When I was small, I feared God.
Not in the biblical sense of honoring and obeying God, although I tried hard to do that as well. I was actually afraid of God, whom, I believed, was always watching me, ready to pounce if I made a wrong move or even if I had a wrong thought. I spent much time wracked with guilt over the most minor perceived infractions, and I asked Jesus to “come into my heart” dozens of times, just to be on the safe side. I didn’t want to end up in hell through a clerical error on my own part, so I constantly asked for forgiveness and worried over each little ‘sin.’
May I note here that this brand of fearful religion was emphatically not what was taught to me by my parents? It was not. Nor, I think, was it taught by my varied and colorful Sunday school teachers over the years. Still, when it came right down to it, the essence of being a Christian seemed to me to consist in keeping certain rules, because if you didn’t keep those certain rules just right, the wrath of God might come pouring out on you as it did on the people in Noah’s day, or those folks at the tower of Babel, or Sodom and Gomorrah.
God seemed both really powerful and really scary. “God is love,” my Bible (and countless Christian greeting cards) said, but I wasn’t so sure.
Have you ever considered why we tell children some of the stories we do? Noah’s ark is a favorite theme for nursery décor, and makes for fun coloring pages full of animals going two by two, but it’s a story of God nearly wiping humankind off the face of the earth. That story in which the ground opens up to swallow Korah and a few hundred other rebellious people in the book of Numbers was illustrated terrifyingly in my Bible in Pictures for Little Eyes, which also featured a picture of King Solomon worshiping a truly gruesome idol. Especially for children who are largely shielded from images of violence, these stories can be confusing and horrifying. Who is this God? Can this God be trusted?
(Actually, more than a few adults stumble over these stories -- and the slaughter of the Canaanites -- just as children do, or even more.)
Thanks in large part to some of these stories, when I was a child, and even after I could no longer be called a child, I often assumed that bad things happened because of sin: that a specific person’s specific sin caused specific things to happen to them, which was at the root of my fear of God, who, I thought, could and did make terrible things happen if a person didn’t behave him or herself.
That was how a lot of people in Jesus’ own day thought, too. Even though God has always been a gracious and forgiving God, people assumed that bad outcomes were the result of sin. In particular, illness and disability were assumed to be God’s judgment for sin. When, in John 9, Jesus’ disciples ask him whether it was a blind man, or the blind man’s parents, who had sinned and caused his blindness, they were operating on this common presumption. We might call it the vending machine theory of results: you put a coin in the Vending Machine of Righteousness and get Blessings. Put a coin in the Vending Machine of Sin and you get some kind of painful, sad, or horrifying affliction.
But Jesus tells them -- tells us -- that this is not at all how the world works. Then he heals the man of his blindness in an echo of God’s first act of creation: where there was darkness -- on the earth, and for the blind man -- God, Jesus, brought forth light. IN this act, Jesus doesn’t exactly explain why the man is blind. But he does show us that sin and suffering and darkness are going to be made right, healed, brought to light. Those who can’t walk will run. The dead will rise. The poor and humble will inherit the kingdom of God and the rich and powerful will be sent away empty precisely because they think that by keeping all the rules and having all the “right” answers they can earn their way into God’s kingdom.
Over the last few years I have had the privilege and joy of working on a curriculum for children that aims to walk with them through the wonderful and often strange world of the Bible, with this Surprising Savior as their guide; this Savior who is the God of the universe, worthy of worship, who also welcomes little children to his side. No one has ever seen God -- as Scripture tells us and as my six year old enjoys reminding me -- but we have seen Jesus, and we have read the testimonies of his eyewitnesses in the Gospels.
It’s not that children -- or adults -- should never be invited to wrestle with those thornier stories and difficult doctrines of the Bible. It’s just that for me, for my children, and, I suspect, for many others, our surest guide through its often-confusing pages is the Word-made-Flesh himself -- Jesus Christ.
Rachel’s book about Jesus for children (and their parents!), The Unexpected Way, is now in print.
Rachel Marie Stone is the author of Eat With Joy: Redeeming God's Gift of Food. Her writing has appeared in Christianity Today, Sojourners, Books & Culture, RELEVANT, and others. She also regularly contributes to Her.meneutics. Rachel lives in Malawi, Africa with her husband Tim and two little boys. You can read more from her at her blog, or follow her @rachel_m_stone.