As I've become an adult, I've come to appreciate the amazing insights we can gain when we try to let the Bible read us, instead of us merely reading the Bible. In other words, even though it’s great to memorize Bible verses and remember the people and places of different Bible stories, what happens when we place ourselves in the stories and imagine how we would have reacted or what we would have learned? The Bible comes alive when we move from memorization to absorption; when we internalize the ethical/moral lessons that can be found there.
Since having children myself, I’ve been asking the question: Why do we so often only teach our children Bible “facts?” Children all over the country go home from church knowing that Noah built an ark, that Jonah was swallowed by a fish, and that Jesus let children come sit on his lap.
But do they know why? Sometimes, I hear from people who say they left the church because the Bible was nothing but fantastical stories. Of course, the Bible contains much more than the miraculous, but I wonder if we have to share some of the blame for them thinking that.
A recent example of the problem with "facts only."At some point, my son picked up the story of David and Goliath. The main thing he remembers is that David hit Goliath in the head with a stone. On more than one occasion, he has gotten a worried look on his face and asked me why David did that, and my son would be the type to be playing outside one day and randomly decide to try to be like David with one of his friends. (And to think - one stone in the forehead is very mild compared to some of the violence in the Bible).
So what do I think we sometimes miss? Let's use the story of Jonah as an example. Have you ever read the whole book? It’s only 4 chapters. Aside from the part that tends to fascinate children – Jonah being swallowed by a fish – the book of Jonah contains a tremendously important and challenging moral lesson. God called Jonah to go and preach to people who had invaded and enslaved his own people. Jonah had much hatred for the Ninevites (arguably for good reason!), but God wanted him to go and preach to them. Why didn’t Jonah want to do it? Because he knew that God was merciful and he didn’t want the Ninevites to get mercy, he wanted them to get punished (Jonah 4:2-3). He wanted to see his enemies suffer and get what they deserved. In a dramatic reversal, it was the “evil” Ninevites who repented and behaved in a godly way (Jonah 3:6-10) while Jonah stormed off, furious, that God had compassion on people he didn’t like (Jonah 4:3-4). In fact, the last verse of Jonah contains a fascinating line from God in which He suggests that He can't bring it on himself to punish people who are in the wrong if they don't know any better (Jonah 4:11).
Wow! What an incredible lesson! But how often do our children simply see and draw pictures of Jonah in the belly of the fish and then that’s the end of the story for them? What an incredible opportunity the story of Jonah is to teach our children that God loves everyone, even the people who do harm to us and those we don’t like. What a tremendous opportunity for conversation with our children about mercy, forgiveness, and the golden rule.
I challenge us, as parents, Sunday School teachers, etc., to constantly look for ways to move beyond the facts and memorization, and teach Bible lessons that last.