Nothing tests your understanding of God like a preschooler.
Our firstborn is asking some pretty tough questions. I’ll be the first one to admit that I don’t have all the answers, especially to the tough questions a preschooler asks.
Perhaps nowhere are his questions tougher than when we read him Bible stories before bed. The Bible brings up some serious biz, yo. We use a children’s Bible (we love, love, love The Jesus Storybook Bible), but still.
After Pharoah’s army drowns in the Red Sea: “Why are the horses all under the water?” Should I talk to him about drowning right before bed?
After David slays Goliath: “What happened to Goliath? Why is he lying down?” Do we really need to talk about death at age three-and-a-half?
After Jesus is hung on the cross: “How come Jesus is sad? What is that red stuff on his face?” How much can he understand about the crucifixion? Is atonement theory too much for a preschooler? The crown of thorns? Because sometimes they’re too much for me…
The Bible doesn’t shy away from the difficult parts of life. God comes down to live in our mess, our suffering, our sin. Jesus couldn’t conquer death for us without dying himself, and his death was a brutal one indeed. The Bible covers birth and banality, sex and suffering, dinner parties and burial ones. The children’s Bibles tend to simplify these stories, but they’re still present. There’s no getting away from Jesus’ death–it (along with the resurrection, of course!) is the cornerstone of our faith.
But how to explain this to a preschooler? Or if to explain it? And how much? And when? What if I tell him that Pharaoh’s horses are just going for a swim? Am I a bad mom if I tell him Goliath is sleeping? A bad Christian? Is it too early to talk about Jesus having to die for him? To talk about death at all?
Raising my kids in the faith is the most important thing I’ll ever do, yet I often feel quite ill-equipped. I think we all do. All these questions come at the end of the day when mommy-exhaustion is at its peak. Seminary did not prepare me for any of this.
Learning as we go, my husband and I have developed a few guidelines for reading the Bible with our preschooler. We revise them constantly as he matures, and we make mistakes along the way. Here’s what we’ve learned.
1. Keep it simple
Sure, the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross is the most profound act in all of Christendom. It is mysterious and profound. It is cosmic and personal. It is everything.
A preschooler can’t understand this. Heck, an adult can’t. The same is true of many theological concepts. So keep them simple.
God is SO big and SO strong that we don’t have to be afraid.
Jesus wanted the children to come close to him because he loves children with all his heart.
God made everything, including you! Yes, he made your teddy too. And the sheets. And the blanket. And the nightlight. And the curtains. And Daddy. And Grandpa. Oh look at the time! Past your bedtime!
One of the beautiful things about Scripture is that almost every major story can be distilled down to something very simple. The greatest theologian on earth is puzzled by the mystery, but the youngest child can grasp it.
2. Reveal with age
At some point we will read Lincoln the story of Abraham and Isaac on Mount Moriah. You know, the one where Abraham raises a knife to slaughter his son on the altar and only stops short when God provides a ram? That one?
But not today. He’s three.
Today, while he still believes that Elmo is a person and that Lightning McQueen lives at Disneyland, we emphasize the things he can understand.
That Jesus loves him. That God is with him. That no matter what, we can trust that God is good and kind.
3. Don’t shut down questions
Our nightly Bible reading time usually becomes the hour of a thousand questions.
“Why does he have a beard? Where is she going? What is that big boat thing?”
It’s partially a stall tactic (what kid DOESN’T want another five minutes of attention before bed?), but it’s also an important teaching tool. I want my son to revel in his questions, not to fear them. I want him to know that we can and should ask things about God, about faith, about what this verse means and why that story is the way it is.
Allowing kids to ask questions, even difficult ones, is essential. Daryl and I answer them when we can, and when we can’t, we tell him we don’t know but we will try to find out.
4. Emphasize Jesus’ love and presence
At its heart, all of Scripture revolves around Jesus as our Savior. The idea of a Savior might be too difficult for a three-year-old to grasp, but Jesus as someone who rescues? Who makes bad things come untrue? Who keeps us safe? Who loves us even when we are naughty? That a kid can understand.
When Lincoln has nightmares, we remind him that Jesus is always with him (and that Mommy and Daddy are nearby, of course!). When we read the Bible we always end with a bedtime prayer that Linc would know of Jesus’ great love for him. The Jesus Storybook Bible calls it God’s “unbreaking, never-stopping, never-giving-up, always and forever” love.
What kid wouldn’t want that? Kids often understand love a lot better than adults.
How are you passing on the faith to your littles?