Rules! Rules! Rules!

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I failed him. His drawing made it clear.

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I’d asked the kids to draw pictures of their favorite Bible
stories. Alex drew an open Bible, and inside he wrote, “Be nice. Be
good.”

Would I be happier if he’d put, “Be mean. Be bad”? Of course
not! So what was the problem? This child, when choosing one
sentence to represent the Bible, chose rules. Alex believed the
main message of Scripture is “do the right thing.”

Don’t get me wrong! God does want us to do the right thing. We
want the children in our ministries to do the right thing. Parents
bring their kids to church in hopes that their kids will do the
right thing.

So, again, what’s the problem?

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What’s the Problem?

The problem is that none of us does the right thing simply
because we are told to do so. In fact, the Bible teaches just the
opposite. Being told what to do brings out our worst. Romans 7:8
says, “Sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment,
produced in me every kind of covetous desire.”

We might pass 10 closed doors on a given day and not notice any
of them until a “do not enter” sign appears. Suddenly we want to
know what’s inside. We’re fascinated with the forbidden. It’s in
our fallen natures.

How do we resist opening the door? Maybe we resist because we
remember a bad outcome from breaking a similar rule. Maybe we’re
afraid of punishment. Or it might be that we trust the person who
put up the sign.

Whatever the case, knowing a rule doesn’t equip me to follow it.
The rule alone only frustrates me. My ability to follow the rule
comes from something greater than the rule itself.

Alex, the child in my program, knew the rule “Be nice. Be good.”
Without something greater to stand on than just the rule, though,
he will sink under its weight.

What’s the Answer?

Jesus explained this most clearly in John 14:21: “Whoever has my
commands and obeys them, he is the one who loves me. He who loves
me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love him and show
myself to him.”

Alex, like all of us, can be equipped to obey only through a
relationship with Jesus Christ. Only through knowing Christ does
the law lose its sin-causing power over us. Romans 7:4 says, “You
also died to the law…that you might belong to another, to him who
was raised from the dead, in order that we might bear fruit to
God.”

Sadly, we’re as quick leading kids to the law as to Christ –
though we usually don’t realize it. See if you relate to any of
these statements:

“I want kids to apply the Bible, so for each passage I tell them
something they can do.”

“I give kids God’s rules to protect them from the immorality of
today.”

“Sin is serious. I want kids to know and fear it.”

The above statements raise valid concerns — each has some truth
and some danger. The effectiveness of our ministries hinges on how
well we keep sight of the goal as we deal with these issues. Let’s
take a closer look.

How To vs. Who Is God?

“I want kids to apply the Bible, so for each passage I tell them
something they can do.”

Sometimes our desire to help kids apply Scripture turns a Who Is
God? lesson into a how-to lesson. The difference? A how-to lesson
could slip almost without notice into a public school curriculum
and focuses on simply being a good citizen. A Who Is God? lesson
focuses on the Creator and Savior of the world.

We do want kids to apply Scripture. That’s a no-brainer. Where
we get off track is thinking that “apply” always implies a “moral.”
That is, we want every passage in the Bible to tell us something to
do.

We focus the account of Moses in the basket, for example, on
Miriam helping her brother. That way we’ve got a moral, something
physical: “Let’s be helpful.” It’s concrete, easy to understand,
and we’ve got kids applying Scripture.

But will the kids apply what the passage is really meant to
convey?

Here we’ve got a baby boy born to people in slavery who are
crying out to God. All their male babies are being tossed into the
Nile. And yet this baby is saved on the very river that was meant
to swallow him!

In these worst of circumstances, God begins to save his people,
starting with Moses. We see that God takes care of Moses, God takes
care of his people, and we can infer that God takes care of us. The
application for this story then is not so much something to do as
it is a perspective on our relationship with God: God takes care of
us.

A New Approach

How many kids in your class have parents going through a
divorce? Are kids getting bullied on the playground? Are they
afraid of the dark? Will we rob them of the message that God takes
care of us, only to encourage them to “be a good helper”? What if
you began this lesson — even before reading the account — by
asking kids to tell you about a time they felt afraid? As you get
them talking and thinking about their fears, prepare them for the
truth of the story. Stir them up to receive the comfort and
knowledge of God’s care.

Before teaching any passage, we must ask, “Why is this in the
Bible? What does it say about God?” From there we consider what the
passage might mean to the kids! Then we’re using Scripture for its
purpose: to reveal God — not to deliver rules.

Rules or Relationship?

“I give kids God’s rules to protect them from the immorality of
today.”

Our tendency to assign a moral to every Bible passage might have
another root: the decadence of our culture. We want kids to know
the difference between the ways of God and the ways of the
world.

God wants our kids to know the difference between his ways and
the world’s too. So God reveals what life in his kingdom should
look like through Scripture.

As we look at a Scripture passage and ask, “Why is this in the
Bible? What does it tell us about God?” sometimes the answer is a
moral, telling us what to do. We should convey this to the kids.
So, it’s true: God’s rules do protect us from immorality. As we
teach these rules, though, we’ve got to remember yet again that the
rule alone won’t help the child. The rule alone won’t equip the
child to follow it.

The bulk of our lessons should reflect the bulk of Scripture,
which is the story of God’s relationship with his people — who are
constantly breaking his rules! This is the context for teaching
God’s laws.

A New Approach

Take the Ten Commandments, for example. Let’s say you’re
teaching a group of fourth graders the commandments, one per day.
What if, at the end of every class, you asked children to each
write on a piece of paper one way they’ve broken that commandment?
Then, the most important part: Have all the kids come forward to
pin their paper on a cross and receive God’s forgiveness!

Whatever the age group, we need to teach rules in the context of
our relationship with God. This guides our understanding of rules,
and relationship is the only thing that’ll enable us to follow
them.

More than 400 years passed between the calling of Abraham and
the giving of the law. What happened in between? God built a
relationship with his people through the blessings and trials of
Abraham, his descendants, and their sojourn and salvation from
Egypt. Relationship before rules!

Grace or Law?

“Sin is serious. I want kids to know and fear it.” For Alex to
“be nice. Be good,” he must know how unable he is to do it. This is
a far cry from The Little Engine That Could and any
just-believe-in-yourself mantra!

Alex must realize that Christ — the one who actually is able to
“be nice. Be good” — paid the price for Alex’s failing.

Grace. This is grace.

Yet we teachers sometimes fear that an emphasis on grace will
cause kids to take sin lightly. After all, kids need discipline. If
they break their parents’ rules or their teachers’ rules, they need
a consequence to prevent further bad behavior. So what happens if
we tell them that God forgives them no matter what they do?

Aha! We must distinguish between consequences and forgiveness!
Hopefully, parents and teachers also forgive children no matter
what they do — even as they administer a consequence. Likewise,
our sin has consequences, even as God forgives us.

A New Approach

Forgiveness restores our relationship with God, but it doesn’t
erase the cause-and-effect consequences set in motion by our sin.
Samson, for example, received restoration from God — forgiveness
– in his final moments. This did not, however, free him from
captivity by the Philistines — the consequence of his sin.

When we teach this story, kids see both sides. As we teach other
passages, kids continue to see this pattern. While not every
passage so evenly shows forgiveness and consequence, the
Scripture’s collective effect makes it clear. If you teach a broad
range of scriptural accounts, kids will see that sin is serious.
They will know and fear it.

Still, our focus must be on God’s grace. To emphasize something
such as, “Samson broke God’s law, and look at what an awful thing
happened to him!” might produce fear of sin, but it won’t produce
love of God.

Just think: Jesus taught that those who are forgiven little,
love little: but those who are forgiven much, love much (Luke
7:41-47).

I wanted Alex to take more from Sunday school than a batch of
cute crafts, memory verses, and good morals. All these were
supposed to be a means, not an end. The end — what I really wanted
– was for Alex to know the love of Christ so fully that if he had
to choose one sentence to represent the Bible, it might be
something such as, “Jesus gave his life for me.”

Now, when preparing a lesson, I put my main teaching point
through a litmus test:

  1. Is it true to the Scripture passage, revealing God?
  2. Does it highlight relationship over rules?
  3. Are forgiveness and consequences accurately portrayed?

If the answer to any of those questions is no, I rethink what
I’m teaching. Otherwise, I’m asking kids to serve a God they do not
know.


Lisa Wheeler is a Christian educator co-director in
Birmingham, Alabama. Please keep in mind that phone numbers,
addresses, and prices are subject to change.

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