What did you expect … . They’re only children!” Have you ever heard or uttered that sentiment? Those words could be rightly used to defend a child from unrealistic expectations, but those same words could also easily be used to lower genuine expectations for our children. Far too often in our modern age, children are either held up as the perfect hope for the future, or they are debased as having no value or contribution to make. Sadly, these extremes can be seen in the church as well. At times, we hold our children to impossible standards of obedience or performance – which dishonours Christ and often crushes our children’s faith. However, we dare not overreact to that sort of legalism in the church by turning to the antinomian idea of not expecting much at all from our children! So, what should we expect of our children? How does the Bible shape our view of what a child can accomplish in their youth?
The Bible’s view of children gives us an excellent antidote to the two extremes mentioned above. For on the one hand, the Bible teaches us that children are sinful from conception onwards (Psalm 51:5). Therefore, children are not to be trusted by themselves or given free rein to do as they wish – for that would certainly lead to sin and destruction (Proverbs 22:15 & 29:15). However, the Bible frequently also calls on young people and children to learn God’s Word, wisdom and instruction (Proverbs 1:4; Ecclesiastes 12:1). Furthermore, the Scriptures give us multiple examples of faithful children and youth who accomplished much for God’s Kingdom (Joseph, Samuel, David, Josiah, etc). The biblical view of youth is overall quite positive. There is a natural tendency toward folly and sin, but with instruction and correction our young people can do great things for the Lord! Therefore, we must have realistic and yet high expectations for our young people. Children can serve the Lord while they are young, and we should prayerfully expect the Lord to work amongst our young people.
So, what are biblical expectations for how our children can serve the Lord in their youth?
I would like to answer that question in two ways: first, by speaking of what the Bible says about and requires of the young; and second, by giving some examples of what young people accomplished in the Bible.
Firstly, what does the Bible say about and require of young people?
Even though they are little sinners, children are nonetheless blessings from the Lord (Psalm 127:3). These little blessings are to be cared for and nurtured in the faith from their infancy. Deuteronomy 6:6-9 explains that parents should disciple their children in God’s Law and the faith at all times of life and at every opportunity. Psalm 78:5-7 gives a similar instruction, explaining that God always intended the faith to be passed from generation to generation. The tone of these passages and others (like Proverbs 4:1-4) indicate that from infancy our children can learn major concepts about the Bible, God, His Law, and what God requires of us Perhaps one of the clearest verses on that point is from Paul’s letter to Timothy (2 Timothy 1:5 + 3:14-17). Paul there reminds Timothy of how he learned the faith from his mother and grandmother, and how he learned the Scriptures from his infancy. The Bible fully expects children to be able to learn the Scriptures, and when you read certain portions of God’s Word to children repeatedly – they can learn it rather quickly (see my other article in this issue). The NT specifically addresses the role of children in the church by discussing their standing before God (1 Cor.7:14), by addressing them directly (Eph.6:1, Col.3:20), and by explaining that true faith will be similar to that of a child (Matthew 18:2-4, 19:4, Mark 10:5). These passages indicate that if children are to be in the church, and we are to have the simple trusting faith of a child – then certainly our children should be taught and discipled in the faith! Surely, we should expect more of our young people than simply thinking that they should attend a few classes but that they can’t really be useful or responsible in the church until they are basically adults. We should be discipling our children to own the faith from a young age, teaching them to serve the Lord from their hearts, because even children can be used of the Lord.
Secondly, let’s examine what certain young people in the Bible have been able to accomplish.
If only adults can faithfully serve the Lord, then we would expect that only adults would be commended in the Word of God. But if children should be seriously discipled in the faith and much be expected of them – then we should see evidence of children and young people doing great things for the Lord in Scripture.That is what we see!
Probably the most famous example that is given of a child being faithful to the Lord in a tough circumstance is David when he fought Goliath. However, I think that isn’t the best example because of how the text speaks of David. Based on the description of him in 1 Samuel 16-18, David was probably sixteen to nineteen years old and as strong as a grown man when he fought Goliath. He was not a spindly twelve year old! He was a man of war who could wear Saul’s armour, and he didn’t tell Saul that it didn’t fit him … . David complained that he was not used to wearing armour (as in it he found it difficult to move). Having said all that, David still provides an excellent example for our teenagers for how to trust the Lord and how to stand up for what is right. The example of Joseph is another excellent example for our youth and teenagers, for the Lord preserved him both in the face of temptation and in the face of trial (Genesis 37-40).
Perhaps better examples of faithful children could be found in the child kings Joash and Josiah. Joash was seven when he became king of Judah. In 2 Kings 12, we are told that he was faithful to the Lord and did what was right in the sight of the Lord all the days of Jehoiada the priest. Evidently, it was the sound counsel and strong teaching of the high priest which enabled Joash to obey and serve the Lord. We should expect our children to respond well to solid teaching as well. Josiah, on the other hand, was a little bit different. Josiah didn’t have one particular role model or guide to keep him straight. However, he was more faithful to the Lord than Joash. In 2 Kings 22, we are told that Josiah did what was right in the sight of the Lord and walked in all the way of his father David, nor did he turn aside to the right or to the left! Imagine that … a young child of eight being crowned king of Judah, and the Lord preserved and held him faithful as the ruler of His people!
Another example of faithful young people is found in the book of Daniel. There we find the examples of how Daniel and his friends (Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego) were faithful to the dietary restrictions of God even in a foreign land, and how they refused to worship the image of the king even in the face of death. These young people had clearly been taught the Word of God, and they were faithful to apply what they had learned when their parents and teachers were no longer around. In a foreign land they remained true to the Lord. In like manner, we should train our children to love and obey the Lord even when we are not there to prompt them.
In my opinion, the best example of a child serving the Lord in the Scriptures comes from 2 Kings 5. We all know the story of Naaman the Syrian who came to Elisha to be healed of his leprosy, but we might occasionally forget the story of the little girl who told him about Elisha. We are not told much about this young girl, except that she had been taken captive by a raiding party of the Syrians. From that brief description, you can imagine what this little girl must have endured. She would have been growing up as a daughter of Israel, being taught the faith in her city or village, when the Syrians came riding into town. The Syrians would have attacked her home and killed and pillaged their way across the countryside. Perhaps her parents were killed, or perhaps she was simply kidnapped. Either way, she was separated from everyone and everything she held dear and forced to work in the home of an enemy of God’s people. For many, that sounds like a recipe for bitterness against God and man alike, but what do we see in that account? This little girl saw the leprosy of Naaman her master, and she had compassion on him. She remarked to her mistress, “I wish that my master were with the prophet who is in Samaria! Then he would cure him of his leprosy.” That is more than just an example of a child-like faith. That is a mature and expectant faith! This little girl was confident that God could heal this man through his prophet Elisha, and she even desired to see him healed in this way. In her attitude and words, we see a depth of faith, forgiveness and godliness which could easily put many adults to shame.
Now, some might be tempted to write off such biblical stories as if they were mere exceptions to the rule. However, while exceptional, such accounts clearly show that children can achieve much for the Lord. Children can be faithful, and we should disciple and train them to serve the Lord fervently from the heart from their earliest days. We dare not expect less of our children. We should expect more! But that doesn’t mean that we place unbearable burdens on our children or young people. Rather, it means that we seek to mould and shape them through God’s Word to be serious disciples of Christ. It is my prayer that the Lord will give us zeal for discipling the next generation so that they will surpass us in godliness and faithfulness to our Lord!
Mr Daniel Wilson is the minister of the Reformed Church in North Shore.