And Jesus saith unto them, Yea; have ye never read, Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings thou hast perfected praise? (Matthew 21:16b KJV)
I have written before in this space about our long period of childlessness and our joy at finally becoming parents through adoption, so I will not recount that story today. Suffice it to say that, over five years later, we still count our son to be a tremendous blessing to our family, though honesty demands that I admit, as all parents must, that parenthood is a mixed blessing. Scripture teaches that we are all sinners, and children are no exception. We observe our son’s physical health, intelligence, curiosity, and apparent musical skill (he has good pitch and timing—at age 5 we hoped for no more) with thankfulness and joy, and pray that these things will be cultivated and developed that they might be useful both in the church and in society. Nevertheless, he is exceptionally strong willed, and prone to outbursts of anger and rage when he does not get his way. His intelligence and, for his age, facility with language enable him to say some rather hurtful things when he is angry, and these words are necessarily directed at us, since as his parents we are the ones who most often refuse to bend our wills to his. In today’s society some parents would no doubt seek to subdue a child with such tendencies by means of medication, and while that topic has come up in discussions between my wife and me, we have not yet considered that option with any seriousness. We do not wish for his strong will to be broken. Rather, we hope and pray that it can be, like his other gifts and aptitudes, channeled and directed to good and righteous use, that he would hold fast to the gospel in the midst of a society that seems increasingly hostile to the message of Christianity.
Following one recent episode and after he had calmed down we reminded him of the necessity that the parents be in charge of the household rather than the child, and quoted Scriptures familiar to him which teach this. We also reminded him that all are sinners, deserving of God’s wrath, and yet have salvation offered to them upon condition of repentance and faith. Finally, we assured him that Jesus loves us, and that if we are his he will continue to love us forever in spite of our sin, because he has chosen us and purchased our forgiveness. All of this was done, of course, at an age-appropriate level, using much less complicated verbiage than I just used for the sake of brevity.
The following day as he was playing alone in my home office (a room where he is not usually allowed to play by himself, but I digress) my wife caught him speaking to himself as he played, saying “Oh, Jesus. He’s my savior. Even though I sin, he will forever love me.” Later, he was singing a made-up song about the ultimate defeat of Satan. While we do teach our son using song and catechesis (a series of memorized questions and answers), the amazing thing about this is that he was not repeating a song he had been taught or a formulaic doctrinal statement he had heard. Instead, he is evidently processing these things and putting them into his own words. While we do not believe he has yet been “converted,” repenting and believing the gospel for himself, the fact that he is processing and articulating the doctrine he has been taught gives us great hope for him, and we are thankful.
I want to address two likely responses to this little story, followed by my own response. First, for our fellow Christian parents who might read this and wonder how we are teaching our son, we can’t say enough good things about cultivating children’s faith using “old” methods. Each day we read scripture together, work on memorizing Bible verses and catechism questions and answers, pray together, and sing a hymn or psalm. Even non-musicians can do the last part—we always sing a cappella, and aside from the fact that we have better-than-average pitch an uninformed observer would probably never know that both parents in our family are music teachers. Furthermore, we bring both the Bible’s warnings and its promises to bear in regular conversation, and particularly when exercising discipline. These things are spoken frankly and lovingly, never in a “hellfire and brimstone” fashion intended to elicit a visceral reaction of fear. Finally, while we trust that these are among the ordinary means through which the Spirit works to bring children to faith, we are aware of our complete dependence upon him to save us, our son, and anyone else. Even the best methodology cannot save through human action alone.
To non-Christians who might be reading this and are horrified that we would so “indoctrinate” our son, I suppose we are guilty. We believe that Christianity is true and right, presenting the only view of the world that is fully consistent with reality, not to mention the only way of salvation from God’s wrath. Therefore, we are teaching our son in the hopes that one day he will own this faith for himself. This really shouldn’t be scandalous—don’t all parents teach their children according their own worldviews? When he is older we will teach our son the various arguments for Christianity in opposition to other faiths and worldviews. One day he will go out into the world and encounter any number of belief systems which stand in opposition to the one in which he was raised, and he will have to evaluate for himself and choose for himself what he believes. While we will pray that he, by God’s grace, chooses rightly, the choice will be his. But right now he is five, and it is not yet the time for the study of comparative religion and various schools of philosophy and ethics. And even when we one day discuss those things, it will be with the presupposition that Christianity—specifically Reformed and Presbyterian Christianity—is true and right.
For me, hearing what my five-year-old son was saying was an immense comfort to me, not because he was saying it, but because of what he said. Assurance of salvation has always been a particular challenge for me as a Christian, and adults have a way of making God’s promises to us in the Gospel unnecessarily complicated. In a simple and heartfelt way, he simply restated what Paul wrote to the church in Rome nearly two millennia ago:
For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38-39 KJV)
Indeed, sometimes our children teach us as much as we teach them.