How do we shepherd small children through the pains of life? The question comes to us from a mom in Baltimore named Taylor. She writes, “Hello, Pastor John! My husband and I have been deeply encouraged and greatly challenged by this podcast and through all the Desiring God resources. Thank you! I just started your new book, Providence, and it is stirring my heart with great affection toward our God. Thank you for helping to align my emotions through your writing with the reality that is ours. This past fall, my husband was in a serious car accident. He walked away from it with just a concussion, but our car was totaled. When we shared this with our 3-year-old, in an age-appropriate way, he was greatly affected by this, even angered. We tried to explain how God had allowed this and protected Daddy through his providence, but he had two responses: asking when God will ‘make Daddy dead,’ and showing anger toward God and wanting to ‘beat him up.’ How would you explain suffering in light of God’s providence to a toddler, and help him to love God more for it?”
There are two principles that need to be taken into account when choosing what to say about God to a particular audience or child. One principle is whether they are open and mature enough to understand the truth. The other principle is whether we have spoken the truth clearly and boldly enough so that a real judgment can be formed about it.
Is Our Audience Ready?
Two passages of Scripture relate to that first principle. Jesus said, “Do not give dogs what is holy, and do not throw your pearls before pigs, lest they trample them underfoot and turn to attack you” (Matthew 7:6). I’m not saying you should think of your 3-year-old as a dog or a pig — although his responses were the kind of responses Jesus had in mind when he gave that principle: “I’m gonna beat God up.”
Rather, the point is that there are audiences or children that are so spring-loaded to reject the truth that Jesus warns us not to bring reproach on the truth by having it trampled under their feet. Your 3-year-old may show himself to have such an attitude toward God’s providence that you should measure your teaching by what he can hear. You don’t substitute falsehood for truth; you simply decide how much and when you can share.
Now the other passage is 1 Corinthians 3:1–3:
I, brothers, could not address you as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it. And even now you are not yet ready, for you are still of the flesh. For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh and behaving only in a human way?
Here the problem is not with swinishness but immaturity: “I . . . could not address you as spiritual people, but . . . as infants.” That’s the first principle: Is the audience or the person, the child, open enough, mature enough to receive the particular truth you’re talking about?
Have We Spoken Clearly?
Here’s the second principle — namely, whether we have spoken the doctrine clearly and boldly enough, so that the people have a real sense of its truth and worth and beauty. Paul says in 2 Corinthians 4:2,
We have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways. We refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God.
An “open statement of the truth” — that’s what’s needed for a clear grasp of the doctrine, and a sense that it is good and wise and just and beautiful. You can see how this is almost the exact opposite of the first principle. In that case, we might say too much, and in the second case, we might say too little, or hedge the truth a bit.
Now what I have in mind in this second case, this second principle, is perhaps being so cautious, or so hesitating, or so qualifying in our talk about God’s sovereignty, that a child may pick up, in the way things are explained, or the tone of voice, that Mom and Dad are not exactly excited or joyful about God’s providence.
The child may hear, in the explanation, a kind of permission not to like this doctrine. A lot of people talk that way about God. They are so ready to excuse anger at God that they talk about his sovereignty as though it actually invites anger. I think anger at God is always wrong — always. If you feel it, of course, you should say it. But to feel anger at God is sinful. So I don’t think our tone of voice or the way we talk about God’s providence should sound like it invites disapproval.
I don’t know which of these two principles — say less, say more — should govern these parents right at this moment with this child. But I’m very surprised that a 3-year-old feels free to talk about beating God up. It surely sounds like God has been presented to him in a way that God is too small, too humanlike. But I’m not there, and I can’t say with any certainty.
Four Ways to Teach Providence
What about the last part of the question: How would you explain God’s providence to a toddler and help him to love God more for his providence? Here are four suggestions.
1. Illustrate God’s merciful providence.
First, tell him stories that illustrate how bad things are often God’s wise and merciful way of doing good to us. For example, I know several stories where a serious injury happened to a person, and it was the way the doctors found the cancer in the lacerated leg, which then enabled the doctors to start therapy that saved the person’s life. Then you can teach the child: “That’s always true. That’s always true when bad things happen to God’s children. He always does good through them, even if we can’t see it.”
“Bad things are often God’s wise and merciful way of doing good to us.”
Another example is this: When you go to the doctor, he pokes at you; or when you go to the dentist, he drills on you; or a doctor cuts you to have surgery to save your life. He hurts you to save you. The doctor’s always doing that for our good. So you tell those stories to children to build in the truth so that they can grasp that bad things, hurtful things, painful things are not unloving things from God. They can get that very early.
2. Explain that suffering is normal.
Second suggestion: weave into your teaching, again and again, the passages that say suffering is necessary for Christians and designed by God. Teach a child that suffering is normal, not exceptional, for Christians.
- Matthew 5:12; 24:9
- John 15:20
- Romans 5:3
- James 1:2, 12
- 1 Peter 1:6; 4:12
And on and on and on. Saturate your kids with this doctrine.
3. Remove any sense of entitlement from God.
Third, and related to that second suggestion: teach your child that we are sinners and that we don’t deserve anything good from God. The surprising thing in a world of rebels like us is not pain; the surprising thing is pleasure. God is super, overly abundantly good to his creation, giving us better than we deserve every day — all the time, better than we deserve.
“The surprising thing in a world of rebels like us is not pain; the surprising thing is pleasure.”
In fact, everybody gets better than they deserve once you understand the nature of sin. God is never unjust in the suffering of this world — never. We don’t deserve better than we get, ever; we always deserve worse than we get. Every good thing is grace, grace, grace. Teach a child grace as undeserved favor. Strip a child of all sense of entitlement before God.
4. Look always to the cross.
Finally, point the child over and over again to the cross of Christ — where the worst suffering happened in the world — and explain how the death of his Son was planned by God (Acts 4:27; Isaiah 53:4–10). This is where the child will see how bad his own sin is, because when he asks, “Mommy, Daddy, why would God do that to his own Son?” the answer is that Mommy’s and Daddy’s sin, and your sin, is that bad, and takes that much suffering and love from God.
I think if those four suggestions are followed, children will be more able to submit to God’s providence and feel thankful for everything that God turns for good.