Raising Children Un-Fundamentalist – Part II

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This is part 2 of my blog series where I attempt to sort out the complexities of parenting as a Christian with an evolving faith. How do we pass on the good bits of our faith while leaving out the bad? I lay the foundation of the series by addressing the disparity of power between adults and children, you can read more about that here in part 1.

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I was a morbidly fearful child.

I was also a highly literate child, having learned to read before school years. My mother tongue is Mandarin, and the storybooks I consumed were Chinese folk stories. Some of them were harmless tales of developing moral character, but many recounted ancient Chinese myths of hell. In Chinese folk religion, hell consisted of eighteen levels, each containing a specific type of torture reserved for corresponding sins. It is not a stretch to say that the visual images of hell I saw in picture books as a young girl impacts me till this day. I was terrified. 

Fast forward to my school age years, when my parents sent me to a Christian school started by western missionaries, where I learned of the Jesus who could save me from hell. It was a no brainer for me. I believed swiftly because I was deathly afraid of hell.

I have told this testimony many, many times throughout my growing up years in the Christian world. It was the ice-breaker to my testimony, the chuckle-inducing anecdote to begin a speech: “I accepted Jesus because I didn’t want to go to hell!” People would smile and nod with approval at my child-like faith. How did nobody tell me it was not funny?

Certainly, as I grew in cognitive and spiritual development, I learned there was more to the Christian life than an escape from hell, but once you begin a relationship with God based on fear it takes years to unlearn the image of the punitive God to be able to receive the heart of the gospel of grace. It was true for me.

Aside from Universalists, most Christian traditions contain the doctrine of judgment, although the particulars of how that judgment is carried out varies along a spectrum. Whether it is actual physical torture for all eternity or some sort of separation from God; whether there’s purgatory or a second chance post mortem, there exists a form of judgment within the systems of Christian faith.

Good parenting sensibilities tell us we shouldn’t shy away from difficult truths, and although we try to be age-appropriate, we are obligated to share even the most unpalatable aspect of the Christian faith with our kids.

The problem is: children don’t yet have the emotional maturity and logical capability to process a belief in eternal punishment. Their budding minds can’t reason through the theological necessity of judgment in a loving God. So they panic and retreat into fear. In order to coax them out of their distress we comfort them, it’s okay, Jesus will save you, just believe in Jesus.

And so it begins, even as kids develop and eventually learn the nuances of Christian life, they are bearing the invisible baggage of fear that had them gripping for Jesus. The genesis of a relationship with a good and loving God is a child’s nightmare. 

If we are really honest with ourselves, we plant fear into our children’s hearts because we have not yet uprooted fear from our own. We want our children saved because we are so afraid of what would happen if they are not.

Before we can raise our children un-fundamentalist, we must excavate the nasty enemy of fear from deep within our hearts and boot it for good. Despite strong Christian traditions on the doctrines of heaven and hell, the afterlife remains an unknown mystery. To tell children you know for sure what will happen is to to be dishonest, and to act, well, as a fundamentalist.

we must excavate the nasty enemy of fear

It is bad religion to scare children into conversion and to dictate their morality from the basis of fear.

A strong desire for our children to know God and follow God need not and should not come from a fear for their eternal destination. Spiritual security for our kids doesn’t mean an assurance they will escape the fates of fiery doom, it means providing security rooted in the love of God. Just as we do all we can to provide for the physical and emotional needs of our children, so we must give them this safe spiritual environment.

God loves you without condition. God will never leave your side. God delights in you. God is like the mother hen gathering chicks. God is like the forgiving father welcoming his prodigal son. God is like a warm fire on a cold night, bringing you comfort. God cares beyond what you can imagine.

God loves you. God loves you. God loves you. 

This doesn’t guarantee the child will grow to believe in God. It doesn’t mean the hard conversations about suffering, judgment and injustice won’t be had when the child is old enough to tackle these issues. It does mean, however, that should they choose to live a life of faith, of belief in God, that it would not have come from a place of fear. Hopefully, it will mean they were compelled by the truths and love they witnessed in the lives of their parents, community, and the acts of God in the world.

When I was a young convert, having believed I was safe from hell because of a belief in Jesus, I remained terrified–because my parents had not yet become Christians. I spent agonizing hours praying desperately for them, willing there to not be an accident that takes their lives before they convert. I wish I knew then, what I know now, that the weight of the eternal damnation of my loved ones was far too heavy for my young, frail shoulders to carry. I wish I knew and believed God loves everyone, that we don’t know for sure what will happen after death, that choosing to love trumps fear.

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I will not repeat this mistake with my children. I will not be afraid for their salvation. I am choosing to channel my childhood fears into a fierce force of love for them, in the best ways I know how.

And may they know that I have only ever been able to love them the way I do because the God who loves them so, also loves me.

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I have been overwhelmed by the emails and comments on this blog and social media of you wonderful parents sharing some heart rending stories of raising your children un-fundamentalist. I read every one and am inspired by your amazing love for your children. Thank you for trusting me with your stories.

Let me know what you think of this delicate challenge of speaking about hell to your kids. How much does fear play into your Christian parenting? How can we do better?

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Read Part 1, Part 3Part 4, & interview w/ Peter Enns.

  • ERSchindler

    Many thanks Cindy for another super important post. Couldn’t agree more. It really touches on issues that my wife and I are currently discussing, in regards to raising our own kids!

    • Oh good, I hope I can help stimulate some good discussions!

  • I wonder if sometimes we feel like we need hell theologically in order to understand love. Sometimes hell and the corresponding exclusivism are also control mechanisms, (believe like me or else…) but sometimes I think people just really struggle to explain nebulous ideas like “God,” and “love” and even harder, “God’s love” if they don’t have something to compare it to. I love your point about drawing on all the metaphors of God’s love in our tradition! Maybe God’s love can just stand on it’s own without us feeling like we need to hold it up against a contrasting bit of horror in order to understand it.

    • Yes, I especially get uncomfortable when we can only speak of God’s love in terms of the depths of our sin. God’s love does so much more than forgive sins, and yet we can’t grasp it except in light of the forgiveness of sins.

      • Lee

        Check out the writings, and videos, by Baxter Kruger. He is a theologian with a great way of explaining the heart of God. He explains the beauty of the trinitarian life, and how we are included…all of us!

  • Chris Larosa

    What a wonderful entry, Cindy. Since coming out of the closet (an experience more painful than anything I could have imagined), I am now trying to ‘unfundamentalize’ my 4 kids. I can see so many things I did, like second nature, that were entirely rooted in fear. I refuse to raise my kids in that same manner any longer. Just forwarded this to a few of them. Walking in joy and freedom – wouldn’t trade it for anything.

    • Hi Chris, congrats on coming out of the closet! It does take a lot of years to unlearn the fears that became second nature! We all need so much grace from God, ourselves, and hopefully our children.

  • Suzanna Turner

    Boy do I relate personally regarding living my spiritual life in fear. Although I accepted Jesus and said the sinners prayer I still never could believe God loved me, ME. I wasn’t perfect so how could he save me. I prayed the sinners prayer so many times and i know Jesus cried hearing those prayers of desperation for fear of missing the rapture. When I couldn’t find my parents in the house I would automatically think I was “Left Behind”. I seriously hate those books. Although I have grown in my faith and truly believe in God’s unconditional love, articles like this can sometimes bring me right back. Great topic, Great article to teach parents how to present God as a loving Father/Mother where it is really understood before anything else. Children need to understand God’s unconditional love and not have to go through the long process of recovering from fundamentalism like many of us have.

    • It was hard for me to dig back to remember those fears when I was writing this blog. It seems crazy in hindsight, but at the time – so real.

  • John Bencheck

    Hell is the foundation of fundamentalism for sure. To control in blind obedience, you need an object of fear.

    I don’t know who’s “in” and who’s “out”.

    But I wrestle because I don’t want either to gloss over the more difficult aspects of faith and the Scriptures.

    • John, I don’t want to gloss over hard topics either. In fact, I think fundamentalists simplify faith and are unwilling to face the complexities of faith and Scripture. But with kids, I think we have to observe when they are ready, which is different for every kid. What do you think? Thanks for chiming in!

      • Lee

        You must convince yourself of the reality of God’s love, before you can calm anyone else’s fears. Check out “Beyond and Angry God”, by Steve McVey, or “Her Gates Will Never be Shut”, by Brad Jersak. Jesus stated clearly that if we could love him, then we would be able to obey him. The only hard topic, is that there is no life apart from fellowship with the Godhead. All those who rebel, will reap what they sow, but will be patiently waited for by a loving Father who cannot do anything but love his children.

  • I can’t begin to count the number of times I was afraid I wasn’t really a Christian. I would think if the house got to quiet that the rapture might have come (another fundy belief that takes a while to deconstruct). I was terrified I was left alone and would be condemned to hell. So, i’d whisper a prayer to be saved, just “in case” I wasn’t already saved. I lived in fear for the majority of the first 20 years of my life thanks to the fire and brimstone hell sermons and rapture sermons that were ingrained into my young brain.

    So, yeah, now I’m trying not to do that to my children.

  • Kallie

    We’ll teach them that hell isn’t biblical. That a loving God who expects us to forgive will damn people forever. Remove the baggage entirely & they don’t have to carry it.

  • Jeff Mullins

    I’m really appreciating this series. Thank you, Cindy. The work I do is coaching parents of kids with developmental disabilities (babies and toddlers) and much of that has to do with behavior. A real concept that I have to work through with most of them is that kids come into this world with a deep heart desire for both significance and belonging (this is from the work of Austrian psychologist, Alfred Adler). So, in disciplining our kids, we can’t use fear-based tactics, but, instead, those that speak to their deepest needs for significance and belonging.

    I say all this because I feel like it has so many parallels to faith in that we can’t be raising kids, or anyone really, to believe in God out of fear, just as much as we can’t discipline our kids out of fear. We all have that deep need for significance and belonging and that’s where Christ comes in. I really appreciate this blog and what you’re trying to do. It’s so heartening and helpful as a parent trying to teach my daughter to love God without indoctrinating her into a belief system that I can’t wholeheartedly buy into.

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