Teach your children well

I’ve been considering another unhealthy feature of Charismatic theology, but realised that it largely arises from a wider modern misunderstanding of the whole human condition. And that feature is the prioritisation of unrealistic supernatural expectations in children. In particular, I’m remembering how our kids were taught at a Well Known Bible Week held in Spring. Our bad for acquiescing in it.

About halfway through the week, we’d go to pick them up from the session, to find they’d been placed one to one to pray for healing for any illnesses or problems the other kid had. “Were they healed?” I would ask.

“No,” my son or daughter would invariably reply.

Well, of course not. Not only is the guarantee of healing in this life not in the atonement, despite the claims, but these young kids, though largely from Christian homes, were for the most part not converted. I know our three weren’t. So whether or not the Holy Spirit heals through believers today, nothing whatsoever in the Bible suggests that children who do not yet know Christ are given gifts of healing. So not only is the lesson learned by children that this Christianity promises miracles but doesn’t deliver, but the time spent building the expectation was not spent in teaching them the gospel that might, in the fullness of time, accomplish physical healing through their prayers.

Compare and contrast the Lesser Catechism of the Westminster Assembly. Now, the nearest I came to a catechism in my Sunday School was the section in the English Hymnal headed “At Catechism,” whatever that meant. The rot had already set in by then, I guess, but certainly I heard the gospel clearly by the time I went to a Bible Class five years later, if not in catechistic form.

The Catechism begins with that memorable, and rather revolutionary, question, “What is the chief end of man?” to which the response is, “…to glorify God, and to enjoy him for ever.” The Cathechism goes on to teach that the Bible is our only rule on how that might be done, and then outlines its teaching on God as eternal Spirit in Trinity; his eternal plan in creation and providence; mankind’s own creation, commission and fall; and so into the means of salvation in Christ.

There is more, but you can see that there would be more than enough material even that far to fill a week of children’s activity, especially when it has to be interspersed with songs, art-work, games, etc without which modern children’s minds would soon shut down.

Thinking this through, the underlying false assumption is an overestimate of children’s virtues, together with a gross underestimate of their shortcomings because of sin, not to mention their natural childish ignorance. And this misjudgement seems to be reflected in the wider world, when parents tell a child who crayons a halfway-recognisable house not just that they’ve done well, but that they are amazing.

Now, praise for infant achievment is good and necessary, and I grant that speaking metaphysically, the drawing of a house is an amazing achievement that even a chimpanzee cannot emulate. But that human ability is the gift of God, not we ourselves, and I need not tell my wise readers that constantly telling an ordinary child that they are amazing can, at best, give them an elevated self-view which will collapse when a real challenge proves beyond their ability. At worst it will make them a prig.

This encouragement to foolish pride continues through the educational system. I remember, when my daughter graduated from a low-status university, how the prinicipal assured the graduates that, having a degree from such a centre of excellence, they could now achieve anything they set out to do. This is tosh – the best jobs in church, arts and state go to alumni from Eton and Oxbridge, and ruthless ambition can take someone from the gutter to wealth and power without any help from an upgraded polytechnic. But because “you are amazing” you can probably raise the dead if you put your mind to it. Otherwise, there’s always Social Security and parents to sponge on.

The other side of the same coin, it seems to me, is the secular equivalent of encouraging eight year old children to perform miraculous healing to order. And that is the constant message to kids that they can, and must, save the world and themselves (because, of course, they are amazing). It’s not enough to celebrate that some young people are interested in, and so care about, nature rather than, say, accounting: instead the interviews and the awards are all about how Nature Boy is making such a difference to the environment, or alternatively how his interest in nature has enabled him to deal with his mental health issues. The Essay Prize isn’t just about achievement in literary skill, but about how the LGBTQ+ cause has been served. Musical gifting meant nothing until it became music therapy for the disadvantaged.

I have the strong impression that what is actually happening is that authority figures are ignoring all the many interests that kids develop, from match angling to stamp collecting to child-care, that can’t be wangled into either the therapeutic self-improvement scheme or the save-the-world syndrome. Consequently, the volunteer for a community garden (because she happens to like gardening), is seen as superior to the volunteer for the school target-shooting team (who happens to like riflery). Taken en masse such a worldview makes huge, and probably impossible, demands on kids who, far from being equipped to save the world, need saving themselves.

It’s not that doing good is not good. Rather it’s that virtue is assumed to be intrinsic and universal, rather than rare and achieved through struggle, as much against oneself as against forces outside oneself. When I was growing up, The Eagle comic had an occasional feature called Mug of the Year. By pointing out examples of selfless courage, basically selfish readers were encouraged to strive for virtue. Examples might be wounded boy soldiers who stuck to their post when all their mates were dead, saving many lives, or a poor boy who gave up on school in order to nurse his dying brother and sick mother, and still studied hard and won a scholarship to grammar school. The clue to the difference from today’s culture is in the title: “Mug of the Year” realistically recognises that the default position of humanity is self-interest, and that anything else takes unusual effort. Pretending otherwise, as seems universal now, does not encourage virtue, but self righteous hypocrisy.

I was going to end with the how the Westminster Catechism, reflecting the Christian worldview, differs because, rather than starting with man and, perhaps, ending in God it starts with God and ends with man. but that isn’t actually true. The Westminster Catechism actually ends with prayer, and not with how to have the power to pray for the sick and cure them. Instead, it deals with the Lord’s prayer – the one that Jesus taught us to emulate – and by ending with the conclusion of the Lord’s prayer, it teaches us to become the best we can be by starting with God, and ending with God as well. Here’s what it says:

Q: What doth the conclusion of the Lord’s Prayer teach us?
A: The conclusion of the Lord’s Prayer [For thine is the Kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever. Amen.] teacheth us to take our incouragement in prayer from God onely,and in our prayers to praise him, ascribing Kingdom power and glory to him:and in testimony of our desire and assurance to be heard, we say, Amen.

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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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