Every parent has heard it.
Some days it’s sweet and endearing — like a gateway that opens to new vistas of God’s good world for young, fertile minds. But sometimes it’s more like the cacophony of seagulls who are just a little too desperate to snatch those boardwalk fries from your hand.
Why? Why? Why?
God knows that I treat those questions — and by extension, my kids — like greedy seagulls more often than I ought. But he has also given me grace to see that every Why? is not an obstacle, but an opportunity. I might be tempted to hear that constant refrain like the scratchy repeat of a broken record, but every question serves up a chance to tune our children’s hearts — with God’s help — to the frequency of divine grace.
Shortly after the Shema, that grand summons in Deuteronomy 6:4–9 to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might,” Moses depicts a scene from everyday life: a father, a son, and a simple, commonplace question (Deuteronomy 6:20–25):
“Dad, what’s the meaning of all these laws and rules God has given you?”
“Well, son, not long ago we were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt. Our people built great cities for Pharaoh, but he ruthlessly forced us into hard labor. He even set out to drown our sons — little guys, even younger than you — in the Nile. But Yahweh saw our affliction and heard our cries. He brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand.”
This father responds to his son’s question, What’s with all the rules, Dad? not by explaining every jot and tittle of the law, but by relaying God’s redemptive plan. The father situates the statutes, laws, and ordinances in a grand narrative; this dad tells his son the old story. In effect, as Moses unfolds this mini-drama from daily life, he is saying that Israel doesn’t live merely by a code of law, but on the stage of God’s great drama. More than mere servants of the law, the father and son play unique roles in God’s master script to save a people and bring them home to himself.
The father continues to tell the story God is crafting, shaping, and writing for his glory:
“He rescued us, son. He led us out from the land of slavery and is bringing us to the home he promised long ago — first to Abraham and his sons, and now to you and me. I admit, I nearly lost hope, lost faith. But Yahweh delivered us from bondage, and now he commands us to keep these rules so that we might have full life in him.”
God’s Summons to Story
The call to share the story with the next generation weaves its way through all of Scripture. At the first Passover, Moses assumes that curiosity will get the best of kids, who will ask, “What do you mean by this service?” And parents respond not with a technical description of the memorial itself, but with the story — the context — in which the event first took place (Exodus 12:26–27).
Joshua, in his own narrative, assumes the same: Someday soon the kids will wonder about the twelve stones Israel left behind in the Jordan. And parents ought to instruct their adolescents with the miraculous story of how God parted the waters (again) for the ark and the people to pass (again) unscathed (Joshua 4:6–7, 21–24).
Even in the context of judgment — mobs of furious locusts and all — God wants his people to remember through story:
Hear this, you elders;
give ear, all inhabitants of the land!
Has such a thing happened in your days,
or in the days of your fathers?
Tell your children of it,
and let your children tell their children,
and their children to another generation. (Joel 1:2–3)
And every time we share in the Lord’s Supper, we signal the story of God’s culminating covenant in Jesus’s own blood (Luke 22:19; Matthew 26:28). The youngest among us may not partake of the Eucharist, but the body and blood in digestible bits communicate grace as little ears hear, eyes see, and noses smell.
Curiosity Can Save
God has already done the neurological hardwiring for stories to enrapture our attention, and now he calls us to pass along the narrative. Parents to children, sibling to sibling, church member to church member — God wants us to tell the old, old story.
The call rings especially true for parents. You may rarely have a captive audience (and much more often a rambunctious one), but for moms and dads, every new day dawns with a golden opportunity to tell the gospel story. Toddlers will squirm, teens will inevitably complain (so I hear), but grumbling notwithstanding, God has embedded curiosity in our kids’ hearts.
When my 6-year-old son asks why we’re sitting through church again, I want to give a pat answer like “It’s good for you” or “Because that’s what God wants us to do.” Instead, may God help me to say something like
“Son, we gather together like this because God has brought us into his true family now. Your mom and I once thought we could make it on our own, but God showed us our need for him. He gave us grace to trust him, and now we need Jesus’s family to help keep us trusting and loving him.”
When my 7-year-old daughter wonders why we don’t have certain dolls, what do I say? Sometimes maybe it’s “you have plenty of toys already,” but maybe other times it’s
“I want you to have dolls to play with, but God cares about how we view our bodies. He created them, each one different from the other in size, shape, and color. But God looks to the heart — not flashy clothes or exposed skin. And he wants us to do the same.”
Tell the Tale
Not every response to Why?’s refrain requires parents to recount God’s story from creation to consummation. But most of us probably have more chances than we realize to place ourselves and our children in the tallest — but truest — tale the world will ever know. And sometimes, we just might want to pause and remind them (and ourselves) how we too were captives whose only hope rests in a hero we don’t deserve.
“Kids, do you remember that story about Israel and how they were trapped and enslaved in Egypt? Well, that’s my story too.”
“What do you mean, Dad?”
Share the story God has crafted, shaped, and written for the fame of his name in your own life.
Every effort we make, however imperfect or incomplete, will form our restless audiences as we pray the story, read the story, and sing the story. A hurried moment over eggs or oatmeal, a few minutes before bedrooms darken, or perhaps somewhere in between, we have more space than we realize to “tell to the coming generation the glorious deeds of the Lord, and his might, and the wonders that he has done” (Psalm 78:4).