I’ve never been to Idaho, and I’m not sure I ever want to go to Idaho; but ho-ho-ho, you never know. That’s what good stories do; they change our perspective! Here’s the story. Back in the day, the territory around Denver (called the Pike’s Peak mining area) wanted to become a state. But before they could do that, it needed a name. Now, not just any name would do. It had to be a state-worthy name with a nice ring to it. Thankfully, the dull boys at Pike’s Peak mining area didn’t have to come up with a name. A Congressional committee would do that for them. After weeks of deliberation, the committee narrowed the future name of the state down to two finalists. A lobbyist named George Willing had suggested an old Indian word, “Idaho,” which meant, “Gem of the Mountain”; and someone else had proposed an incredibly dull Spanish word, “Colorado” (it means “colored red”). Congress was all set to declare Idaho the winner, when Willing let it leak that instead of it being an old Indian word, he had made the word up. Apparently, he liked the way it sounded (“Hey, ho, Idaho!”). When Congress learned of the fraud, they immediately tossed Idaho out like a hot potato and went with Colorado (that’s right, they named their state after a color – how do you define dull!). Two years later, yet another territory came before Congress to be named. The committee, tired of coming up with new names, remembered that they had thrown out a perfectly good name years before, but they couldn’t remember why (this was Congress, after all). And that is how a meaningless, made-up word became the state of Idaho.
Spiritually speaking, in what state should we see our kids? They don’t understand sin (or at least total depravity) and, therefore, cannot confess their need for pardon (strike one). They do not have a grasp on the incarnation, the atonement, or the resurrection, which I think are kind of big spiritual deals (strike two). They have not said “the” prayer; and even if they say “a prayer” or two, the fact is that God doesn’t hear the prayers of pagans (That is just the way it is; Isaiah 59:2 – “But your iniquities have separated you from your God; your sins have hidden his face from you, so that he will not hear.” and Psalm 66:18 – “If I had cherished sin in my heart, the Lord would not have listened.”) which, I believe, is strike three; and we haven’t even talked about the need for faith, the necessity of grace, the importance of good works (as confirmation of the work of the Holy Spirit which they also don’t understand), or even who Jesus is. In short, all kids are pagan scum. Now, don’t worry. They are born that way, and there is nothing you can do to prevent it. Just accept the gospel truth that you are raising hellions.
I heard a story one day of a pastor who was tucking his three-year old son into bed one night. It was his routine that, right before lights out, he would pray over his son and ask God to bless him. But on this night, just as he was about to pray, his son interrupted him and asked if he could pray that night (instead of dad). The pastor was shocked at the request, not because he could see his son blooming into a spiritual giant over time, but because he knew that his prayers wouldn’t reach the ceiling. His son had not yet received Jesus as savior or Lord; and therefore, any prayer he prayed would be rejected by God. Even allowing his son to pray seemed like he was profaning God’s holiness or encouraging hypocrisy in his son. And so, he graciously explained to his kid that he was too young and that one day soon when he was big enough to believe then he could pray. And then he kissed him goodnight and turned off the light.
And I thought, “Are you insane?!?!” That’s one of the worst stories of parenting faith that I have ever heard! Last week, I went on a fake rant, but this rant is absolutely true! How could you ever shut the door on your kids’ faith like that? Why would you ever put a divide between you and your children (“Your mom and dad believe in Jesus, but you don’t; and therefore, you’re not really part of the family and let’s not even talk about what happens if you died tonight!”). Yikes on trikes, that is awful! The first stage of faith development is called “Receptive Faith.” Our kids catch our faith. They may not get all the ins and outs, but they believe because we believe. And that means, in part, that at the very, very least, we ought to treat our kids, not as visiting pagans, but as members of God’s family. Paul seems to say that in a side comment in 1 Corinthians 7. In talking about marriages where one spouse was a believer and the other one wasn’t, Paul says (1 Cor. 7:14): “For the unbelieving husband has been sanctified through his wife, and the unbelieving wife has been sanctified through her believing husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy.” In short, don’t fear that your kids are outside of God’s church and fill them (or more likely, fill yourself) with fear and dread and worry. Instead, see them as members of God’s household, a people set apart by grace and a people in whom God delights to hear pray. Why? Because in stage one, your kids are operating on your faith. Your kids are set apart by your faith. So please don’t look at them as outsiders. Treat them as God’s chosen people (and if they want to pray, please let them!).
Not many people get stuck in Stage 1 forever, but I would imagine some do. However, we take level one with us where ever we go. Our family of origin shapes our faith; and unless we consciously deal with it (as in breaking away from it or deconstructing it), it will always have an influence upon us. But note also, a lot of people never give faith a real try because it was dismissed by their family when they were growing up. Ask them why they don’t believe and, while they won’t necessarily point to their parents’ lack of faith, their parents certainly created a runway so that atheism seemed like an obvious choice. We all receive our parents’ faith (or lack thereof), for good or for ill.
But there is a second stage. Let’s call Stage 2, Concrete faith. Here faith is demonstrated by being good. Again, this stage is often occupied by young children. We can sum up this stage by saying, “I believe that God rewards good behavior; therefore, I must be good.” Rewards might be too strong a word, but the idea, I hope, is clear. Our parents expected us as children to behave and to follow the rules, and we delighted in their love when we did so. It is the same thing here. Children in Stage 2 believe that God rewards our obedience and pours out grace and love when we obey; and when we disobey, we get punishment. If we articulated a statement of faith for people in Stage 2, it would look something like this:
- I believe God rewards our obedience and punishes our disobedience.
- I feel good when I do good, and I feel guilty when I do bad (I also feel God’s presence and love when I do good and God’s distance and displeasure when I am bad).
- I respond to God by trying to be good (I am going to try to please him in everything I can).
Stage 2 is filled with all sorts of teachable moments:
- Jesus loves us when we share.
- Jesus is sad when we hit our brothers.
- Jesus is watching you!
- Jesus says you need a time out (He didn’t really say that, but sometimes we just want someone to be on our side).
Again, few people actually stay in this stage, but you can already see how it shapes future thoughts on faith. How many of us have this secret belief that if we obey and don’t sin that God will reward us and if we disobey that God will punish us (our car will break down, we will have a fight with our spouse, our team will lose or we will just have a bad day)? How many of us live in fear of God because he doesn’t grade on the curve? How many of us feel like we can never do enough for God to truly delight in us? How many of us feel God is distant because we can never measure up? All of that comes from this stage. For kids, it is part of the process. They think very concretely about things (good/bad, right/wrong, reward/punishment, pleasure/disappointment, etc.). And that is why parents must make sure they continually show unconditional love and acceptance (“I don’t love you because you are a god girl; I love you because you are you and God gave you to me.)
This is the challenge of Stage 2: that parents teach their kids to be morally responsible, but to differentiate between loving them for who they are and being happy with them for when they behave. We have to make sure that they never believe our love and acceptance and joy is based on their performance. And then, we have to make sure they understand that God’s love is also based on who they are and not their performance. And for heaven’s sake, let them pray! Never treat them as if they are in an unsaved state (like Idaho). Instead, show them that God delights in them.
Thanks for reading. Another stage next week.