“How do we know God is real? How do we know he’s not someone that because we are little you tell us he’s real but then when we’re older we find out he’s fake?”
Children ask the darndest questions!
I confess: my child-rearing philosophy was along the lines of “benign neglect.” I sought to resource my three sons with all they needed for life and health and mental, physical and spiritual stimulation, but then pretty well got out of the way, interfering only when necessary.
They all grew up to be wonderful men, and this method, which forced them to be creative and resilient, probably helped.
My kids have long lived far away. But last year, my middle son, his lovely wife and their four New York City born children returned to Texas.
For the last several months, while house-hunting, all six of them have been living with my daughter-in-law’s parents. What’s really cool is they are all still sane and friends. And a lot of that comes from their simply superb skills as parents, far surpassing anything I could ever muster.
For the record, my husband and I offered for them to stay with us, as our house is somewhat more spacious. However, to say that our residence is not child-friendly could possibly qualify as the understatement of the year. With their decision to decline our invitation, we all stayed friends.
The children and their mother engage in daily devotions, learning to read the Bible and pray together.
Recently, the five-year-old daughter, asked, “How do we know God is real? How do we know he’s not someone that because we are little you tell us he’s real, but then when we’re older we find out he’s fake.”
From the mouths of babes . . .
So, yes, how can children know God is real when, among other things, we routinely lie to them about such magical figures as Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy?
The Santa/Jesus conundrum
I admit it. The Santa Claus stuff drives me nuts. Why? My mother once told me that when she found out that Santa Claus, represented to her as real, was just a story, her childhood faith in God evaporated. Although she stayed a church-goer and passed out goodness and generosity to everyone she met, she found no comfort or hope or sense of meaning in what had become irrevocably for her the magical Santa/God continuum.
Look carefully at the words to Santa Claus is Coming to Town.
“You better watch out, you better not cry
Better not pout, I’m telling you why
Santa Claus is comin’ to town
He’s making a list and checking it twice
Gonna find out who’s naughty and nice
Santa Claus is comin’ to town
He sees you when you’re sleepin’
He knows when you’re awake
He knows if you’ve been bad or good
So be good for goodness sake
I once asked my Confirmation Class (early teens) to exegete those words, draw out their meaning. As they read and talked, several said, “This is really spooky. I don’t like this at all. Why is Santa in my bedroom? Does he watch when I go to the bathroom?”
The girls were particularly troubled by the idea of this bearded man leering at them during their most private moments.
The thing is, when I decided to push the youth on this question, I felt it necessary to first check with the parents to make sure none of the students still “believed in Santa Claus.” God forbid that I should be the one to accidentally disillusion a child from believing in something that is patently false.
Unfortunately, adults often present God as a celestial Santa: some sort of white bearded male who constantly spies on us, arranging for punishment when we are bad and showering rewards when we are good.
Theological shallowness infects most of US Christianity
This kind of theological shallowness infects most of US Christianity. We’ve imposed a “This is what I want, and yes I have been good so give it to me” on a “Be holy because I am holy” Creator and Cosmic Lover of all that creation.
But at some point, the real world intrudes.
The world where good people too often suffer and the bad get rewarded.
The world where ruthless murderers mow down young girls, innocently enjoying a concert.
The world where some truly evil people get richer and richer and many of the decent find themselves crushed under the expensive and exclusive shoe leather of the uber-and-uncaring-wealthy.
The world where millions are starving and parents sell their daughters to buy food?
How do we fix this?
How do we help our children escape those theological shallows and teach and model the reality of God?
Start by carefully helping our children see fun and wonder and play and make-believe as good gifts from God. At the same time, offer them a deep holiness of head, hands, and heart by overt actions that show care for the least among us and create a willingness to stand firmly against evil, even when it costs us.
Having said that, almost all young people experience a shipwreck of faith sometime during late adolescence and early adulthood. It’s normal and healthy. Give them space to doubt and question without the fear of condemnation. Their minds are also gifts of God to be cherished and nurtured.
And the darndest question for next week? “How do we know that the Bible is true because all that you’re telling this is from the Bible?”
Note: A version of this column is slated to run in the Denton Record-Chronicle. The Thoughtful Pastor, AKA Christy Thomas, welcomes all questions for the column and would especially like questions your children/grandchildren/students ask. Although the questioner will not be identified, I do need a name and verifiable contact information in case the newspaper editor has need of it. You may use this link to email questions.