If you asked a child to draw a picture of Jesus, you’d likely end up with one of two options: a baby in a manger or a man on a cross. It would probably depend on what time of year it was. We talk a lot about “baby Jesus” at Christmas, and we talk a lot about a Jesus in his early 30s who died on a cross around Easter.
But lately, I’ve been talking with my kids about the life of Christ—specifically mentioning he was a child.
No Excuse for Excuses
Early childhood seems to be filled with dos and don’ts—from safety guidelines to potty training to instructions about how to treat others. This is necessary. One of the greatest responsibilities we have, in addition to cultivating wisdom, is to teach our children right from wrong—but parenting them to perfection is impossible.
They’ll feel their frailty as they fail to uphold the rules set out for them. They’ll hit their brothers, they’ll snatch toys, they’ll say hurtful words. And, as they discover they can’t keep the rules perfectly, they’ll grapple with shame.
My children have responded to their failures in the same two ways I commonly do: blame and shame. One of my elementary-aged sons tends to blame his youth or his bodily needs for his wrongdoing. “I’m too hungry to be nice!” I feel you, buddy. “It’s OK. I’m just little and I’m still learning.” While this is certainly true, it’s not a license to sin against his brothers.
More than an Example
If sin isn’t sin, then the gospel isn’t good news. And so, even as we offer compassion to our children by considering their physical and developmental limitations, we mustn’t negate their need for a Savior. This is why Jesus came as an infant, after all. Not just to die and to come back from the dead but to live—from infancy—a perfect life.
This is why Jesus came as an infant. Not just to die and to come back from the dead but to live—from infancy—a perfect life.
In those moments when our children cry out in frustration, “I can’t be perfect! I always blow it!” we have the opportunity to tell our kids the good news of the gospel, “Want to hear the most amazing news? Someone was perfect for you. Jesus was a child, just like you, and in every place you fail to keep the rules, he succeeded.” And then we can tell them, “When you put your faith in him, instead of punishing you for the wrong things you do, God gives you his perfect score.”
More than a Free Pass
“Someone did it for you!” is a life-altering reality—not because it gives us permission to stop trying but because it motivates and fuels us to keep going. Since the grace that saves us is the grace that empowers and changes us, our children must hear “Jesus was perfect for you” before we can show them how to obey in a way that honors God: by grace, through faith.
It might be tempting to point to the child Christ the way we might point to a well-behaved classmate, saying, “Little Johnny would never have done this.” But the primary way our kids need to be like Jesus is to have their hearts changed to look like his, to love what he loves: his Father. Jesus gave us a standard to live up to, but he also came to fulfill the standard for us, giving us a new identity to live out of.
The good news of the gospel isn’t that you’re free to do whatever you want but that you’re not on your own as you seek to do what God wants, which will become what you want more and more as you live as a Christian.
Not Unable to Sympathize
This is fantastic news for our kids as they try to become more like Jesus. We can remind them that God wants to make them more like Jesus: “Since Jesus was a child just like you, he knows what it’s like to be a kid. He was tempted in every way you are (Heb. 4:15) and he’s filled with compassion for you.” We can encourage them: “He made it so that God could always, always forgive you no matter what, but he also left a Helper so you wouldn’t be on your own (John 15:26–27). The Holy Spirit is the same power that raised Jesus from the dead, and he lives in those who trust Jesus to help them remember the truth and live it out (Rom. 8:10–11).”
We should encourage our kids to look to Jesus when they fail, but we must also train them to look to his Spirit for help to obey. If anything apart from faith is sin (Rom. 14:23), then the only way to equip our kids to live righteous lives is by encouraging them to live dependent ones (John 15:5).
Let the Little Children Come
One could argue that kids are in the best possible position to learn to live the Christian life well. They ask for help all day long. They know what it is to be weak and needy and dependent.
The primary way our kids need to be like Jesus is to have their hearts changed to look like his, to love what he loves.
Jesus said anyone who wants to enter the kingdom of heaven must become like a child (Mark 10:13–16; Matt. 18:2–5). And he became one to show us, and our children, how to live completely dependent on the Father.
Because Jesus was a child, our kids have an example of what righteous living looks like, they can be free of the guilt and shame of unrighteous living, and they can have hope and help to live more righteous lives.
Thanks be to Christ, who became a child that we, and our kids, might become children of God.