How do we teach our kids to discern what's from God and what's not?
When I was a child, I was told that a particular lady at church had The Gift of Discernment. I was told that meant she could tell what was good and evil and more importantly she could tell if it was God saying something or if it wasn’t. Whoa! Was I impressed! I would sometimes sneak a look at this lady and wonder what it must feel like to be so cool. Did she know everything? More importantly, could she tell if I was lying? This was a scary lady with superpowers. Discernment with a capital ‘D’.
But while we’re not all given the gift of discernment, we are all called to discern – which in a nutshell, means applying our common sense when we need to work out if we’re hearing right from God – maybe a plan for the future, or something we need to do, or something we think we’ve heard him say. And part of our role as parents is to teach our children how to do this.
I think the responsibility of helping a child decide if something is from God or not can feel overwhelming. What if they get it wrong? What if they think God is telling them something and then it doesn’t happen? What if they follow what they think is God’s instructions and it’s a big mistake? Will they lose faith in God? Will they stop listening to him? I know that I’ve heard children eagerly telling me that God told them grandad would be OK, or that he will help them be happy at their new school, and silently added my own petition – ‘Please God, let that be true.’ But if we unpack this a bit, it needn’t seem so daunting. There are some important principles which can reassure us:
• Father God is a good father – he always loves, always is truthful and doesn’t set out to confuse or upset (1 John 4:7-12; John 14:6; 1 Corinthians 14:33)
• He has promised that when we call on him, he will answer and tell us things – even things we don’t know! (Jeremiah 33:3)
• He has given us the Holy Spirit to guide us into all truth and to lead us (John 16:13)
• He has given us Jesus to show us what he is like (John 14:9)
• He has given us the Bible, which is like a light for us, showing us the path (Psalm 119:105)
• He loves to give us wisdom (James 1:5) and has placed us in communities where we can seek wisdom (Colossians 3:16)
• God is talking to us and we can recognise his voice – Jesus describes this as like sheep knowing their shepherd’s voice and following him (John 10).
I think it can be really helpful to recognise for ourselves, and to teach our children, that we are all on a journey of learning to recognise God’s voice. I sometimes talk about tiny babies. Whose is the first voice they recognise when they are newly born? The mother’s – because they have been hearing her voice all along. But as they hear their dad’s voice, they begin to recognise that … and their siblings and extended family and friends. Learning to recognise a voice is a process.
In Jesus’ analogy of the sheep hearing the shepherd’s voice it can be useful to chat this through with children. What about a tiny lamb? Would they know the shepherd’s voice? How would the lambs learn which voice to follow? The important thing for children to know is that we are learning to recognise God’s voice, and the more we practice the better we get! Practice doesn’t have to be just at quiet time – you can practice asking God all sorts of questions in all sorts of places and see what happens. When you’re watching the news and see a tragedy, pause the TV and ask: what is God feeling about that? When you are walking in the park, ask God – what’s your favourite thing here? When your child is confident that they have heard God, debrief with them - how did they know? what did that feel like? - so that they begin to identify their own ways of catching. And of course, talk about how you catch from God – times when you are certain, times when you’re not, times when you decided it was definitely NOT God; how you feel, what happens in your head and heart.
It can also help to remember that there are only three answers to the question ‘Do you think that is from God?’ – like the traffic lights, yes, no and maybe. So when your child comes to you and says ‘I think God is saying …’, there are also some really simple questions we can ask to help children work out if what they’ve caught is from God. Even if they and you are absolutely certain it is from God, it’s worth working through these questions from time to time to develop the skills your child needs to be able to do this for themselves.
• Does it sound like something God would say – does it fit with what you know about God?
• Does it remind you of anything in the Bible about God’s character and how he works? You may want to direct them to a concordance and help them learn to check out similar things.
• Does it feel right? Do you feel peaceful about what you’ve caught?
• Would you like to check it out with someone wise?
• Do you have any more questions about it – why not go back and chat to God again?
So then, you have worked through this process (or your excited child is just absolutely CERTAIN it was God!) – what next. Well, that depends on what conclusion you drew.
• If you are as sure as you can be that they heard from God, rejoice that he speaks to us and has made us able to hear him! Encourage your child to take what they caught seriously – if it is an idea of something they should do (for example, befriend a child at school, or give their money to a charity) support them to do that, and later on reflect with them on the impact of their actions. If what they caught was something positive about their character, celebrate with them that God has spotted that and encourage them to believe it – maybe get them to write out what they heard and put it in their Bible or in a place where they will see it regularly.
• If your child still isn’t sure about if they caught from God or not, reassure them that’s OK and that it’s important for us to make sure we know it is God’s voice before acting on it. Remind them that God is patient and kind and if he has something he wants us to know he will keep on telling us, and we won’t miss out just because we’re still learning to recognise his voice. If you find that they are bugged by it, encourage them to go back and chat with God about it, or maybe chat to a wise friend.
• If you decide that what they caught wasn’t from God, reassure them that they didn’t do anything wrong – again, it’s all part of this process of learning to recognise God’s voice. If appropriate you may want to share stories of when you heard something that wasn’t from God and how you dealt with it. If it’s something that troubles them, Rachel Turner suggests encouraging your child to throw away those words, reminding them of Paul’s advice in Philippians 4:8; you could also get them to visualise putting the negative thoughts or pictures into a box in their head and then shrinking the box until it disappears because God doesn’t want those things to hang around.
Discerning God’s voice is a process, a journey we are all on – and I can’t think of a more exciting journey to take your child on!