Sandpits and sin
Sin is a hugely important biblical concept. It's what separates us from God, it's the reason Jesus died, and it's something we daily struggle with. And we want our children and young people to understand what sin is and what to do about it.
Because children are very used to the idea that they do things wrong and then have to say sorry, it's easy for them to slip into thinking that that's what sin is: it's when we make a mistake, and then we have to say sorry to the person we've hurt and to God too. Then God forgives us and we get a fresh start.
None of that is wrong, but for some children (and adults), the emphasis on saying sorry to God can mean that they begin to view God as someone who needs appeasing or who is easily angered, and they worry that God will be cross or may feel hurt whenever they sin. Instead of seeing God as a loving parent, who is sad when they are hurting themselves and wants to help them out of their mess, they can see him as someone who easily offended and always ready to punish. (You can read more about 'angry God' and unwinding wrong views of God here.)
But if we explain sin differently, then we can give children a different picture of God, akin to the loving parent we know he is.
One way to do this is to use the analogy of a small girl sitting in a sandpit eating sand.
The sand is dirty and all over her face and mouth. Even though it's not good for her, and she's coughing and spluttering, she won't come out of the sandpit.
Her father hates this. He's sad when he sees her there, particularly because he's built her a beautiful playground right next to the sandpit, with all sorts of things for her to climb on and enjoy, and he has a great big ice-cream in his hand for her to it. So he goes over to her. 'Don't eat the sand!' he says to her. 'It's dirty and it's not good for you. Come out and I'll clean you up and we can play together and you can eat this ice-cream.'
But the little girl ignores her father. He tries again, telling her firmly that she needs to get out and play in the new playground. But she says 'No'. Her father is so upset. He hates the sand because it is getting in the way, stopping them being together. He's sad because she keeps choosing the sandpit, not all the lovely things he has for her, and he wants her to choose right.
Finally, the little girl gives up. She looks at her father and realises how sad he is, how much he loves her and wants to be with her, and what beautiful things he has made for them to do together. She decides she wants to get out of the dirty sandpit, and as soon as she lifts up her arms her dad beams at her as he swoops down to pick her up. He lifts her out of the mess and gently washes her so all the dirt is washed away. Now she is ready to play with her dad in their wonderful new playground.
Just like that father, God hates sin because it is bad for us and keeps us away from him. He loves us, and wants to be close to us. When we sin, like when the little girl ate the sand, he gets sad because he sees us choosing things that hurt us and take us away from him and stop us being close to him. When we realise we are sinning and say 'I don't want this anymore', God sweeps us up and cleans us up.
We can explain to children that because Jesus died for us on the cross, it's like he's given us the water that can wash every bit of sin away. When we sin, we just need to tell Father God that we don't want to sin any more; we're sad and want him to clean us up so we can be close to him again, and then he will wash all that sin off so it can't stick to us any more. We can tell them they might also want to say sorry to God because he was sad because of the way they were hurting themselves, but God is just so happy you've asked him to lift you out of the mess and make you clean again.
This gives children a biblically correct view of God: a God who is on our side, wants the best for us and is sad when we choose to do things that hurt us, and who is always ready to swoop down and lift us out of our mess.