John 3:1-15 reveals that there is an inescapable spiritual component to our children’s growing in faith. But this passage also insists that we can rarely peel back the layers to see what is happening, even in our own lives, much less our children’s. So it should not be surprising to find that the way God brings about spiritual life and growth, in us and our children, actually rides along the very natural and seemingly mundane tracks of hearing, seeing, tasting, doing. Consider:
And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. — Deut. 6:6-7
Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it. — Prov. 22:6
Oh, taste and see that the Lord is good! Blessed is the man who takes refuge in him! — Psalm 34:8
What is striking about these and other passages is that they speak of our children’s acquiring faith in God and learning to live in his household no differently than we would speak of how they acquire language, or how they come to know and love and trust us as their parents. This is because faith is a language: faith understands and speaks of ourselves and the entire world as being related to God in particular ways. Jesus, in whom all things hold together, is more real and immediate a part of his world than anything in it. So while we cannot see him, his constant activity can be seen everywhere to someone who speaks the right language. To anyone else, it is mere gibberish.
Therefore it is not vain repetition to teach our children to say “Jesus is my king and savior,” “God has forgiven my sins,” or “Jesus will always keep me;” any more than it is vain repetition to teach them to say “Daddy,” “this is a chair,” “that is blue,” or “Mr. S. is our mayor.” This is how they learn about both Jesus and the world that he has given to us. And, just as we talk in terms of stages of learning language (“he’s learned his primary and secondary colors,” or “he knows where his pancreas is”) rather than absolutes (“he’s learned English!”), we should speak in terms of stages of learning faith (“she’s really starting to bubble over with gratitude”) rather than absolutes (“she’s converted!”). Faith and language are things to be increasingly exercised rather than inert states of being.
So we teach our children simply to say “Jesus is …” and “Jesus does …” because that is the language of faith. After all, when we speak of Jesus’s world, we simply say “what color is that?” or “what letter is that?;” we do not say “do you believe that color is blue?” or “do you believe that letter is ‘K’?” Because of this, we can confuse our children (and ourselves) if we speak in indirect terms like “do you believe in Jesus as your savior?” rather than simply saying “Who is your savior?” By speaking a more indirect language than faith speaks, we make faith out to be something magical, and make it seem like getting that magic right is just as important as simply knowing and trusting Jesus. And without meaning to do so, this makes Jesus to be something less real than blueness and chairs and letters. But he is far more real than those. The best learning is by doing, and so the best learning to believe in Jesus is actually believing in Jesus — not believing in the supposed power of belief.
Finally, we do not worry that language will become a mindless habit for our children. Neither should we worry that all this Christian talking and living will become a mindless habit. There are some ways in which we expect a mature language and faith to become self-conscious, but it is the essence of language and of childlike faith to be unselfconscious, a simple confidence. The real danger is that this habit and language of faith will be uncultivated and cease to be a habit altogether! We do not want to banish habits — what we want is to cultivate all those delightful habits that a persevering life is simply full of.