“When I was about your age I had a terrible habit…” These words are bound to catch the attention of any child.
It happened several weeks ago when I was an extra set of hands for a small group of 5th grade boys. The large group lesson taught that day was about Nicodemus coming to Jesus at night. As usual, Jesus cut to the chase when He announced that this learned old man must be born again in order to reach the Father in heaven. So the small group lesson was all about the one way to reach God. As always, we use discussion questions to lead kids in small group. The leader asked something to the effect of, “How can we get to God?” Kids started calling out answers. One boy who was sitting at the edge of the group said in an earnest voice, “Go to church.” His pitch rose slightly at the end of his statement, making it a pseudo-question, when his eyes caught mine.
The leader was fielding several other answers and didn’t even hear this particular child. So I knew I wanted to address it. I called him aside for a minute. I affirmed his participation by saying that going to church is a great thing to do. But as far as getting to God, I had a story to tell him.
“When I was in elementary school, just about your age, I had a terrible habit. My brother (who was a few years old than me) had a really cool wallet. It had little plastic runners that were different sizes for the different sized coins. I was infatuated with the wallet, but even more so by the shiny coins inside it. Because, you know, there was stuff I wanted to buy! So, sometimes when my big brother wasn’t around, I would sneak in and take a few coins–not too many at once because I didn’t want him to become suspicious.” I looked into the big brown eyes of the fifth grade boy and asked, “Was that stealing? Was that a sin?”
“Yes!” on both counts.
“Absolutely it was. Now here’s the thing: I went to church almost every week. Did going to church take away the fact that I stole something?” With wide eyes, he shook his head no.
“And what if I became super rich and gave a million dollars to the poor? Would that take away the fact that I stole those coins from my brother?”
“You know, even if I paid back every penny to my brother, it wouldn’t change the fact that I chose to steal from him. So there I was with quarters in my hand, totally separated from God. The Bible says there’s nothing I can do to get rid of my own sin. I can’t undo what I’ve done! Doing good stuff won’t take away the bad. The only way for me to get to God was for Jesus to take my sin away on the cross. All I do is believe in the One who took it away. Then I am completely accepted by God.”
I believe that true (and embarrassing) illustration will probably stick with my young friend. The truth is, I have done far worse. But for him, it made an impression. When we keep it real with our kids, it has way more impact than when we talk in theory. Kids need real life examples–good and bad. Of course we keep it age appropriate, but we don’t shelter them from our wrong choices and our own path to God. Our faith is real so we are not afraid of the truth.
On a side note, as I lay in bed a few days later, God opened my eyes to a deeper reality. I was thinking back over this story and my days as a pint-sized pickpocket. I thought about the conversation with my young 5th grade friend that day and the truth I was trying to convey. I have said it, taught it, believed it: “The Lord laid on Him the sins of us all” (Isaiah 53:6). But suddenly an overwhelming reality struck me: It’s as if Jesus stole that change from my brother instead of me! The great exchange on the cross turned me into an innocent bystander! After all, Jesus is not confined by time or space. It’s more than just theory. Tears literally began streaming as I realized this truth applies to all of the things I have done. He took those sins onto Himself. Jesus was declared guilty at the excruciating moment that God turned His face away from His Son (Isaiah 59:2). Deep in His soul, Jesus felt it when He cried out, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken Me?” (Mark 15:34) Never have I felt so clean, so pure. Jesus took it. He REALLY took it. I am pure as the driven snow. No, pure as the perfect Lamb. What a Savior we have!
As a teacher, I have to believe that God wants me to share what He reveals to me. So, a few weeks later, as soon as the opportunity arose, I stood in front of 70 elementary school kids and told the whole story again–this time with the deeper truth that when Jesus took my sin, it’s just as if He stole that money. With all my heart, I want these kids to “stand on the shoulders of giants.” I want them to learn at their tender young ages what God has taught me, so they can “inherit a double portion” in their own lives (2 Kings 2:9).