God and My Three Year Old
"There is no God." The words fell heavy in the room. A cringe of shock shook me and I'm sure a rush of blood flooded my cheeks. Embarrassed, I averted my eyes from my parents. And tried to respond as slowly and gracefully as I could.
"Well, Thaddeus, mommy and daddy and Nona and Boppa believe that there is a God. But, you get to choose what you believe."
We were sitting at the table about to have dinner. My dad had started to pray and my son had, as always, interrupted with screaming, "NO! I want to pray!" My dad said ok and my son preceded to pray the same prayer he prays every time,
"God our father, thank you for the food. Amen"
On this particular day I was feeling a bit frustrated with his repetitive, shallow prayer and decided to take it as an opportunity to have a conversation about prayer.
"You know what, Thaddeus, we can thank God for more than just the food."
A chorus of suggestions sprung up from around the table.
"Like the cousins"
"Or grandma and grandpa"
"Or baby sister"
I continued, "And we can also pray about things we feel, or things we want. God wants to hear about all of it."
I had barely gotten out the last sentence before he was yelling "No!" again. And just as my voice silenced his words fell echoing across the table,
"There is no God!"
He said it with the conviction of a full grown atheist who's made the argument a hundred times. There was passion in his voice.
I used to think that children's spirituality mimicked their parents until they reached a certain age at which point they would have to wrestle with their beliefs and come to their own conclusions. If their parents said there was no God they would believe that. If their parents said there was a God their belief would follow their parents.
If a child told me "There is no God" I would wonder where they heard that and who they were parroting. Now I know differently.
Bryan and I would never tell Thaddeus there is no God. None of our family would tell him that. He's been to church, learning about God, since he was a baby. Most of our friends have at least some form of belief and spirituality. He is not parroting. He has come to this belief on his own.
At three years old his little mind insists that there is no God.
But I sense something different in his heart. His heart seems scared of God.
And that breaks my heart even more than his statement of disbelief.
Because I know that fear. That fear of punishment. That fear that if God exists he isn't good. He is harsh. He is vengeful. He is not safe. He is something to fear.
I felt that fear. It was the defining characteristic of my spiritual life for most of my childhood. And it still rattles and drives me at times.
For me that fear drove mto trying to be the perfect Christian. It drove me to pray "the sinners prayer" while trembling in the shadow of the hell that I had been told awaited me. Ultimately that fear drove me to God, but it also meant that it took me a long time to find the grace and love of God. At times when I feel that fear I still fight the desire to try to perfect myself for the sake of protection.
It has been a long journey for me to come to a place where I can experience and know that God is love.
I see that fear in my son. And yet, I see in him an attempt to alleviate that fear through an entirely different path than the one I took.
He is trying to relieve his fear by determining there is no God. By deciding that God doesn't exist. By refusing to let me pray with him any time I attempt it apart from meals, by keeping prayers at meals shallow and without heart. By yelling anytime I talk about God.
His little heart is hiding.
And a part of me is glad. Perhaps his fear driving him away from God will enable his journey towards God to be led by love instead of fear.
But, a part of me fears where this path may lead if he continues on it. In my fear I tried to save myself, and having maintained a "good Christian" status most of my life grace took me a long time to learn. But, the path I took protected me from some pain and harm. I don't want my son to have to experience that harm in order to find his way to God.
Part of me is also confused and frustrated. How do you share your own theology and spirituality with a child who refuses to have anything to do with God? How do you teach him the love of God? How do you show him the grace of God?
This is all so new for me. And not at all what I thought it would be.
Rejoicing in the journey, Bethany