Nearly twenty years ago, my eldest offspring was six years old. One of our bedtime routines was a brief Bible reading.
One evening we found ourselves in the Garden of Eden story—Adam and Eve, a piece of fruit, and a snake with vocal cords.
As I read, my son kept sighing, as if impatient—even annoyed. Being the only Old Testament expert in the room and the very mirror of ideal fatherhood, I ignored him and kept reading.
But he kept sighing. He even had the audacity to interrupt me.
“Daddy, snakes can’t talk.”
The woman said to the serpent, “we may eat fruit from the tr….”
“Daddy. Snakes. Can’t. Talk.”
With a sense of foreboding, I stopped reading and asked him what was his deal was.
For the next few minutes I listened to a six-year-old deconstruct his faith, which amounted to the following:
Two naked people, magic fruit from a magic tree, and a talking animal. C’mon. This is obviously a story, not too different from the cartoons I watch or the other books you read to me, none of which you expect me to accept as reality. So, it seems to me that the Bible is a story, which gets me dangerously close to thinking that maybe God is a story, too. Hence—follow me here, Dad—I’m not sure why I should really believe God is real, which is to say, please stop reading, and can I have a glass of water?
My six-year-old was having a faith crisis.
Well that’s just perfect. I can see the headlines now: “Controversial Old Testament professor raises heretic son” (trial footage at 11:00).
My first instinct was fear: “Shhhhhh! Keep your voice down! He may hear you.” But, in one of those moments that for me constitutes sure proof of God’s existence, my mouth was kept from saying what my brain was telling it.
I tried a different approach: “You don’t really believe in God anymore? O.K., well, tell him.”
Let’s not talk about the problem, just tell God. Be honest with him.
My son wasn’t expecting that. He looked at me like I had spiders crawling out of my nostrils. He also looked a bit relieved.
I have no victory tale to tell, like “And that young boy grew up to be the next Billy Graham and C. S. Lewis rolled into one.” We each have our journey. But over the years, I have been thankful to God that I didn’t correct my son’s theology, for that would have been utterly stupid.
Had I shamed or coerced him into saying the right thing (so I would feel better about my parenting skills), had I tried to “manage” his spiritual journey, I would have been responsible for creating another religious drone, another one who, at a young age, was already learning to play the religion game.
I would have taught my son a crippling lesson, that faith in God requires him to be dishonest with God and with himself.
I am proud of that little six-year-old, who trusted himself (and me) enough not to play games. And I am thankful that I, by a flickering moment of God’s grace, didn’t blink (too much).
Life in Christendom can sometimes feel like a show. We can be quite concerned to put on appearances—even though the Gospel humbles the proud and unmasks the hypocrite.
Dishonesty cheapens the Gospel as yet another commodity to be controlled and manipulated for personal gain.
It ceases being that which gives us our true identities to that which is manipulated, along with everything else, to hold on to our false selves.
We construct many reasons for maintaining a posture of dishonesty. For many, the failure to utter before God where we really are and what we are really thinking reflects a lifetime of corrupt spiritual teaching: “God went through a lot of effort to save you, so the least you can do is have your act together so as not to disappoint him.”
In a perverse twist, “holding on to the Gospel” becomes a motivation to hold on to self-deception.
I have learned that God, for our own sake, does not let that condition continue indefinitely.
This post appeared in 2011 and 2013 and was adapted from my commentary on Ecclesiastes (Eerdmans, 2011). I explore similar themes in The Bible Tells Me So (HarperOne, 2014) and especially in The Sin of Certainty (HarperOne, 2016).