Divine Credibility for Children
By: Jim Virkler
Christian parents raising children desire to instill a sense of divine existence and love for their Creator in their offspring. We are always pleased when our grandchildren want to pray before mealtime, thanking God for the gifts of food and asking him to bless all the dear ones in their acquaintance. At some level, children are responding to the modeling of their parents. Parents pray that their modeling behavior will instill an early, genuine sense of God’s reality in their children. That sense parallels parental instructions for other age appropriate behaviors.
Most parents one or two generations removed from child rearing imagine that they might instruct their children differently given another opportunity. Sometimes grandparents speculate on how their own children are training their grandchildren. Leaving mundane behavior apart for our present discussion, we might focus on the ongoing opportunity to instill an age appropriate sense of divine reality in young children. This topic is reasonably simple at the preschool level, but it becomes more complex as the children advance through their elementary, middle, and high school years. For children in public school, parents bear heavy responsibility for their offspring’s God-awareness. Appropriate instruction concerning the reality of God must be shared by the instructional and pastoral staff.
How should the subject of God’s reality be addressed with our children? If we believe God is real, how do we make the subject real for them? We do not see God. Neither do we feel God or hear God speak. Sensory experiences of God directly exist for neither adults nor children. At the same time, seeing, feeling, and hearing are sensory experiences by which most learning takes place in young children. Feelings of joy and happiness in our youngest children mostly result from sensory stimulation. As children grow in intellectual development and maturity, they become more aware of abstract realities. We do not describe God, however, as an abstract reality.
Christians understand God as a real being. As Creator, God is not an abstract “idea.” He is not physical, but is described as a spiritual being. “God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:24). An abstract idea is incapable of producing our cosmos from an original, infinitesimally small singularity. Neither is an abstract idea able to create life on a formerly lifeless planet. In summary, our awesome responsibility as parents and grandparents is to impart a sense of God-awareness in our children. We humbly confess our inability to teach God-awareness adequately and we implore our God to give us wisdom in this endeavor.
How do we teach the reality of God’s existence to young children inasmuch as we do not see him, feel him, or hear him? These facts need not be counted as deficiencies in our justification for the existence of God. Agnostic claims of lack of evidence for God are weak when we analyze the physical realities of our cosmic and planetary system. A case for God’s existence is more persuasive as we study instances of cause and effect phenomena and the design features of our incredibly fine tuned universe. Some form of this argument is effective notwithstanding the maturity level of those receiving our instruction. Ontological evidence for God, arriving at the conclusion that God is real by deductive skill, and other advanced evidences must wait for a few years.
The case for God’s existence has an empirical underpinning, regardless of the age of our clients. Scientific method relies on empirical methods—methods verifiable by observation or experience rather than theory or logic. As our children become older, theory formation and logic become better developed depending on intellectual maturity.
Let us return to preschool children. Some may be taught to thank God for their food at mealtime or even say a prayer before bedtime. We do not minimize the significance of such prayers offered by very young children. Thoughtful parents may promote the reality of God-concepts at this tender age. No doubt there are different strategies used by various mentors to instill an age appropriate understanding of God’s existence. As a science minded person, I have used the cause and effect illustration with our very young grandchildren. Activities such as building a tall tower from wooden blocks or a complicated Lego construction could be used to illustrate the activity of an intelligent agent. In these cases, the intelligent agent is the child. Young children are capable of recognizing their own role in play room design projects and ideally, God’s role in building wonderfully diverse, attractive, functioning living organisms.
In recent years our grandchildren have been fascinated by the variety of walking sticks, pill bugs, butterfly-producing caterpillars, praying mantises, ants, and digger wasps, not to mention birds and mammals. Some of these animals were captured and caressed by the young children. The elaborate design of the animals is matched by their intricate and unique behavior. The unusual behavior of digger wasps tunneling in the soil just outside our home each summer is one of many examples of unusual behaviors with which our neighborhood animals are programmed. Mundane wonders from our immediate front yard to paths in the woods, not to mention the glory of the night sky provide parents with an opportunity to affirm the existence of the God, the author of orderliness and design.
Our discussion barely scratches the surface of the joyful awe of the Creator we desire to cultivate in our young people. Moses received the lengthy commandments of the Law on Mt. Sinai before the congregation entered the promised land. Moses repeated these commandments in a lengthy sermon beginning in Deuteronomy 6. Early in his sermon we find these startling words—a model for the early training of our young people to instruct them about the Creator: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your soul and with all your might…..You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.” (Deut. 6:5, 7 NIV).
When the sermon was nearly finished, Moses uttered these words: “Assemble the people—men, women, and children…so they can listen and learn to fear the Lord your God” (Deut. 31:12). Learning to love, believe in, and respect God and the works of his hands was important for the children of Old Testament times. It was no less important in the New Testament Day of Grace and in our modern Day of Grace.
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Jim Virkler, a retired New Jersey public school science educator, now devotes his time investigating the harmony of scientific discoveries and Christian faith. He and his wife, Eleanor, now reside in the mid-west near their children and grandchildren.