Teaching children about a holy God can seem daunting! Where do you even start? Here, Scripture Union New Zealand considers how we can encounter God through the Bible, and we caught up with one Kiwi family who have built daily rhythms into their family life to help them know God. What can we learn here about the life-changing holiness of God?
How do we help children to encounter God’s holiness and live in light of that? I began by asking a group of children I know, “What is holiness?” One astute five year old noticed that the word has a ‘hole’ in it. Others described respect and praise, and associated it with God: “God is pure and good... God is awesome.” And one eight year old summed up holiness in this statement: “God is holy and holiness is someone important and special; someone worthy of praise.”
God is holy. That’s a short statement packed with meaning. What my conversation with my young friends highlights is that children are forming their own ideas of what holiness means, and what it means to say that God is holy. Our children create meaning from a variety of sources. It may be from an experience they had in church, or from conversation with others. It may be from standing looking at the Milky Way at night. However, it is through the Bible that much of our understanding of holiness is formed.
The Bible reveals God’s holiness. How we handle the Bible with children affects how they make sense of God and what it means to live a life of faith. I want to offer some thoughts around how to help children draw near to a holy God as shown in Scripture. We will consider how we open the Bible in ways that deepen their relationship with God, so that they in turn desire to reflect God’s holy character.
We can begin by committing to exploring the whole Bible with children, not just parts of it. Scripture reveals to us a holy God—from the first “In the beginning” to the final “Amen.” God’s holiness is demonstrated in the splendour of the Holy of Holies, and in the baby Jesus nursing in his teenage mother’s arms. Experiencing the whole Bible provides our children with a broad and balanced view of God’s character. God’s holiness is displayed in a burning bush that humbles a barefooted Moses, but God’s holiness is also seen in Jesus welcoming a child to himself. A good understanding of the whole scope of Scripture helps to prevent our children from viewing God as either an unappeased parent or our carefree best buddy.
I remember vividly sharing the story of Moses and the burning bush with a group of children. As Moses entered a cave and encountered a bush on fire, a hush fell over the children as the moment of suspense grew. And then, in a loud kind of whisper that children specialise in, one young boy gasped, “It’s God! It’s God!” To me, it was truly one of those moments where I felt the words of the Bible leap into flame, along with the bush. Isn’t this the experience we desire for our children as they explore the Bible? We want them to encounter God. Regardless of age, stories captivate us. Becoming a good storyteller is an essential tool for any communicator. I believe that the ability to open up the story and capture the imagination of listeners provides space for God to speak.
But good storytelling shouldn’t minimise the power of the story, or detract from the awe and mystery that is unfolding. There can be a tendency to jazz up Bible stories to make them more entertaining, and while there is nothing wrong with using humour or drama to draw children into a story, this must never be at the expense of inviting children into God’s presence. Do we need a display of pyrotechnics, or the inclusion of party poppers, at the point that Moses takes off his sandals before the burning bush?
“Humans are spiritual beings capable of relationship with the transcendent, and children as well as adults long for such a relationship. To make light of God’s holiness and power is to deprive children of the transcendence, the spiritual in the story. There is much room for fun and humor in the Christian life and ministry with children, but not at the expense of blurring who God really is, the transcendent one who lovingly chooses to dwell among us.” (1)
When we open the Bible with children, we create opportunity for the Holy Spirit to work with children’s imaginations—for children to wonder at the mystery of God’s holiness. It is the Holy Spirit who brings Scripture to life, like twigs to flame. Our approach to the Bible therefore needs to allow space for reflection. We can invite questions and conversation about the mystery of God. We can encourage awe and wonder through telling the story in a way that leaves it open to be explored more deeply.
A child’s relationship with God grows out of a healthy awareness of who God is, and holds in tension his holiness, love, and grace. A right understanding of God’s holiness will lead children into a relationship characterised by reverence for God, and a desire to obey him. However, obedience needs to be motivated by love, and not compulsion. Living a holy life is not determined by living to a set of standards in order to earn favour with God. We must avoid turning the Bible into a version of Aesop’s Fables. This way of reading the Bible takes a story and distils a moral out of it, thereby suggesting that being holy is equated with being good. While we certainly want to promote obedience and good choices, the Christian life is far more than following the rules. It is firstly about relationship and it is summed up in that encounter that causes us to cry out, “It’s God! It’s God!”
We have a great responsibility to help children grow in their understanding of a holy God. But we can communicate to our children that they can help us too. My young friends don’t need me to figure this all out for them. Rather, I can be living faith out with and alongside them. So, as we look to know more of God, let us together take off our sandals and draw near to God.
Story: Annette Osborne
Annette is a children and families worker from Scripture Union New Zealand.
A Lifestyle of Learning
We have some great inspiration in the people of our churches! It was so good to catch up with one family and hear about some of the ways that they have tried to understand God’s holiness, and seek God in each day. Here, both the parents (P) and the kids (K) share their thoughts on the practical ideas that they have explored.
Understanding the holiness of God can be hard! How has your family gone about exploring this?
P: Looking back, we have tried to emphasise that the whole point of life is to glorify God. From here, our emphasis has been on growing an understanding of the fear of the Lord (Proverbs 1:7; 9:10). We have been helped a great deal by a book called The Joy of Fearing God, by Jerry Bridges. The fear of the Lord is not about being afraid of God, but it is about the awe that fills us when we realise who God is and what he has done for us.
What are some of the cornerstones that you have put in place?
P: We have made a point (each weekday morning) of reading memory verses aloud as a family. I guess our view is quite simple—knowing the Bible really, really matters. We have followed this by praying together, and have prayed often that the truth of the Word of God would dwell in our hearts and make us wise (Colossians 3:16).
K: Dad has also made us get up at 6 am all our lives!
P: Yes, I (Dad) have spent time in the early mornings, with each of the kids individually, reading the Bible and praying. In that sense, I have led the first lesson of the day. It’s the best thing that I have done as a dad. I have learnt so much about each child, and have loved listening to questions—and increasingly trying to come up with answers!
How have you kids found this?
K: When we were small, this became a part of our daily lives, and our days felt wrong if they didn’t start with ‘Bibles with Dad.’ It’s a tangible experience—spending time with our dad as well as with our heavenly dad. It has cultivated a routine where we set aside time everyday to be with God. Now our days feel wrong if we haven’t intentionally spent time with God.
What else has influenced you as a family?
P: In our case, the kids have been significantly impacted by our decision to homeschool up to Year 12, and the way that we have approached this. Essentially, we have created a ‘lifestyle of learning.’
K: It hasn’t been Bible in Schools; it’s been Bible IS School!
P: Homeschooling has meant that we have been able to take tangents to discuss thoughts and ideas that have arisen (Deuteronomy 11:19).
One of the advantages of taking a homeschooling path is that it allows time to read and learn together. Carefully chosen reading material makes an enormous difference.
Which books have you kids found inspiring?
K: We have learnt a lot through reading biographical texts like Hero Tales and Grandpa’s Box. In discussing these, Mum has encouraged us to work out how the lessons and stories could impact our lives and attitudes. Hearing about the Holy Spirit working in the lives of men and women just like us is helpful in understanding that we too could be used by God to do pretty cool things for his glory.
With stories like Narnia, we’ve worked out what the characters represent and who we want to be like, and why the characters act in different ways and how that impacts the story. Drawing parallels between our own lives and the stories has made the reading come alive, and helped us understand a world bigger than our own. It has helped us discover that God works in so many different ways.
It sounds like listening to stories from other people has been really helpful!
P: Yes. We’ve also had ‘boys and girls weekends.’ A group of fathers and grandfathers, over about ten years, have taken either the girls or the boys away for a weekend. On the Saturday evenings, we have spent time listening to a life story of one of the grandfathers. This has led to discussion among the three generations present. Hearing the heart of godly men has been very powerful.
K: There was one time when Poppa shared about the faith and stories of all our family ancestors who were pictured in a photo on the wall of the bach we were in. Understanding how God worked in their lives helped us see that faith isn’t just all theory and theology!
So learning from others has been encouraging. Are there other people who you have found inspiring?
K: Mum and Dad are inspiring. They pray for us at bedtime, but we also see them praying as well. They are a tangible example of people that are chasing the heart of God, and putting God first in everything.
We have learnt, through watching them, about the faithfulness of God. There have been many moments where one of them has remarked, “I was praying about that earlier... and now look...”
The way that they both study the Bible is something that we admire—they have often quoted Psalm 119:11 to us (“I treasure your word in my heart, so that I may not sin against you”). Their knowledge and understanding of the character of God is strengthened through their continuous effort to study the Word—to the point where they seem to have a biblical reference for nearly everything!
Seeing people so intentional and passionate about learning more about God and being in relationship with him is something that we have come to admire so much—it’s infectious.
Can you think of any other examples where your parents have caused you to think?
K: We have a family ‘thankful journal’ that we all contribute to (Mum makes sure this happens even when we don’t want to, or we’d rather watch TV!). Writing in this helps us to sift through our days and find the blessings. It has taught us that, through the lens of gratitude, even hard things can be blessings because of the things they teach us. It has cultivated a family atmosphere that is grace-filled—intentionally looking for the good in our days helps us see God’s hand moving more and more. Romans 8:28 (“We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose”) has been a verse that we have learnt about as we have looked intentionally through everything to find things to be thankful for.
Dad also writes us ‘daddy books.’
P: Yes, I (Dad) have had a tradition of writing a note in a book for the kids, up until the age when they go to bed after me! They are raw, fun, and goofy—it is simply to emphasise that I have noticed things happening in their lives and want to encourage them to grow in character.
K: Mum is really good at asking us about the things we are reading or thinking about. In the car on the way home from church, she will ask us questions about the sermon. It means we need to engage and work out our responses to what’s going on around us.
And Mum and Dad guide our friendships.
What does that look like?
P: I (Dad) wonder if that is code for, “Dad, you are easily the worst control freak in church!” But in truth, we do try and guide our kids through working out friendships. We ask them to reflect on the impact that others are having on their heart attitudes towards us, others, and God. We have chosen to guide them into homegroups rather than representative sports. In doing these things, they are having to make judgements and ask, “Is my aim to glorify God or to exercise my freedom?” (2)
What about when things go wrong? How do you handle balancing an understanding of our sin before a holy God, with his love and grace?
P: We’ve asked (and at times insisted!) that the kids pray when things go wrong. We want them to understand that offending God’s holiness is a serious matter, and asking for forgiveness (and meaning it!) is an important discipline to develop. We’ve seen the need for repetition in this!
K: Mum and Dad have made us say sorry until we really meant it! This has taught us a lot. Over the years, if we’ve come to Mum and Dad to apologise but still been upset, they have called us out on it (even when we thought we weren’t grumpy anymore!). This has helped us to think about how God sees our hearts—it’s not about how we might be trying to appear on the outside. Having to apologise again and again has helped us to consider what our heart motive is, and eventually we have been able to start self-regulating and make sure that we are actually sorry before we try to say so!
P: There are routines and disciplines in our family. They matter. But these are things that we have stumbled through at times, and have often been a struggle. Our kids have sometimes resented and resisted things—maybe you can tell from some of what they say here! But we have tried to tie a lot of what we do and say to our family motto, which is visible in our kitchen: “Love God; love others; seek the truth.” And ultimately, we are enabled only by God’s grace to “stand in awe of him” (Psalm 33:8).
Story: The Edmeades with Sarah Vaine
Larne, Rosemary, Jonathan, Ella, Sam, and Anna live in Auckland and attend Titirangi Baptist Church.
- What are your experiences of teaching children about God’s holiness?
- How could you read the Bible with your children so that God’s holiness comes to light?
- How do we create space for the Holy Spirit to work with our children? How could you teach the discipline of asking for forgiveness?
- Which of the practical ideas explored here might help your kids?
1. Catherine Stonehouse and Scottie May, Listening to Children on the Spiritual Journey (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2010), 86.
2. Jerry Bridges, The Joy of Fearing God (Colorado: WaterBrook Press, 2006), 221.
Photo credit: Brightside Creative/lightstock.com
Scripture: Unless otherwise specified, Scripture quotations are from New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.