From the Mouths of Babes: How Children Teach Adults

Note: This article is part of a special Patheos Symposium, Passing on the Faith: Teaching the Next Generation. Read more perspectives here.

One of my professors during my post-graduate studies once said something that made me do a double take. He commented, rather off-handedly and couched between quoting Karl Barth in German and taking jabs at postmodernism, "everything I know about God I learned from my children." This sort of statement probably would not have surprised me coming from nearly anyone else. But this scholar's word-smithing is legendary; he simply isn't the type prone to making thoughtless statements. You can imagine then why his words seemed to me uncharacteristically careless. How could he possibly say such a thing, I wondered? Surely, he didn't mean everything!

A few months later, my wife and I adopted our first child, Charis Jordan. She came to us the day she was born and we held her for the first time when she was only six hours old. Since that time, I've learned that if we pay attention to our children, they will indeed teach us a great deal about God. I've realized that my professor wasn't far off, even if he did exaggerate just slightly.

Here's what I mean.

Children teach us about the Fatherhood of God.

I remember vividly, when our daughter was just a few months old, how difficult it was to let her cry herself back to sleep in the middle of the night. She had been waking up at two in the morning for several days, and we, like every parent, had learned by then that the only way to break the routine was to let her just cry it out. It wasn't easy though. As I lay in bed and listened to her go from whimpering, to wailing, to moaning—as though she were in the throes of the most terrible agony—I wanted desperately to go and pick her up and give her a bottle. But I knew, owing to the advice of countless friends, that if we continue to let her do this we would be getting up with her at two a.m. until she was practically in high school.

So, I lay there and did nothing, except pray for her (and for us) that we would all soon go back to sleep. And it occurred to me that this is probably the way it is with some of the things for which we adults ask God.

By understanding the value in not giving my daughter what she wanted all the time, it occurred to me that this was an important lesson about prayer. Often we ask God for things that are neither good for us in the short-term nor that bode well for our future. We are infants crying out in the night for another dose of formula, for more food in our bellies, when in fact what we need is rest and the discipline that comes from learning to wait patiently for the Lord. Even as my not responding to Charis's cry was an intentional act on my part, done out of my love for her and concern for her future, so too is God's silence most often an act of love and compassion. By not giving us what we want, God often gives us something much better—namely, what we need.

My relationship with my daughter, my doing the best I could to be a loving father, provider, protector, and caregiver, enabled me to understand those same qualities in God in a way I never quite had before. The Fatherhood of God took on greater clarity when viewed through the lens of my own fatherhood.

Children teach us about sin and worship.

I love to hear my daughter pray. At two and a half, she has a few basic prayers that she regularly recites: "Tank you Jesus for all da bressings, and mommy and daddy and mammy and papa and all da friends. Amen," is one of my favorites. Often mammy and papa will get a double, triple, or quadruple mention. But one evening recently at dinner she sort of got off track and missed the point of the whole thing. She wanted to sing the doxology, which we sometimes do at dinnertime. She calls it "Praise Fadder," because of the last part, "praise Father, So-on, and Holy Ghost." We all started to sing, and she immediately interrupted us and told us to stop. "Charis do it," she demanded. Apparently, she wanted this doxology to be her doxology, and hers alone. So, after silencing Paula and me, she came to the finish. "Praise Fadder, Son, and Hody Goat."

After we stopped laughing at the thought of a holy goat (I know, how could we!), I couldn't help but note the irony in her prayer—and that the whole incident likely reflected much of the way we followers of Jesus behave. We want to sing about God's glory, all the while seeking our own. We want to shush those voices that would join ours, for fear that they might drown us out. We want to be heard above the crowd, not blend in with it. We want to offer a doxology in which we are the star, not Christ. Odd as it sounds, we want to be glorified in glorifying.