I was reminded of this at the National Day of Prayer observance last Thursday by a speaker...who was an 18-year-old student from Carlsbad High School. Young people get wisdom.
“[E]very time you make a choice you are turning the central part of you, the part of you that chooses, into something a little different than it was before... All your life long you are slowly turning this central thing into a heavenly creature or a hellish creature: either into a creature that is in harmony with God, and with other creatures, and with itself, or else into one that is in a state of war and hatred with God, and with its fellow creatures, and with itself."
Now try this one: Speaking about the difficulty of living a life that consistently honors God, a 15-year-old high school student said to me, "I think of it this way: It's like becoming a Christian is one decision for Jesus, but living as a Christian is a million decisions for Jesus."
"Becoming a Christian is one decision for Jesus, but living as a Christian is a million decisions for Jesus."
Every Christian parent hopes their child will one day make a decision for Jesus - the big "D" decision, the one that they'll look back on all their life and say, "That's the day I gave my life to Him." Some people scoff at childhood conversions. "They're just doing it to please their parents," they'll say, or, "They don't really know what they're doing." Others spiritualize it: "God can use anything", while still others fatalize: "You never know - one day they might look back and it'll all make sense."
Without making a blanket statement that children's responses to the gospel either are or are not real, I think we can safely agree that no one wants empty decisions for Christ or decisions that are made under duress. Of course we want kids to understand what it means to turn over all of who they were, are, and will be to God for his direction and care. The question then becomes, how can a kid possibly make a decision of that magnitude (the big "D" decision) if they have no experience making decisions in any other part of their life? It's unlikely that when it comes to living a Christian life - the million decisions for Jesus-thing - kids will be successful if they are unpracticed at making simple, everyday decisions in their own lives.
So - give kids the freedom to make decisions. Lots of them. Life is loaded with choices, and we don't do kids favors when we unnecessarily short-circuit the process by always deciding things for them. Self-mastery develops when kids have to do it for themselves, and one of the first things that happens is they realize there actually are choices and decisions to be made at all, about everything.
Why wouldn't we let kids choose? Time is certainly one factor. Kids don't always choose quickly! But I would suggest that what's happening during those looong waiting periods as kids make up their minds is really valuable. Kids' minds are being stretched, to weigh options and foresee consequences, and that's a "mental muscle" that has to develop for moral decision making.
The other danger, of course, is that kids will make the wrong choice! But would you rather have kids make a bad choice when they're 5, or when they're 15? Or even 25? Usually the older we are, the more painful the consequences of a bad choice, because more is at stake. If you give your kid lots of experience at making decisions when the outcome doesn't matter much, the chances are better that they'll make a great decision when the outcome matters a lot.
I love watching families approach our check-in areas on Sunday mornings. Some parents allow and even encourage their kids to enter their phone number on the keypad. And you know what? The kids sometimes make mistakes. They miss a number. They forget their phone number. We have to start over. And - it's fine. Eventually we get the right combination, and we hand them their sticky nametag, and they smile. The world just became one step more accessible to them.
The freedom to make choices is messy. Sometimes kids do choose wrong. But sometimes adults choose wrong, too. Still, God grants us all the freedom to learn and grow and make mistakes, in the hope that we will eventually discover how good and right and satisfying it is to choose Christ - not just once, but in the million decisions of everyday life.