This is my daughter London with Jesus. She found him in a closet in my Bible classroom, and asked if she could play with him. I thought she meant play with him like she’d play with memory cards or a Barbie doll. She meant play with him like she’d play with a friend at school. She talked to Jesus about her day. She colored with Jesus. She took Jesus on a tour of the upstairs classrooms. She took a picture with Jesus on my computer. She cried as I folded him up and put him back in the closet.
London is good at loving—for a kid anyway. She loves her dad and I with home-made cards, a made bed and hugs. She knows my favorite color and which outfit is my favorite. She helps me pull weeds. She asks me about my day. She listens to my stories.
She tells me she loves me “more than anyone in the whole world.” And then she says, “Because God doesn’t live on the world. I love Him the most.” And she does, but she doesn’t. Loving God is complicated.
Perhaps the biggest hurdle standing in the way of London’s loving God is not being able to see Him. I loved the way her face lit up when she saw that laminated Jesus. There he was, touchable, huggable, with eyes to look into as she talked.
A few weeks ago I wrote a post titled "Why You Don’t Love God." A lot of people read it. Perhaps due to the prominently featured picture of Ryan Gosling. I think people read it because so many want to love God.
In that post I zeroed in on one reason we may be missing the kind of all-in love God expects: I said, it’s likely we’re not looking.
I suggested that, with God, to look is to love.
Your responses to the post were overwhelming, and in the past few days several of you have asked, “How can we teach our kids to love God, too?”
Today’s post is dedicated to answering that question through the specific filter of looking to love.
In Deuteronomy, just after Israel has received the ten commandments, God calls his people not just to obey them, but also to pass them on to their children. He says:
Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.
The single most important thing we can do as parents is to teach our kids to love God with all their heart, all their soul, and all their strength.
I’d suggest that teaching them to see God will most powerfully equip them for a lifetime of loving Him.
Here are four ways we parents can teach our kids to look and love:
1. Tell God’s story (not just Jonah’s)
During Passover, the Israelites gathered around the family table to tell their children the story of how Jehovah rescued His people. During the feast of tabernacles, Jews would camp with their kids outside the city and tell stories of God’s faithful provision during the wilderness wandering.
In these stories, God was always the hero—Rescuer, Savior, Deliverer.
Today, we tell our kids these same stories. And others, too. We tell them about Moses parting the Red Sea and about Jonah swallowed by a fish and about Mary raising baby Jesus. But while the Israelites’ stories focused on God’s power to save, our stories today sometimes focus on the men and women receiving the saving. The story is “about” Moses or Jonah or Mary.
If we want our kids to love God, we need to tell His story, never content to let God play the role of a minor character. God is the star of every story.
For my family, that looks like approaching the Bible with these two questions:
Who is God? and What is He doing?
In the parting of the Red Sea, God saves His people and defies the laws of nature. He’s mighty. In rescuing Jonah with a big fish, God forgives and surprises. He’s full of mercy. In sending Jesus through a young girl, God’s upending expectations. He’s holy.
I don’t tell my kids Bible stories so they’ll know the Bible or so they’ll know about Moses. I tell my kids Bible stories so they’ll know (and love) God.
2. Open the Card First
We go to a lot of kids’ birthday parties and every time the presents come out, the birthday boy or girl gets reminded, “Open the card first.” It’s the most basic of party etiquette.
The card attaches the gift to the giver and enables our expressions of thanks.
James writes, “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights.” If that’s true, for your kids an hour in the bouncy house is a gift from God. A goal on the soccer field is a gift from God. An A on a paper, a new puppy, a beautiful sunset—all of it comes from God. And while we wouldn’t dare let our kids open a birthday present without first opening the card and then thanking grandma, we so often let them enjoy God’s luxurious blessing without ever pointing His way.
Every gift is a token of God’s love. And every gift unacknowledged is a missed opportunity to impress upon our children “how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ.”
For our family this looks like a running list of thank you’s in window marker on the french doors. It looks like thanking God every night for at least three things. And, more powerfully, it looks like pointing to God in the moment:
“Look at the beautiful ocean! Thank you, God, for beautiful places!”
“What a delicious peach! Thank you God for making peaches!”
"Didn’t God have a great idea when He made tomatoes? Thanks God! We love tomatoes."
If you want to raise kids who love God, teach them to see God in the gifts and remind then (again and again and again) to say thank you.
3. Write Love Letters Out Loud
When I teach kids about praise, I say praising God is telling Him how awesome He is. Assigning adjectives to God matters, because in telling Him Who He is, we discover Him.
One of our favorite prayer prompts with the kids is “God, You are so _________.” Most of the time we get words like “big” and “mighty” and “strong.” Sometimes we get “beautiful” or “wise” or “cute.” One time Eve said, God, “You are so big. And so small.” I asked her what she meant, and she said God was bigger than the world and so small He could fit inside her.
When kids praise God, out loud with words, they become acquainted with His character. It’s like sitting down to write a love letter: How do I love thee, let me count the ways…
C.S. Lewis famously said praise isn’t just about honoring God. He said,
I had never noticed that all enjoyment spontaneously overflows into praise—lovers praising their mistresses, readers their favorite poet, walkers praising the countryside, players praising their favorite game. … I think we delight to praise what we enjoy because the praise not merely expresses but completes the enjoyment; it is its appointed consummation.”
When we give our kids an outlet for their enjoyment of God, their enjoyment is furthered and made complete. I see this when London and Eve jump on the bed giggling and chanting “God is great.” Or when London hears something in a Bible story and smiles this gigantic smile and says “Oh my! God is awesome!” Or when she sings “My God is mighty to save” in her loudest voice, eyes closed in worship. In those moments, my girls dive (sometimes cannonball) into the deep-end of love for God.
4. Train Their Eyes
In 2 Corinthians, Paul writes, “So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen” and that seems a ridiculous thing to say. But seeing the unseen is actually the christian’s superpower, both a spiritual gift and a spiritual discipline, one we must hand on to our children.
It’s our responsibility and privilege to open our kids’ eyes to the constant, abiding presence of God. I’m trying to teach my young children that, no matter what and no matter where, God is with us.
God is at dinner with us.
God is in the car with us.
God is here in the tent while the wind howls and the trees cast scary shadows.
One of my favorite quotes is from Elizabeth Barrett Browning. She writes,
Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God,
But only he who sees takes off his shoes;
The rest sit round and pluck blackberries.”
I want my kids to see. And so I’m training their eyes. Every day I ask them, “Where did you see God?”
- After a favorite tv show, where did you see God?
- After the YMCA, where did you see God?
- After a walk in nature, where did you see God?
- After a baseball game, where did you see God?
- After a trip to the museum or zoo or nursing home, where did you see God?
- After school, where did you see God?
You may decide to keep a cork board with sightings hung by pushpin. If your kids are older, you might encourage a God-sightings journal. No matter what you do, get them in the habit of looking. And you’ll lead them straight into loving.
This is obviously an incomplete list. Perhaps the most powerful reason I love God today isn’t one of these at all, but rather because I lived in the light of a person (my grandfather) obsessively and delightfully in love with God, me always watching him as he watched God.
Surely you have ways you’ve been taught to love God or ways you’re teaching your kids to love God. I’d be thrilled to hear from you in the comments.
I pray that as parents we’d be committed to teaching our kids to love God, specifically, to showing them how to see Him—in stories, in gifts, in praise, in every single God-crammed moment.