I’ve wondered about this day. I’ve wondered about this day for around four and a half years. I’ve wondered if this day would happen. I’ve wondered how old you’d be. I’ve wondered what you’d say – how it would come up. I’ve wondered when you’d understand. I’ve wondered what would tip you over the edge. I’ve wondered who’d be with you, or if you’d be all by yourself.
Today, you asked me how you could become a friend of God and Jesus.
We have several children’s books about God, and lately you’ve been fascinated with a few of them – What Happens When We Die and Who is Jesus? I can’t say this didn’t perplex me a bit, but I read them anyway because it seemed good to follow your lead.
But perhaps I should back up. There are two things you need to know. First, I spent much of my growing-up years being terrified about Hell. Without going into lots of detail, I will tell you that my childhood fears have largely informed my parenting of you in this capacity, and we’ve been very careful not to talk much about hell because I didn’t want to scare you into “faith.” And second, you’ve pretty much indicated that you hated God. In fact, several weeks ago you told me that you hoped Jesus would have another dying day, but this time He wouldn’t come back to life so we could get Him out of here. No joke. You said exactly that.
This mindset distressed me until I realized it was partly our fault. Actually, given the fact that you’re four and don’t go to school and pretty much stay at home with us, I decided it was probably entirely our fault. Here’s why. There’s a passage in Deuteronomy 6 that says:
Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. 6 These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. 7 Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. 8 Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. 9 Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.
I think these instructions are wonderful instructions to parents on how to teach their children about God. Look at the order. The first thing to be said is all about the parent’s relationship with God. What are we to do? Love God. Love Him first. Wholeheartedly. Next? Teach the children. It’s simple. It’s elegant.
It isn’t what we did.
I didn’t realize it until long after the fact, but what we did was start talking to you about what God wants you to do. We told you about His rules. It wasn’t that we didn’t love God – we did. We do. I love God now more than I did on the day you were born, more than I ever imagined possible during some of my darkest, most sad times during the last few years. But your dad and I? Well, we’re not overtly emotional people. I have to remind Daddy to tell me how he feels. If I’m going to cry, I usually want to do it privately. I’m not suggesting this is good; it just is. We have to work at this part of our lives.
I grew up in an overtly religious home. I was surrounded by and steeped in faith, in God. Grandpa and Grandma couldn’t help but talk about their faith. But even if they hadn’t, I still would have heard it coming and going because I grew up in the church. That’s another letter for another day, but I’m telling you this because when you were born, I didn’t really know what I was doing. You’d think I grew up with such great examples that I’d be readily able to pass that onto you. But I wasn’t. I was different than many of those people I watched because my inside world is so private to me. I didn’t know how to take my private thoughts and put them outside myself in a coherent, meaningful way.
Dad, on the other hand, grew up in a family that was faithful, but was more private. He developed a personal faith in God at a later age than I did, and for many reasons (also another letter for another day) we knew we wanted to raise you in such a way that you were personally sensitive to God from a younger age.
Hence our dilemma – we knew what we wanted to do but we didn’t know how to do it. So we privately slogged through our own relationships with God and tried to teach you the rules of what God wanted you to do. You know… like not hitting and not kicking and not spitting. And in not knowing how to do it, we accidentally taught you something we didn’t mean to teach you: that God is all about rules and doing the right thing and rejecting you if you don’t obey him.
Honestly, I don’t blame you for wanting to get that God “out of here!” One day, I realized you must see God more as a taskmaster than as someone who loves and cares for you. And who wants a taskmaster? I sure don’t, and anyone who has met you knows you don’t, either.
As this began dawning on me several months ago, I started trying to weave God’s goodness into our daily lives. In the last week, it has sort of reached fever pitch. I’ve been trying to explain God in four-year-old terms. You’ve seemed much more interested. This weekend, I realized I had never explained presents in God terms. This one really connected with you. The thought that God likes to give us presents completely fascinated you, and I can’t tell you how much it warmed my heart to hear you talk about how God gave you blessings and you gave those blessings to me. I got a little choked up at that one.
But not as choked up as I got tonight.
We were reading the “Jesus” book, chatting all the way through about some of the pages. First, we chatted about things we’ve done wrong. I asked you if I had done wrong things, and you told me, “Like when you get all stressed out?” I explained the stress wasn’t so much the wrong thing, but the being snappy and mean was definitely out. You told me you hit and kick and spit sometimes, and we concurred we both did wrong things. Later, we talked about Heaven, and how Jesus is preparing Heaven for us.
This is where the conversation took a different turn. Usually we imagine all sorts of things about Heaven (which we did tonight). However, tonight you told me everyone got to go to Heaven. This is something you haven’t really said before, and I told you no, that only friends of Jesus go to Heaven. I practically watched the wheels turn in your head, and you asked me where people go if they’re not friends of Heaven. This brought me into personally dangerous territory, because it required me to explain Hell. I wanted to be honest, but I didn’t want to be age-inappropriate or terrifying. So I just said that Hell was a sad place where people’s bodies didn’t feel well and they were sad and there was darkness and unhappiness. No need to draw the vivid visual pictures…
Thankfully, the “Jesus” book had given a very simple explanation – that when we do wrong things we deserve to be punished, but Jesus takes the punishment for our wrong things. You liked this. Heck – I like it too! I also liked having such simple words to use as an explanation – words with which you connected.
Without missing a beat, you told me you were a friend of God and Jesus (your term – we’ll get to the trinity when you’re 5). I said you had to ask God and Jesus to be their friends, and you told me you had thought about it in your head. Because I’ve been doing the Believing God study, I thought about Romans 10:10, which says:
10For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved.
So I told you it was important for us to use words when we want to be friends with God and Jesus, that when we want to be friends with God and Jesus we tell them that we know we’ve done some wrong things and we’re thankful that Jesus died to take away our punishment and that we want to be their friend and follow them forever. We talked through each of these elements, and you were quite adamant that you’d pray… after we read the rest of your books.
We read the rest of your books – Night in the Country and a McQueen book. Actually, you read the McQueen book to me, and that bowled me over on its own. And it worked out pretty well because it gave Daddy time to get home from his softball game. I knew he wouldn’t want to miss this. He walked in just as we were discussing if you wanted to pray, and you told me you wanted me to say the words and you’d repeat what I said. So we prayed something like this:
Dear Jesus, I know I’ve done wrong things. Thank you for dying on the cross and coming back to life to take away my punishment. I want to be your friend and I want to love you and obey you for ever. In Jesus’ name, amen.
Dad and I were, of course, crying, and you were sort of hopping around. We discussed if you wanted to call anyone and tell them. At first you didn’t, but when I suggested that you could email them tomorrow, you decided to wanted to call people after all – first Grandma R, then Grandma M and finally Grandpa R. To each of them, you said, “I’m a friend of God and Jesus! Do you want to be a friend of God and Jesus, too?”
It was too cute.
So today was a big day. Today, you asked me how you could become a friend of God and Jesus. And now you are. We all are. And my heart is happy in a way I didn’t know before.