My daughter, Magnolia, is a typical three-year-old girl. She loves dressing up like a princess, playing with her dollhouse, watching My Little Pony and wherever music is playing, you can find her dancing. Whenever it comes time to read a book or be tucked in for a nap or bed, she is eager to hear another Bible story. We have made it a priority to try to read the Bible together as frequently as possible in order to teach about God as she grows—but sometimes it is Magnolia who teaches us.
In fact, just the other day we were reading the story of Moses and the burning bush. While reading, she stopped me and asked, “Why is that bush on fire?” Realizing my response was going to be confusing and that I had no other option, I went for the most simple explanation, “God is speaking to Moses through the burning bush.” Her response: “Daddy, we don’t put fire in bushes, that is very dangerous.”
Another time we were reading and we came across a picture of the Israelites in slavery. Magnolia questioned, “Daddy, what are they making?” I replied, “They are making bricks.” “Oh, so the big bad wolf won’t blow their house down!” she exclaimed.
Suffice it to say, introducing Magnolia to the Bible, God, Jesus and church has been exciting and challenging.
About a month ago, Magnolia really surprised me. I was picking her and my son, Beckett, up from daycare. After getting Beckett in the car, I came around and strapped Magnolia in. Out of nowhere, while I was buckling her seatbelt, she asked, “Where is God?” We weren’t even talking about God or referencing a Bible story. This question came completely out of nowhere. I think back now and wonder what triggered this question? And how long was she thinking through this question before asking me?
I stared at my daughter and she asked me again, “Daddy, where is God?” I paused, but internally I panicked. I’m a pastor—I’m naturally supposed to have all the answers. And if I cannot answer my three-year-old daughter’s simple faith question then I should probably quit now. The truth is, Magnolia’s questions are sometimes the most difficult because the answer carries so much weight. She is a sponge ready to absorb information. With every answer I give, I wonder how much she is going to have to unlearn one day.
My mind immediately went for the typical Sunday-school answer. I was going to tell her, “God lives in heaven.” But before the words could come out of my mouth I realized that I would be reinforcing a view of God that has taken me most my life to unlearn. If I tell her God is in heaven, it creates the very foundation of an understanding of God as distant and detached. So I paused to collect my thoughts, then answered, “God is inside you.” She pointed to her belly and said “Inside me?” I thought to myself, “Great—now your daughter thinks God is in her belly.” But I said, “Yup, and all around you. God is everywhere.”
David said this of God, “Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there” (Psalms 139:7-8). And now my daughter knows what David knows—this profound, yet simple, truth about God. The other day we were sitting down at the dinner table and my wife asked Magnolia something about God after we prayed for the food together. Magnolia said, “God is everywhere.” My wife looked at me and said, “Did you teach her that?” Proudly, I said yes. But in reality, Magnolia is the one teaching me. Her childlike faith is something that challenges me every day.
In Luke’s Gospel, the disciples felt that the young children shouldn’t bother Jesus. Yet Jesus used the children to illustrate how one enters the kingdom of God by saying, “Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it” (Luke 18:17, NIV).
As a pastor with a seminary education who deeply values theological study, I often wonder if we’ve overcomplicated the Gospel. What if we have something to learn about God by listening to the questions of children and studying their simple faith? In this season of my life, it seems God is continuing my seminary education through a three-year-old who challenges me daily to receive the kingdom of God with reckless abandon. I often wonder what the Church might look like if we all had faith like a three-year-old—if we weren’t afraid to ask the simple questions that breathe fresh life into our faith.
Justin is Lead Pastor of The Bridge in Hummelstown, Pa. He is married to Brittney Douglas and they have three children, Magnolia, Beckett, and Reed.