Parenting isn’t easy. Let’s just put that out on the table and accept it. In fact, I’ll go even further. Parenting is hard. We’re handed these miniature humans – tiny little things in booties and color-coded hats – and somehow we’re expected to cultivate them into happy, gloriously well-adjusted adults, capable of holding down jobs and paying their taxes.
So we fumble along. We attempt to create the impressions that there’s really nothing to this and we’ve all done it before – probably many times! And with great success, no doubt! But we’ve never done it before, and every new moment brings a new challenge, and the only clarity we can find is the clarity that we have, in fact, no clarity whatsoever. That we are, to be perfectly honest, “winging it.”
We want them to be kind. We want them to be competent. We want them to be hygienic. We want them to be Christian.
Oh yeah… that last one. It’s a biggie. Even bigger than hygiene. (“No, he doesn’t smell great – but he loves the Lord!”)
We want them to be Christian. Why? Because we define ourselves as followers of Christ. As “Christ ones.” For many of us, this is the most important aspect of our lives. This is, quite literally, how we view reality – through the lens of Christian belief. We have found our faith vital to our own lives, and we wish to pass on this gift to our kids. I mean, who wouldn’t? Who wouldn’t want to share their most valued knowledge with their own children?
But how, exactly? By dragging them to church? Depositing them in Sunday School? Sending them on youth retreats? We know our role as parents can’t be this passive – we must do more than simply deliver our children to the “professionals.” Heck, a cab driver could play this role in their lives. We know there is more.
We should be passing on our faith to our kids. But did anyone really pass it onto us in an organized, meaningful way? Do we even know what we’re supposed to know?
These are the questions I was asking myself as I stared at my three kids. “What am I supposed to teach these guys, and what if no one ever taught this stuff to me?!?”
And this is exactly what inspired me to pick up my study Bible and my commentaries and produce What’s in the Bible? – a series of shows designed to walk families through the entire Bible and all the basics of the Christian faith.
As I’ve said over and over, kids aren’t opposed to learning, they’re opposed to boring. An engaging teacher can accomplish wonders in the life of a child. Wonders. So I’m hoping What’s in the Bible? can play that role for you and your family – an engaging teacher.
But still, there’s more. There is you. More important than any teacher, no matter how engaging, is a parent. This is where you come in – to answer your kids daily questions and help them apply what they’ve learned to the nitty gritty of everyday life. YOU live at the spot where the proverbial rubber meets the proverbial road.
And I’m here to offer some help, both proverbial and otherwise. Over the next few posts, I’m going to layout four ideas that I believe are key for parents to grasp in order guide our kids down the path of Christian faith.
The first one is this: Narrative. Story. What story do we find ourselves living in? The world we live in can be wonderful and horrible. Sometimes simultaneously. How do we help our kids make sense of it?
Let’s start here: A narrative is a series of plot points or incidents that, together, tell a story. A narrative structure is what we build to find meaning in the events of our lives. Life is composed of events. Things happen. Good things. Bad things. We want to make sense of these events. We want to find meaning in life. So we look for ways to connect the dots – connect these events together.
To say, “This happened because of this – which led to this. And here is why these things happened.”
This is our narrative – the way we connect the events of our lives to form a storyline that has meaning.
There’s a point in our young lives when we’re convinced everything is going to be great. Nothing particularly bad has ever happened to us. All the grown-ups around us smile at us and tell us we’re wonderful. When we need food, they give us food. When we want something to play with, they give us something to play with. The world, it appears, is our oyster. An amusement park of joy, set up specifically to meet our needs. The very first narrative most of us form is very simple:
“I am the center of the world, which exists to make me happy.”
This narrative does not survive long. If you have older siblings, they’ll knock it out of you right quick.
“Hey – I’m playing with that!”
“Not any more, you aren’t.”
“Hey – that’s mine!!”
“Not anymore, it isn’t.”
It occurs to you that maybe the world doesn’t exist to make you happy. Cracks appear in our first narrative. New data requires adjustment. Recalibration. If the world doesn’t exist to make me happy, why does the world exist? And how do I stay happy, in a world that doesn’t seem to want to help?
This is the central question that drives our quests for meaning – for a narrative with sufficient “explanatory power.”
“How do I stay happy, if the world doesn’t want to help?”
Our kids are searching for the answer to this question. As parents, we need to understand that the answers we guide them to will shape the rest of their lives – for better, or worse.
A teenager that abuses drugs and alcohol and a teenager that volunteers at a homeless shelter are both looking for the same thing: Happiness. How they go about chasing happiness is hugely influenced by the narrative picture of the world they’ve formed.
Is the world fundamentally good? Or fundamentally bad? If it’s fundamentally good, I should expect good things to happen. I should be open to new experiences, because they’ll probably go well! But if the world is fundamentally bad, I should expect bad things to happen. I should pull back. Stay inside. Stay safe. And what about people? Are they fundamentally good? Or fundamentally bad? Should I trust people? Or protect myself at all times? What should I expect from life on earth and how should I posture myself when I walk out the door in the morning?
The world doesn’t give us a clear, obvious answer. So when good things happen, we suddenly believe the universe is on our side. Until something bad happens and convinces us that the OPPOSITE is true. That the universe is AGAINST us.
Let’s look at two quotes from famous authors that show us very different views of the world:
“Can we doubt that presently our race will more than realize our boldest imaginations, that it will achieve unity and peace, and that our children will live in a world made more splendid and lovely than any palace or garden that we know, going on from strength to strength in an ever-widening circle of achievement?”
What a wonderful world we live in! And it’s only getting better!
And the second quote:
“The cold-blooded massacres of the defenseless, the return of deliberate and organized torture, mental torment, and fear to a world from which such things had seemed well nigh banished—has come near to breaking my spirit altogether… ‘Homo sapiens’, as he has been pleased to call himself, is played out.”
What a terrible world we live in! And it’s only getting worse!
Ironically, both of these quotes were written by the same guy – futurist and author H.G. Wells. He wrote the first quote – the happy one – in 1937, when, as far as he could tell, things were only getting better and better. And then he wrote that dismal “the sky is falling – mankind is played out” quote just nine years later, in 1946.
So what happened between 1937 and 1946 that completely changed H.G. Wells’ outlook on the human race? World War II. Nazi Germany. The worst aspects of human nature drew half the world into blood-soaked conflict. 10’s of millions died needlessly. And believing in the “fundamental goodness” of the universe and of mankind become much harder.
Many of us are unprepared for the inevitable tragedies of life on earth. Even those of us raised in the church. Sometimes especially those of us raised in the church. We believe in a good God, right? The key element of a Christian narrative. God is good, we are taught from a young age. He can do anything. And he loves us! What great news! Life with such a God as this should be a piece of cake!
But it isn’t. And faith built on a faulty Christian narrative falls apart at the first sight of genuine suffering.
Ted Turner founded cable news network CNN and built a fortune in the cable business. He was not a friend of organized religion, and once famously said that Christianity was for “losers.” A recent feature story on Turner – produced by CNN itself – addressed the source of Turner’s religious animosity.
“As with most things, Turner’s rocky relationship with his supreme being … stems back to childhood. When he was very young, he dreamed of being a missionary. Then his little sister, Mary Jean, got sick at age 12. He watched as she suffered terribly from a rare form of lupus and complications that left her with brain damage and screaming in pain for years until she died. It shook his faith profoundly.
He could not understand why any God would let an innocent suffer.
‘She was sick for five years before she passed away. And it just seemed so unfair, because she hadn’t done anything wrong,’ he said. ‘What had she done wrong? And I couldn’t get any answers. Christianity couldn’t give me any answers to that. So my faith got shaken somewhat.’”
Ted Turner grew up in church. He grew up hearing about a loving God. And yet the narrative he inherited was this:
“There is a God. An all-powerful, loving God. And if we do what he says – if we are ‘good’ – nothing truly bad will ever happen to us.”
No wonder his faith in a loving God was shaken by the suffering of his sister. What Ted Turner believed about God and the universe is not the teaching of Christianity. And yet this narrative is incredibly common in our culture – even in the church. So when something bad DOES happen to us, our narrative breaks down and many of us, Ted Turner included, reject God.
This is why it is so important to pass on a healthy Christian narrative to our kids. Because they will suffer – even in a universe created by an all-powerful, loving God.
Is the universe fundamentally good? Or not? Are people fundamentally good? Or not? Can I trust God with my life? Or not? These are the big questions. And only a healthy Christian narrative gives satisfying answers.
So how does a Christian narrative answer these questions?
We were made in the image of God – fundamentally “good.” But we are broken. Scarred by sin. And the same is true of the universe itself – as the handiwork of God, the universe reflects his goodness. But it, too, is broken. Broken by our sin. Nothing works quite right. The first 12 chapters of the Bible – Genesis 1-12 – explain this situation – how God made the universe “just right,” and then things went wrong. Broken by sin. Rebellion. And now there is death, and disease, and suffering. Famines and floods and wars. Cancer. Broken bodies. Broken relationships.
Romans 8 tells us that all of creation is broken, and longs to be healed. To be set right. And Revelation paints a picture of a universe set right – a new heaven and new earth, free of suffering and pain. Free of brokenness. Free of death. Restored. And the rest of the Bible tells us how we can be a part of God’s great rescue plan. How we spread the kingdom of God on earth – giving drinks of water and glimpses of God’s glory to dry and weary people – people in need of hope.
So what picture can we paint for our kids to help them understand the world, and our role in it? Try this one on for size:
The world is a broken amusement park. Imagine Disney World – all the fun, all the rides, the food, the time spent with family and good friends. If you know how a modern amusement park works, you know that it is largely computer controlled. The lights, the music, the rides – all run by computers. Now imagine a bug in the operating system. A virus. And randomly, things go horribly wrong. The lights go out unexpectedly. The Dumbo ride suddenly flips you upside down and drops you on your head. It would be clear that someone has gone horribly wrong. The amusement park isn’t living up to its promise – isn’t functioning as it was intended to function. There is a virus in the system.
And this, I propose, is the world we actually live in. It looks so promising from childhood. One fun adventure after another – all with family and good friends. And then things go wrong. Some little, some big. Things go horribly wrong. Because there is a bug in the system. A virus. And what is that virus? SIN.
The world doesn’t live up to its promise – its potential. Because sin has infected all of us, and has infected creation itself. Like a virus.
So what is the Bible? The Bible is the story of why the world is the way it is, and what God is doing to fix it. To set it right. To eradicate the virus once and for all, and live with us in a world cleansed from sin, working exactly the way he intended.
This is the biblical narrative. This is the narrative that allows our kids to see the world as it truly is – a wonderful, beautiful place, infected with a virus.
And what is our role? How do we engage this broken amusement park of a world? We’re the Red Cross. We’re the ones who understand the story. Who can explain why things are the way they are. We’re the ones who should never be surprised – either at the beauty, or the tragedy of life on earth. When someone gets dumped out of the Dumbo ride, we should be the first ones there to help – to bandage them up, to give them water if they’re thirsty or food if they’re hungry – and then to tell them the story of why things are the way they are, what God is doing to set things right, and how they, too, can be a part of it.
This is a simple but powerful picture that helps kids understand the world we live in – it’s beauty and tragedy. It’s joy and sorrow. How can something so wonderful also be so terrible? Hopefully the idea of a “broken amusement park” can help make sense of why things are the way they are, and, also, what our roles are in such a confounding world as this.
Understanding the story, we can live the story. And that’s a beautiful thing.
Looking for better ways to teach your kids the Bible? I’ve found a few that I love and I’ve put together a guide sheet describing them. Best of all, it’s free!
Download a free guide to my five favorite resources!
Thank you so much for this! 🙂 My daughter is just seven months old, and the world never looked so broken as it does now that I’m a mom. She’s little now, but I often wonder how to lead her to Christ as she begins to understand things more and more. My husband and I appreciate your ministry a lot, and we are very grateful that you care to address these questions. These are real struggles – thank you for the reminders that there are real, true, good answers!
Phil this is great. I am looking for the next three in this series…What to say to kids when the world doesn’t make sense…
I would like to share these ideas with our ministry to young moms in November.