A couple of weeks ago, I went to the local Christian bookstore to pick out some new books for the kids. We have a lot of children’s Bibles, but I wanted to find some good kids’ fiction that emphasizes the role of faith in everyday life.
The first book I picked up was about a young girl who was being bullied by other kids. While these kids were bothering her, she prayed that God would help. On the next page, one of the bullies suddenly decided to leave and take his friends with him. The story ended with the young girl smiling, reminding us that “God loves us and protects us.”
Honestly, I was thoroughly angered that such a book would be printed. What happens when a young girl who is really being bullied comes to believe that as soon as she prays, her bullies will leave? If that doesn’t happen, did God abandon her? Did God not love her? God is not a genie! This kind of storyline creates false and harmful expectations.
With my “bad theology radar” up, I evaluated book after book and came home empty-handed. When I really paid attention to the messages of these books, I repeatedly found that theology had been simplified to the point of being flat-out wrong.
I don’t want to be overly critical, but the early messages we teach kids really do matter. We’re giving them a foundation for years to come, and need to be sure that simple does not mean inaccurate.
Here are 5 examples of simplified children’s theology gone wrong. When you evaluate what your kids read and watch, be on the lookout for messages like these!
1. We are safe because God is with us.
I see this message in kids’ books all the time, often accompanied by a picture of something like a child in bed who is scared of the dark. While it’s true that we are always spiritually safe because God is with us, it’s not true that we are (necessarily) physically safe because God is with us.
Better Theology: When we’re scared, we can always pray to God for comfort and help. God isn’t like a magician who makes our fear and problems always go away immediately, but we can be confident that 1) He does answer prayers when it is His will, and 2) we will never be separated from His love.
2. We can do anything when God is on our side.
This is the almost universal message of David and Goliath stories. To young ears, it can sound like we just call upon God whenever we want to do something and then we can do whatever we want. The story of David and Goliath, however, is all about God accomplishing what He wants, regardless of human limitations.
Better Theology: God is all-powerful and can do anything that He wants, just as he helped tiny David beat giant Goliath. We don’t always know what His will is, however. As Christians, we always have God “on our side,” but that doesn’t mean that our will is the same as His will. When we pray, we should ask for our heart’s desire as it aligns with God’s will. (The Lord’s Prayer is a great example of this.)
3. God is “up in heaven.”
This expression is so common, we can easily not realize how it shapes our kids’ view of God’s proximity when we say it. I personally spent most of my life seeing God as the “big guy far away.” When I prayed, it always felt like I was writing a letter, not talking to an immediately present God. It wasn’t until I read a book emphasizing God’s nearness that I felt a more personal relationship develop.
Better Theology: God is right here with us, all the time. He is as close as our breath! In fact, the Bible teaches that our bodies are God’s temple, and His Spirit lives within us (1 Corinthians 3:16). Because God is not physical like we are, He is not limited to heaven.
4. When we can’t (fill in the blank everyday task), pray to God for help.
One of our books includes a child praying to be “smart like God” so he can tie his shoes (!). Obviously, we can never be “smart like God” and we shouldn’t expect prayer to be a short-cut over the human work normally required for everyday activities (“please God, let these dishes be done!”).
Better Theology: God wants us to ask Him for guidance and help, but that doesn’t mean we don’t contribute to the goal! We still have to do the work of preparing, learning and doing in life.
5. Everything happens for a reason.
I grew up hearing this all the time. When I was about 25, I was sitting in a Sunday school class discussion and I mentioned that “everything happens for a reason,” assuming this was common biblical knowledge. The teacher nodded at me sympathetically and said, “It does sometimes help to think that way, even though that’s not what the Bible teaches.” I was shocked, and my whole worldview changed that day.
Better Theology: Romans 8:28 teaches us that “in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” This means that even though God doesn’t directly cause everything that happens to us (evil is caused by human choice, for example), He uses all circumstances for our eventual good if we let Him.
Have you noticed overly simplified (to the point of inaccurate) theology before? What other examples have you seen?