Wednesday, May 12, 2010

talking about predestination with children

It's the question that every Christian parent knows is coming sooner or later. I'm driving when six-year-old Thomas pipes up from the back seat. We're alone, which doesn't happen often in a family of six, so it's a precious time for us. Deep thoughts are clearly running through his head: “Mummy, why do some people believe in Jesus and not others?”

It's a question my older son and daughter have never thought to ask. But Thomas is a theologian in miniature, and he's been puzzling over complex doctrinal issues since he was three: “Mummy, why can't I see God?”; “If I wave my hand like this, am I touching God?”; “How long is forever?”; and now, “Why do some people believe in Jesus and not others?”

There's a moment of silence while I consider what to say. I could play it down. I could talk about the human factors—our choices, our backgrounds, our opportunities. I could even do some fancy theological footwork and talk about how God's choice and ours fit together. But I decide to start from first causes: “We believe in Jesus because God chooses us.”

That's not the end of it, of course. It never is with this child! We throw around ideas about total depravity (“Some people are just really bad, aren't they Mummy?” “No, honey, we all do bad things every day. We all need God to forgive us.”) and unconditional election (“God doesn't choose us because we're better than anyone else, but because he loves us.”).

As we talk, I think of my own parents. I thank God that during my childhood, they didn't avoid the hard questions. They talked about the Trinity. They talked about hell. And they talked about predestination.

I remember grappling with the implications of predestination when I was about nine years old. I stared at the countries scattered across the double page of an atlas, wondered about all the people who didn't believe in Jesus, and felt scared and overwhelmed. It could have been the stuff of nightmares, but it was actually the stuff of theological formation.

It put big thoughts in my young mind. It gave me a firm foundation for when I was at university, facing doubts and hard questions like the gleeful public challenge of a philosophy lecturer: “If God made the world good, then where did the snake come from?” It developed my theological muscle, readying it for the tough issues of adulthood. Above all, it taught me to think great thoughts about our great God.

So when I answer my son's question, I tell him how it is. But I also give him the good news. I share the beautiful side of predestination—the wonderful, startling, incredible reality of God's grace given to the undeserving: “Did you know that God decided to love you before he even made the world? Isn't that amazing? Isn't that fantastic?!”

I look at my son and smile to see his smile.

This article appeared at Sola Panel today.

images are from assbach at flickr and from stock.xchng


Sarah B said...

What is the answer to the philospher's question? My 11 yr old asked it ages ago and again recently. Once again I said 'I don't know.'
One of the great things about having children is that they help you to work out what you really believe.

Fiona McLean said...

I treasure these kinds of conversations with my children! At the moment my 4 year old is struggling with the concept of the Trinity: every time we mention "the Son of God" or similar, he protests, "But there's only ONE God!" If you have any suggestions about how best to explain this to him, please let me know!

Another question where I would be interested in your insights is this: regarding predestination, how can we know whether or not God has chosen our children?? And could we trust God's sovereignty even if it seemed that God had predestined our children for hell? Tough questions ...

Fiona McLean

Rachach said...

Thank you Jean. I enjoyed this very much.

Jean said...


"I don't know" sounds good!! I was stumped when the philosopher asked it!

But I think now that it comes down to this: God didn't make us, or the angels, automatins - we can choose. In our case, the choice isn't really "free" because of our sinful nature, but perhaps it really was/is free for Adam and Eve and angels. So Satan was created good, but chose to rebel against God - and that's where the snake came from.

What a great question for a child to ask, though!!

Love Jean.

Jean said...

Dear Fiona,

Yes, the Trinity is a really, really tricky one! I just keep falling back on the "three persons in one God" creed which probably doesn't help much - but what can you say when it's beyond your understanding?! And then I change the subject! ;) There's something to be said for just teaching "creeds" when we can't understand something.

Or I just repeat the facts: Yes, there is one God. But there are three people in God. If I want to go more in-depth (probably not with a 4 year old!) I talk about the fact that one is the Father, the one who decides what's going to happen; one is the Son, who became human, and who created the world and died for us; and one is the Spirit, who gives us life, lives in us and helps us to live for God.

I'll tell you if anything else occurs to me!!

Now, on predestination ... I said to Steve the other day in tears (it was a low moment) that if anything could make me lose my faith, it would be my daughter losing hers. I remember struggling deeply with predestination when my brother was going through a stage when he didn't seem to be a Christian. It's easy to say we believe these things, and hard when they touch people close to us.

We can't know if our children are predestined any more than we can anyone else - except by the clear signs of faith and obedience in them which show they're really Christians. And there are no guarantees, are there?

Pray, pray, pray and trust: that's all I can hold onto. And make every decision that will help them hold on to their faith. And teach them the Bible. Then pray and trust some more. And determine to keep trusting God even if the worst should happen, and my child should fall away from his/her faith, although I know that would be one of the hardest things I've ever had to do.

Yes, very tough questions!

Love Jean.

ps. it's been fun catching up with your husband recently! :)

Jean said...

Dear Rach,

So glad you enjoyed it! Be nice to catch up some time ...

Love Jean.

Fiona McLean said...

Thanks, Jean, for your response. I think I might try telling Rufus a bit more about the persons of the Trinity, and see if that helps.

I found your comments about predestination and our own children helpful because it reinforced my approach, which is to treat them as believers unless they indicate otherwise. It was good to be reminded to tell them God's promises, and teach them his Word, and pray for them! "Make every decision that will help them hold onto their faith" - a great spur to our own godly living and obedience.

Fiona McLean

P.S. Gus did mention that he'd seen you!

Jean said...

Dear Fiona,

"Treat them as believers unless they indicate otherwise" - that's a good summary of how Steve and I raise our kids.

I hope the trinity conversations go well!! He sounds like a bright kid.

Love Jean.

mattnbec said...

Hi Jean and Fiona,

We had a similar situation about the Trinity for a while with our daughter, then four. And we just repeated what you can know for sure - that Jesus is God and the Son of God etc.

Our latest tricky questions and conundrums are coming from our 3yo budding theologian. He wants to know where God is because he can't see him. Of course, "He's in heaven", "He's in our hearts if we trust him" and "He's everywhere" are rather paradoxical. And our son replies that he can't trust God because he can't see him. He's even gone looking for God! He's also been asking where heaven is.

It's definitely been challenging me theologically (who said looking after children was mindless or boring?!).

Daniel said...

A good presentation of the Trinity for kids might go something like this:

Think of ice. If you take a piece of ice out of the freezer and set it on the counter, after some time that ice will melt. It will become a liquid, a puddle on the counter. Given more time the puddle will evaporate. It will become a vapor in the air. Now these three things are different. The ice, the liquid, and the vapor are different, yet they are all water. It is the same way with God and the Trinity. The vapor is an example of how water can exist, yet we cannot see it. Hope this helps.