Wednesday, September 07, 2011

The Faith of a Child

Every month we have a bulletin insert from an evangelical organization, which gives helpful Christian parenting advice, and an assortment of short articles and Q & A’s. I’ve often been blessed by the insights they offer into relationships. But the August 2011 issue had an article about “Your Child’s Faith,” titled: “Big Decisions.” It discussed a mother’s conflicting emotions over her 4-year-old daughter’s wish to make a “faith commitment” to ask Jesus into her heart. Even after reading her pastor’s response to the “dilemma,” I still felt it noticeably missed the heart of the serious Biblical question involved. That question, is “Can (or does) a child have faith?”

Before we look at some Bible passages to find the answer, lets first just consider how the situation described in the article would have played out differently, if the underlying premise had been “Yes, a child can have faith!” First of all, the child’s desire to have Jesus in her heart would not have been a source of any “conflicting emotions” or hesitation. Instead it would have naturally given way to the joy of knowing that by faith, her believing heart was already joined to Jesus. Secondly, her realization that it is “significant” that Jesus instructs us to have a childlike faith, would be transformed to realize that a child’s faith is the model or example of what faith should be! Adult faith is not the model or example Jesus praises (quite contrary to our modern thinking)!! And finally, there would never be any question about “keeping it personal” as though we are uncertain about the child’s sincerity of faith or commitment. Simply put, if a child can and does have faith, then the whole muddle is resolved, and every expression of a child’s faith is a beautiful gift to celebrate and be thankful for! And neither is it an unformed precursor of real faith; rather, childlike faith is the real deal!

Ok, so since I’ve already jumped the gun, let’s see if the Bible really bears this idea out. Do children believe? Let’s start with Jesus’ own words in Matthew 18. First Jesus begins by teaching that “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (18:3). So far He has mentioned only that we must become like children to enter heaven, but He hasn’t mentioned faith. But then He goes on to describe how treacherous it is to cause one of these little ones to sin—that for such a person, it would be better to have been drowned. But here’s the essential words, that might easily slip your notice: “whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin…” (18:6). These little ones, these children, believe in Jesus! Children are capable of faith, and as said before, they—not us rational, expressive adults—are Jesus’ chosen model of faith! See also Mark 9:33-42; Luke 9:46-48.

How early then, can children believe? After all, how can we recognize faith, if it’s not expressed or spoken? Is this a capacity they acquire at an “age of decision” or “age of reason,” (when they can speak it) as taught in churches that don’t baptize infants? Luke 1:15 records the angel’s prophecy of the birth of John the Baptist, and how John would be “filled with the Holy Spirit, even from His mother’s womb.” The unborn child showed that he was filled with the Holy Spirit by leaping in His mother’s womb at the sound of the Virgin Mary’s voice, while she carried Jesus in her womb (Luke 1:44). Neither is this unique to John the Baptist, for the Old Testament describes such infant faith as well. In Psalm 71, the writer exclaims how he trusted in God from his youth; yes even before! “Upon you I have leaned from before my birth; you are he who took me from my mother’s womb. My praise is continually of you” (Ps. 71:6). Psalm 22, while speaking first and foremost of Christ, also speaks of infant faith: “Yet you are he who took me from the womb; you made me trust you at my mother’s breasts. On you was I cast from my birth, and from my mother’s womb you have been my God” (Psalm 22:9-10). This latter passage even shows how it is that infants (born or unborn!) can believe. God made us trust Him! God is always the giver and creator of faith (Eph. 2:8-9; 1 Cor. 12:3), which is why children can and do believe in God.

You see, faith is not something we consciously bring into our own heart as an “adult decision-making process.” Faith is not something we can identify at an outward glance of someone. Faith also is not a product of our own human will, any more than our rebirth as a child of God is a product of our own effort (John 1:13). As Jesus put it bluntly but beautifully to His own disciples: “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit…” (John 15:16).

So where then does this leave us with our analysis of the Focus on the Family article? If adult faith, not childlike faith were the model, and if faith was the effort of our human will and rational mind (even if assisted by the Holy Spirit!), and if we in fact choose Jesus—then the Focus on the Family article makes perfect sense, and a child’s faith is good and admirable, but still somewhat tentative and suspect, and perhaps even private. And we should postpone drawing any conclusions about the quality of their faith until they are old enough to understand and decide for themselves.

But, as I hope I have shown here, if childlike faith is indeed the model, and faith is a gift of God by the Holy Spirit that He can freely give to anyone at any age level, and that Jesus is in fact choosing us to be His disciples—then a child’s faith is nothing tentative or private, but it is the reality of the Holy Spirit working in them, at whatever level or capacity they can understand. Even when they can’t verbally express it (like John). It is the gift of God! And children should be encouraged to be bold in sharing and expressing their faith. They’re usually much better at it than we are as adults! Any wonder then that they are the model of faith, and not us? Of course we should reinforce and encourage their faith at every step of the way, and help them grow into spiritual understanding and maturity. But that doesn’t mean they didn’t have true faith before they reached maturity!

Children are the most wonderful and marvelous believers, and Jesus knew that and taught it to His reluctant disciples. To them belong the same gifts of God and His kingdom that are graciously given to us: Baptism, the gift of the Holy Spirit, the forgiveness of sins, and the promise of eternal life. Encourage and support the faith of even the youngest children, and never hesitate to affirm for them (even before they have words to express!) that their faith is real, genuine, saving faith in Jesus Christ. Because it is through the object of our faith—Jesus Christ—that we are saved, and nothing else. It is not because of the intellectual capacity or ability for expression of our faith, but because of the simple trust in Jesus, the belief that even a child possesses (Matt. 18:6). Thank God for their example!

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