DOES GOD CHANGE, OR DO WE CHANGE?
Encouraging Children’s Growth in Their Perception of God.
“When I was a child…I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became a man I gave up childish ways. …Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully”.
…I Corinthians 13: 11-12 RSV
When my daughter was very young, she accidentally hit her thumb with a hammer. Not long afterward she lost her thumbnail. Losing a thumbnail for my young daughter was very traumatic until I reassured her that a new one would grow back. It natures way of regenerating as we grow in age. Losing a childhood image of God can be much more difficult. We often find it hard to replace that old image with a new one. Toenails grow in automatically, but mature images of God need intentional learning.
Once when I attended a teacher training workshop, the leader had us each make two columns on a sheet of paper. At the top of the first column he instructed us to write “Used To Thinks”. At the top of the second column “Now I Thinks.” Under the first column we were asked to write words or phrases that we remember using to describe God when we were children. Under the second column, write words or phrases that we now use to describe God. The two columns looked something like the following:
USED TOO THINKS NOW I THINKS
God lives in Heaven God is love
God as old man with beard God is omnipotent and omniscient
God punished people who smoked God is spirit and mystery
behind the backyard shed God is forgiving
Gods knows everything you do God is spirit
(Try your own listing)
As we together examined our lists, it became clear that there were some very distinct differences between our perceptions of God as children compared to those as adults. Such differences might be characterized by the following:
• God doesn’t change, we do
• As we mature, so do our perceptions of God
• Immature concepts of God use concrete language
• Mature concepts of God use abstract language
• There is growth in our perception of God.
Childhood Images of God Reflect A Childhood Faith
Fair enough. We all have to start somewhere. Children have very concrete perceptions of life. Reality consists mostly in what they can see, feel, touch, and taste. Consequently they perceive God as a person. God lives somewhere. God has a home. God talks. God gets hungry. God acts like a parent. Children can comprehend these perceptions. They “fit” a child’s perspective.
But people mature. They become adults. Adults have a need and the ability to perceive and explain reality in different terms. We use abstract language and symbols as a means to describe complex relationships, deep-seated feelings, and thoughts apart from any concrete object. These are real experiences that can’t be communicated or understood in concrete terms. Maturing is that process of moving from the concrete toward the abstract.
Some illustrations here are helpful. Imagine when you were four years old and someone asked you to describe your parents. Perhaps you would have related that your mother made good chocolate chip cookies, your father was strong and played ball with you, and together they made sure you didn’t get sick or hurt yourself. Now imagine that same question posed at age thirty. Would you simply repeat your earlier answer? Or would you talk more about their kindliness, their caring, and their unconditional love. Which description of your parents was correct? Probably both, but each reflects a different ability to appreciate your parents.
Another illustration. As children, we perceive Santa Clause as an old man with a white beard who comes down the chimney bearing gifts for good little children. Somewhere in the maturing process, we abandon the idea of a concrete perception of Santa only to take up a more abstract one. As a mature adult Santa is the “spirit” of Christmas, the “idea” of giving, the metaphor for the season. Santa Clause hasn’t changed, but our perception of him has. Problems present themselves, however. Sometimes we become “frozen” in our earliest perceptions. Instead of abandoning our concrete notion of Santa and accepting a mature one, we reject him altogether. So also do we freeze our perception of God back at the third grade level. God doesn’t “fit” our mature perspective. No wonder so many people reject God as a “childish idea”. Childhood images of God are not automatically upgraded. They need intentional nurturing.
Growth in God Is a Journey
As teacher, our task is to enable children to grow their images of God. We help them move from concrete images to more abstract concepts without losing their faith in God altogether along the way. Growth in spirituality grows out of a contemplative effort. Children’s images of God grow as they struggle with life’s perplexities. They are encouraged to question. Is there really a God? What does it mean to trust? What happens when people die? What is a miracle? Growth in their perception of God happens through interaction with the world they live in as they wonder about creation, discover what it means to live in relationships, experience trust, and express gratitude. As adults – teachers, parents, and mentors – we intentionally contribute to growth by being accepting of their immature perceptions while they are children but continually challenging them as their ability to think abstractly develops. We “move” them, slowly but consistently from their perception of God as concrete person toward a God who reveals himself as “spirit and mystery.” It is always a progression, never a leap. How best can this be done? The following provide some clues:
Use Appropriate Language
There is the story of the child who visited her grandmother in the hospital as she was recovering from open heart surgery. The little girl was very curious about the procedure.
“Grandmother,” she asked, “Did they really open you up and see your heart?”
“Yes,” Grandmother replied so as to reassure the child. She then added, “And I am on the mend now and soon will be just fine.”
Not easily distracted, the little girl asked, “Did they see God in there?”
Recently the little girl had asked her church school teacher where God lived.
“In your heart,” the well-meaning teacher replied. “In your heart.”
Teachers especially need to remember that children perceive reality concretely. For a child, in your heart is a specific place, not a metaphor for the indwelling of God. Avoid adult language and symbols with children who have not yet attained the ability to view reality abstractly. Mixing the concrete with the abstract causes confusion.
Show God’s Love, Don’t Just Talk About It
Knowing that God loves you is very different from knowing about God. To feel God’s love is a matter of affection; the love is experienced. Knowing about God is merely cognitive; brain work, little more than information. Growing spiritually is always more than information about God. It involves encountering God through human relationships in the midst of life. You – the teacher, provide that relationship with that child. It’s up to you to “be” that loving person. A child’s first perception of God, and the most lasting, is often a projection of a relationship with an adult. If the adult can be trusted, and can be counted on to meet their needs, then the child transfers this into a trust relationship with the God you want that child to know. Building relationships needs to be part of the unwritten curricula in any spiritual education.
Children Learn What They Live
If growth in spirituality is dependent upon knowing a loving, caring, forgiving image of God, then it only makes sense that the tools necessary to teach that be the same – loving , caring, accepting, forgiving, etc. Children learn love by being loved. They learn caring by being cared for. They learn forgiveness by being forgiven. The experience of love drives the understanding of love. In other words, the experience comes before the concept. Once a child experiences love, forgiveness, caring, acceptance, etc. then they are ready for you to transfer that experience to an understanding of a God who is loving, forgiving, caring, and accepting. When this happens, they will know what you are talking about. They will be susceptible to growth in their perception of God.