As strange as this question may seem, it is also difficult and has consequences that are not at all negligible. Even if it is not always phrased like this, or perhaps not even spoken out loud, this question arises in every home.
Probably all children whose parents are part of a faith community come to notice at some point that their parents’ understanding about living out one’s faith is not identical to the way their family friends or church friends live it out.
As much as it is true that belonging to a church means adherence to a set of norms accepted by the members of that denomination, it is equally true that each of the members tries to give life to those norms in their own way, specific to their understanding and the experience they’ve had so far. Without realising it, we bring with us new elements that come from the traditions of the places where we grew up, the churches we were part of, or the way our parents understood how to live out their faith.
Furthermore, the Bible says that in the church there are both “wheat” and “weeds”, “sheep” and “goats” (or even “savage wolves”), sincere brothers and “false believers” (Matthew 13:25; 25:33; Acts 20:29; Galatians 2:4). Although we are not called to judge, surely this heterogeneity does not go unnoticed by our children, who will sanction our own pharisaic impulses with the same honesty.
Most of us have been taught that we must behave differently in public than at home because, “the world sees us” there. Although God fills heaven and earth (Jeremiah 23:24), the biggest fear we have—one that we pass on to our children—is related to the opinion of the majority, or at least those people who mean something to us. Thus, in fact, we set the tone for a duplicitous attitude and we have to accept that others sometimes do the same. So, a little more indulgence is not superfluous.
The above are just a few significant reasons why there will always be differences between the way we live out our faith and the way others live it out.
We became aware of this reality very early in the lives of our children. For instance, our older daughter was very surprised to see a small clip with cartoon characters projected in the church during a youth program. She knew that we don’t watch cartoons on the Sabbath, and she didn’t understand why they were allowed in the church. As the girls grew, these kinds of questions and situations multiplied.
Even if we don’t always have all the answers we would like, we would like to share some things that have been good for us, that have helped us find ways to answer these kinds of questions:
Seek to understand why you do what you do. We need to carefully examine our habits and the specific ways in which we live out our faith, trying to determine the foundations of our religious behaviour, distinguishing between what is a principle commanded by Scripture and what is tradition or custom. Tradition is not bad in itself, but it does not have the same normative authority as Scripture.
When we understand this, we will also be able to explain it to our children, helping them to see why we chose a certain way of expressing our faith, and not a different one. When they’re older, we can show them what exactly is a custom or a tradition and what is a norm or a principle. It is impossible to live without traditions, but we must not turn them into a norm that we impose indiscriminately on others.
Our children must know this very well so they can relate to others on the basis of this understanding, which will have a beneficial effect on us too, because when they grow up and choose their own way of living out their faith, we as parents will not be under the impression that giving up some of our customs means giving up God. Not only do we have to distinguish between tradition and the norm, but it is desirable to create living traditions in our family that help our children have the security of a predictable and stable living environment, an essential condition for a balanced and desirable development.
Do not tell others to do something you yourself do not do. It is already self-evident that many of us, out of all our daily activities, are best at giving advice. We should not forget that we are a model for our children not only at church, but also at home, in traffic, or on vacation, and every word of advice we give others must be backed by our behaviour, otherwise we only teach our children a lesson in hypocrisy. Moreover, this way, they will learn that it is okay to say one thing and do another, and they will easily learn this duplicitous way of life.
Help children understand the concept of “holiness”. If we read the Bible carefully, we will be surprised at how often we encounter the idea of the “fear of the Lord.” Solomon even says that this “fear” is the beginning of wisdom, that it lengthens your days, and can protect you from many decisions that will later turn into regrets.
The New Testament does say that “there is no fear in love”, but this does not mean that we can live how we please, nor that we can relate to God carelessly. The case of Ananias and Sapphira is a lesson in this sense. We cannot ask our children to respect a God they do not know or love, but neither can we encourage them to love and respect a God who is merely portrayed in their image and likeness.
Avoid judging others or believing that only your way of living out your faith is the right one. We were not called to the task of separating the world into the good and the bad people. Until the end of history, the wicked will dwell “in the midst” of the good. The highest priority must remain the “plank” in our own eye, rather than the “speck of sawdust” in the eyes or souls of others.
Not judging others does not mean, however, that we do not have to explain to our children why we choose not to behave the way others do. We must teach them that God is the One who judges their motivations, not us, but that our responsibility is to represent the Lord Jesus before others as beautifully as possible.
It is not the joy of golden streets or the fear of hellfire that is the reason for our faithfulness, but God’s love for us. We should not teach our children to compare themselves with others, nor to think that a certain religious practice makes them holier than others.
Belonging to a church does not make someone a role model or a true friend. We have to admit that many times there have been tragedies, abuses, and unwanted behaviour in the church as well. The fact that we all sit under the same roof and sing facing the same pulpit does not mean that we are all fully consecrated to the principles of Scripture, nor that we all see the world from the same angle.
We must teach children to be selective even with their Sabbath school or Sunday school peers when choosing their close friends. This does not only refer to those of their own age. Let’s not forget that the devil who could enter heaven can also enter our church, even if we have consecrated it to God.
There remains, however, a concern that perhaps should worry us the most: to not be the ones who turn others away from Jesus. Probably one of the simplest things we should do for our children is to help them understand that the life of faith is only beautiful when it is alive and when the joy of being with others in worship becomes contagious. Our prayers, if they are only about us, will gradually make us selfish and isolated. It is by loving others that we truly grow. And isn’t that what the church is all about?
Alina and Adrian Neagu are growing together with Alesia and Arianda and are continuously learning that personal example is among the most important callings that parents have.