When I was a teenager I remember telling myself that I didn’t want to have children out of fear that they wouldn’t choose to follow Jesus and would end up going to hell when they died. It’s a valid fear, I would say. I don’t think the fear ever completely left but I think at some point it became a motivation for prayer rather than an obstinate barrier to having a family. This is probably one of the reasons, however, that Tara and I have made such a big deal about celebrating spiritual birthdays with our kids on the day they accepted Christ. That coupled with my firm belief that we can abandon our relationship with Jesus if we so freely choose later in life, is the reason for a tradition our kids have come to expect on the day they originally chose Jesus; at bedtime on the spiritual birthday I always ask them if they still want to continue obeying Jesus and we pray to rededicate their lives.
I don’t want them to fear that they aren’t saved, or that anything could snatch them out of His mighty hand, but I certainly want to reinforce that they must maintain a fresh and active relationship with their Savior (and who wouldn’t want to!) This has been one of the things that we have done to help our kids understand what a true relationship with Jesus looks like and that to be a follower of The Way means that they will have to make decisions often as to whether they will choose to live like a Christian or not.
If you are a new parent, you may be wondering how soon you should start telling your child about Jesus and the importance of choosing Him, and I would say right from day 1. Although they won’t remember it, pray over your baby often and out loud that he or she would choose to follow Jesus one day. Ask right from the beginning that the Holy Spirit would fill them and would draw them into a relationship with our Lord.
This does two things; first of all prayers are powerful and as parents we have a lot of authority over the spiritual activity in our homes but second it creates a pattern of language in your home that will continue as they grow older. I used to say that we shouldn’t do evangelism with children because they are so easily manipulated into making decisions, and certainly they are, but I don’t believe that anymore, particularly because of our decision to revisit that decision often with our kids. Of course a decision they make as a four-year-old isn’t going to cut it as an adult, they need to mature in their decision to follow Jesus, but that doesn’t mean that the decision they make as a four year old isn’t profoundly important.
So I would say, if you speak early about the importance of believing in God and obeying Him and your three year old wants to ask Jesus into their hearts (a phrase not found in scripture but one which is very helpful for a little mind) then pray with them and help them begin their Christian journey.
When children are young the most powerful lessons we can teach them are of God’s love for them, but do not be afraid to teach them the reality that it is only those who love Jesus who will live with Him forever in heaven. Eventually what will happen is they will ask the inevitable question, “But what about those people who don’t believe in God?” And then you can tell them about hell as well. This will be a natural progression that varies from child to child but don’t discount it, this is very likely the Holy Spirit at work. There will likely be some natural fear that creeps into their little hearts and that isn’t bad, it just needs to be gently dealt with, helping them understand that they don’t need to worry because Jesus can save them.
I would like to point out that this is one of those criticisms that Christians get about raising children with a fear of hell, but that is just silly nonsense. If you think that a child in an atheist’s family won’t eventually ask about death and what happens after, you are kidding yourself. And if the atheist chooses to “lie” to their kids at that point about heaven and angels just to make the idea more easy to digest, they have done more harm than the Christian who acknowledges the truth. Eventually that little boy and girl will learn the reality about what their atheist parents believe and the weight of non-existence will hit them like an icy shower. We should never fear telling the truth to our kids when they are asking genuine questions about life and death! And if they start to fear for their friends and relatives who don’t know Jesus, then you teach them to intercede for them. From my earliest memories I remember saying the same memorized prayer every night (“Dear Heavenly Father, help me to be a faithful servant unto Thee…”) but at the end of the poem I would always tack on “And please help uncle Gerald to know you one day.” It was a precious day when, as a teenager, I met the recently converted uncle Gerald and was able to tell him about those hundreds of repeated prayers as a child.
All this is to say that the talk of salvation, a relationship with Jesus, sin, heaven, hell – in other words TRUTH – should be a part of our regular family life from as early as possible! Parents, when is the last time you told your kids why you are a Christian? Do they know how different your life was or would have been with Jesus? Why not take some time to plan when you will tell them again? And then spend some time right now interceding for their salvation!