out wide and said, " The goal is to get to Mommy." They both ran across the room with a lot of giggles. One ran into my right arm and the other my left, and it didn't matter who got there first because I swooped them up and tickled them until they were overcome by laughter. In that moment, I just displayed what Jesus did for us on the cross. Arms spread wide in self-sacrifice, bringing to us a new kind of race. Run, hop, crawl, or roll a wheel-chair to Jesus, because we'll forget about our physical limitations and be overcome by joy when we stop looking at each other and focus on the Cross. Christ is the cure for competition and comparison. I want them to imagine Him when they feel insecure.

When their Mommy loses it
I can make myself look pretty good when I'm teaching my kids about their sin. But they see mine too. I can will-power some self-control about 10% of the time. Thanks to the Holy Spirit, that percentage is way higher, but it is UGLY the moment I start walking in the flesh. In those times, it is important that I practice what I teach them.

"Mommy is tired but that is no excuse. When Jesus was tired, he didn't use his tone of voice to hurt others. Would you forgive me for yelling at you?" (I want them to know, it is not their fault.)

"Mommy is very frustrated. Now, your job as a child is to obey me. That is your responsibility. But it is my job to teach you in a way that honors God and I didn't do that. Would you forgive me for speaking angrily?" ( I want them to know they are not off the hook, but I will take 100% responsibility for my actions.)
My husband and I have been taught well. We didn't come up with this info on our own; there are many godly people who have influenced us. We pick and choose the ways we want to pass this important message to our kids; we don't always make the mark, but grace covers us too.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

So What's the Big Problem with Hell?

Sunday night in a Little Rock hotel, I went downstairs to relax in the hot tub. I succeeded for 3 minutes, when an older lady from St. Louis sat beside me and asked me what kind of contraption was in my hand. I showed Paula all the cool iPhone apps (including my Bible one) and concluded that she was not well-versed in the important things of life (like technology and Jesus). So I frankly asked her what she thought about spiritual things. Before you think of me as godlier than I really am, or some natural evangelist, know that I purposed in my heart to:
1) enjoy a spiritual conversation and lovingly point her to Christ, or
2) offend her so badly that she left "my" hot tub and therefore, enjoy a few minutes alone.

For the next hour I heard an intruguing story of a former athiest, now believer in God. Paula knew a lot about the Bible, seemed to have a genuine concern for others, and a deep gratitude towards Jesus. I began to wonder why I felt the Holy Spirit's prod to talk to her. "It must be for my own benefit" I thought, as she seemed to speak prophecy over me that resignated with my soul. The timing was perfect when she encouraged me to let God be my plan, love people not use them, and be filled with the Spirit so that I can discern what He is doing in my life.

Somewhere along the way a teenage girl from Chicago sat beside us. I noticed she took her earphones out and listened intently to my and Paula's conversation, shortly before Paula mentioned that no one goes to hell and it doesn't really exist. She talked all about grace, how we are not saved by our works, and that she can not see how a loving God would ever send anyone to hell.

Crud. Hell is not my favorite subject. I've never wanted to come off like the "hell, fire, and brimstone" people who focus on damnation. But I couldn't let that one go, especially with a young person listening in. I asked Paula how she would explain the story Jesus told about Lazarus and the rich man. (Luke 16:19-30) The greedy rich man was in torment, and there was a fixed chasm between him and the resting place of God's children.

"Well, somehow God brings all people to Himself. He didn't die on the cross so people could go to hell. The rich man expressed that he was sorry. He showed love and concern for his family that was still living. So the rich man redeemed himself."

"But you just said you believed in all grace. How could his emotion or work save himself after he was dead?"

Then we talked about Osama bin Laden. She nicely pointed out that I was judging and saying OBL was going to hell because of the bad things he had done, because I don't know what kind of life that man had or how he was brainwashed. I politely noted that was not what I said. Bin Laden is in hell because he never trusted Christ to PAY FOR his bad things. The problem with people like him is not their ignorance, it is their defiance. He's not guilty because of any situation he was in, he's guilty because of his sin. Osama thought he was earning his way to heaven, and never turned to the true God or followed His ways.

It dawned on me that for thirty minutes I thought Paula and I were on the same page. But she never said the "sin" word. Friends, you can not speak the full gospel if you don't mention sin. I know it's a dirty word. We'd rather blame our humanity, circumstances, parents, education, but never our sin. You don't really know the worth of Christ's sacrifice until you understand the danger of being a sinner.

Paula can't believe in a God who would let people go to hell. I don't think I can serve a God who lets evil go unpunished. I have to believe there is some motivation for evil men to stop terrorizing innocent people. I hear the stories about parents in India boiling infants alive, rape, the Holocaust, 9-11. I've looked in the face of various victims and shared in their suffering. In times like those, I have to know God will deal with evil by punishment or save people through repentance. But it doesn't matter what I want to believe, because I am not the judge. It does matter what the Judge says. Scripture plainly teaches there is a hell. Jesus speaks of it often.

Luke 12:6 "But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after your body has been killed, has authority to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear Him."

I do struggle with the concept of hell. I can't tolerate the fact that it might contain people I love who haven't committed the "big sins:" murder, torture, rape, child abuse, etc. That's how my mind works: I love social justice, so I'm okay with hell for the most vile criminals.

My son has helped expand my mind on this subject. A portion of his typical, daily prayer goes as follows: "Dear God, thank you for all the wonderful things You have made. Thank you for Heaven for those who trust in You, and Hell for those who don't."

Hell? As a wonderful thing God made? Thanking God for it? I can't really do that yet. I did not teach my child this. He only knows about hell because my husband and I have read about it from the Bible. If it was up to me, I would have skipped those sections.

In my 6-year old's mind, hell does not exist for murderers. It is reserved for those who committ the most horrible act: not trusting in a perfect God to keep them from it. The problem is not that we humans sin against each other; we sin against the One who made us. The "who" makes a big difference. To illustrate, punch me in the face and you will suffer from the anger of my husband. Punch the President in the face and you'll encounter more serious consequences from higher authorities.

That is the problem with Hell. It occupies the likely suspects, but will also contain those who think in their hearts: "Screw You God. I don't need You. I'll save myself by my good works."