You better watch out

We’ve all sung along to this creepy Christmas song, but have we ever stopped to ponder its backward theology? Be good and you will get presents. Be nice and Santa will reward you. If you’re on his naughty list, you are - for want of a better word - screwed.

Sadly, many children have incorporated Santa’s soteriology (the doctrine of salvation) into the gospel message. Be good and God will reward you. Be bad and there is a whole heap of fiery disaster waiting for you. But this works-based theology could not be further removed from the biblical view of salvation. The Bible’s message is the antithesis of Santa’s approach and is epitomised in Ephesians 2:8-9: “God saved you by his grace when you believed. And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God. Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it.”

Naughty list

Without wanting to oversimplify the doctrine of original sin, the overarching thought is that we are all born sinful. “Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me,” says Psalm 51:5. Or as The Jesus Storybook Bible puts it in the Adam and Eve story: “Then a terrible lie came into the world. It would never leave. It would live on in every human heart, whispering to every one of God’s children ‘God doesn’t love me’.”

Whether we believe human nature is damaged by sin the moment our little ones take their first breath, or whether we think their propensity to selfishness forms later as toddlers push boundaries (and patience), the truth is, all of our kids - to some extent - are on the ‘naughty list’. They have done little to deserve presents.

The solution isn’t to encourage them to “be good for goodness’ sake”, but rather to point them towards God’s goodness. When our children know that their place on the ‘nice list’ depends soley on what Jesus has already done for them, rather than what they should do, it releases them to live well in response to God’s love, rather than as a means of earning it.

The question of naughtiness remains, though. Should we tell our kids that without God’s help they’d end up on the naughty list? Or do we just focus on the divine jump to the nice list? In short, should we talk to our children about sin? If so, why, when and how?

He’s making a list and checking it twice, he’s gonna find out who’s naughty and nice. Santa Claus is coming to town. He sees you when you’re sleeping, he knows when you’re awake. He knows if you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness’ sake.

The problem of sin

In his book The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins bemoans the prevalence of sin in Christian thinking: “Christian focus is overwhelmingly on sin sin sin. What a nasty little preoccupation to have dominating your life.” So why do we give it so much airtime?

Whether ‘original’ or not, Christians are agreed that sin has royally messed things up. Unlike being naughty in the lead-up to Christmas - which, at worst, results in no presents - sin has far graver consequences. Romans 6:23 warns: “The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Death. A thoroughly cheery subject to be discussing with three-year-olds! Most children’s workers and parents therefore think it’s more important to focus on God’s grace than the consequence of sin, particularly with little children. One concern around talking about sin with young children is that it could damage their view of God. Given that child development studies have pointed to opinions forming early in a child’s life, this is an important point to consider. If they learn predominately about a punishing God, it may be hard to correct that picture later down the line. One grandparent and church leader I spoke to said she predominately emphasises God’s love with small children. She also recalled counselling a very young child who was terrified of hell.

When I spoke to Rev Dr Howard Worsley, a researcher in children’s spirituality, about hell for our August ‘Elephant in the room’ issue, he said this: “I want to talk to children about Jesus, and about his love and grace. It’s a good news story, and that’s the key message. Children need to hear the gospel: that Jesus has broken the power of death and hell; that he holds the keys of life.”

Another concern some parents had was that concentrating on sin might exacerbate self-esteem issues, particularly in children who were already feeling unworthy, unlovable or irredeemably naughty. If we decide to teach children about sin and its consequences, we must be wary of falling into Santa soteriology, turning the gospel into moralistic striving towards inclusion on the nice list. Lucy AitkenRead, a parenting blogger who has “chosen a rule free home” says: “Children need to hear that their big feelings are accepted and that there is room for their bad selves. That is unconditional parenting.”

Avoiding talking about sin may not even be a conscious decision a lot of the time. One father of four admitted that, when he prays with his youngest children, he focuses on thanking God and rarely leads them in any sort of confessional prayer. When I asked various children’s workers about this, some suggested the ‘teaspoon’ prayer as a helpful way of encouraging children to pray holistically. TSP: Thank you, sorry, please. This short prayer necessitates at least a basic understanding of sin in order to initiate a penitent response, so presumably some children’s groups are covering this topic.

Our problem as children’s workers and parents isn’t just with sin; it’s with the word itself. Sin has come to mean little more than racy lingerie and overindulgent chocolates, and if calorific confectionery is what our children think of when we say “sin”, we are in grave danger of misrepresenting the gospel. Francis Spufford, in his book, Unapologetic, says this: “What I and most other believers understand by the word [sin] has got very little to do with yummy transgression. For us, it refers to something much more like the human tendency, the human propensity, to f*** things up.”

Our children need to know that however good they are at messing things up, God is infinitely better at mending them. The naughty list is not the end of the story

While you may not agree with the language, Francis’ sentiment clearly epitomises the biblical notion that sin hurts us and others. If we do talk about sin with young children, we would do well not simply to frame it within a context of God’s love and grace, but also to talk about God’s desire to protect us from the damage sin causes to us.

Sam Donoghue, head of children’s and youth ministry support for the London Diocese, thinks it’s important children know that: “God protects us from sin because of what it does to us, not because he likes controlling us. He’s protecting us from the harm of sin because he loves us. In the same way that, as a parent, you create boundaries because you want them to grow up well.”

Arlette Gosling, a counsellor and mother of three agrees: “As infants develop, they naturally push boundaries as part of their exploration of their world. I think it’s important to explain at this stage the basic concept of sin - that it is wrong as it hurts people and makes them sad, and God is sad too. But if we are truly sorry the hurt is made better and we can start again - a basic concept of right and wrong within the context of love and grace.”

What we’re saved from

We may be protecting our children, but does avoiding discussions about sin altogether do them a disservice? Jeff Arnold, a teacher and youth worker, wrote this in Short Answers to Big Questions about God, the Bible and Christianity: “The gospel is wildly fantastic news; it’s the best news you could possibly ever hear. But this good news won’t sound like good news to you if you don’t see and feel the weight of your situation first.”

While we must clearly be careful of how we talk about sin, doing so can help children understand the gospel message. Rev Mel Lacy, programme director of youth and children’s ministry at Oak Hill, said: “When a diamond is sold at the jewellers, it’s held against a black cloth to show its sheen. If we’re not being saved from something, then it is a weak and pathetic gospel. Knowing that Jesus died to save me from the consequences of sin, which is hell, makes it a strong, beautiful and grace-filled gospel.”

In order for our children to understand the solution to sin, do our children need to grasp at least a little of the nature of sin and the damage it does to us and those around us?

Is there a sense in which we’re just giving a name to what they already instinctively know... that sometimes they just like being naughty?

Not the end of the story

An eight-year-old told me: “Sin is when you do something wrong and you need to say sorry for it, to God and to whoever you’ve hurt and then you get forgiveness.” Any discussion with children around sin clearly cannot end there. “Then you get forgiveness.” Going back to Romans 6:23, the word ‘but’ is of paramount significance. Immediately after warning of sin’s consequences, Paul quickly moves to God’s solution. In The Awesome Book of Bible Answers for Kids, Josh McDowell puts it like this: “God wants to be friends with each of us, but he is so special that he won’t come near anything that’s bad. So our sins make us God’s enemy… BUT God does want us to be friends with him. So he planned a way that he could fix the problem we have with sin. That’s why he sent Jesus to Earth to die for our sins.”

We must start, finish and saturate any discussion of sin and punishment with the cross of Jesus, and the good news it brings. Our children need to know that however good they are at messing things up, God is infinitely better at mending them. The naughty list is not the end of the story.

We’re all in this together

If we choose to talk about sin with young children, we must ensure that it doesn’t feel like a personal attack solely on them. Rt Rev Paul Butler, Bishop of Durham, thinks it’s important that children know they are growing up “in the context of a world that is infected by sin so the people around them aren’t always going to get things right”.

As parents, children’s and youth workers, we are certainly not immune to sin, and it’s important that our children know this. I’m not suggesting we go out of our way to show young children our bad behaviour, but we could be more honest in the way we approach discussions around sin. Parenting blogger Natasha Crain says this: “I fully believe parents need to be leaders and role models, but sometimes we take on the role of ‘sin authority’ at the expense of remembering it’s still a bit of the ‘blind leading the blind’. I don’t scream when I don’t want to share something, but I can be very greedy in other non-audible ways. I’m a sinner just like they are. I don’t push people when I get angry, but I am quick to raise my voice and use condescending words. I’m a sinner just like they are.”

We are also sinners. Our names are equally etched onto that naughty list. But, as followers of Jesus, we have been miraculously bumped onto the nice list, alongside our children and young people. We do not need to be burdened by the pressure to be good, either because of the promise of presents or from the fear of getting none. Our focus instead should be on Jesus, whose coming to town - unlike Santa’s - was not in the slightest bit creepy, but utterly life-changing.

As Bishop Paul says: “Talk [to children] about sin, not ‘you are a sinner and need to repent’ but in the wider context of ‘we’re all caught up in this’. Keep coming back to the God who, in Jesus, offers us this extraordinary forgiveness and offers us the life of the Spirit to help us live lives which won’t be perfect but do begin to mirror more of Jesus’ light to the world.”

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