The following is notes taken during the session, not a manuscript.
Two Preliminary Cautions
Whenever we teach children we must be concerned not simply to indoctrinate them. By indoctrination I mean putting thoughts into a child's head without a due concern that they should have good reasons for believing them.
In other words, indoctrination tries to preserve a viewpoint from group to group or generation to generation without helping the new group or generation be able to "test all things and hold fast what is good."
To want to have truth go into a child's head is a very good thing. But you should also take care that while you are putting truth into their heads you should also try to give them a process with which they can test it. Don't just give the what and the why behind it; also give the how.
That's the first caution.
Here's the second thing: It has occurred to me in thinking about children that understanding how we teach them is amazingly illuminating for understanding how we do any kind of teaching. Learning how to contextualize truth to children sheds so much light on how to do it in missions and in other contexts. It's best this way and not the other way around.
Let's take a little people group called three-year-olds. If I only use words they don't know, they won't learn anything. And if I only use words they do know, they won't learn anything that way either.
Children need to be gaining new categories of thought in order to learn. So contextualization isn't the most important thing with kids. The most important thing is concept creation.
For adults, you have to create concepts as well, but you also have to destroy old categories. It takes more work. But with children, they don't have any categories and concepts yet, and you can build upon a clean foundation.
Contextualization has great limitations with kids, but it has great limitations with adults as well. It assumes that they have the concepts and categories to take biblical realities and to fit them into their heads. But they don't!
Here are some examples of the kinds of categories that I'm talking about that neither kids nor adults usually have:
- God rules the world right down to the roll of the dice and the fall of a bird, including all of its evil; yet God remains perfectly holy.
- God governs the steps of all people, both good and bad; yet they will bear all the just consequences of their actions.
- All people are dead in their trespasses and sins and are morally unable to come to Christ because of their rebellion; yet they must come to him in order to be forgiven.
- Jesus Christ is fully man; yet he is also fully God who sustained the universe even from within Mary's womb.
- Sin is committed by a finite person within finite time; nevertheless it is deserving of an infinitely long punishment because it is an offense against an infinitely worthy God.
- All men are unrighteous sinners; yet God can declare some to be righteous simply by their believing in the atoning blood of his Son.
So indoctrination and contextualization and preliminary thoughts to set you up to approach my topic tonight which is God's God-centeredness.
No one minds talking about being God-centered. I've spent 30 years making the point that God is great, you should be blown away by it, and things should change. And I've never met a person who thought it was a bad idea to be God-centered. That's because they know the alternatives aren't good. They say that they agree totally, but over time you realize that they don't get it.
When you're trying to create categories of thought, getting people to agree on words is not going to accomplish it. You have to find a way in which to say it where you discover some disagreement, and then you realize that they're starting to get it.
My simple strategy for making sure that people get it when I talk about being God-centered is that I make sure to focus first on the God-centeredness of God. Then I start to see people saying, "That does not sound right."
So at that point, when I get them shaking their head, I like to push on them with a little quiz:
- What is the chief end of God?
- Who is the most God-centered person in the universe?
- Who is uppermost in God's affections?
- Is God an idolater?
- What is God's chief jealousy? To be known admired, trusted, obeyed.
- Do you feel most loved by God when he makes much of you, or when he enables you to enjoy making much of him forever?
This last question is a very threatening question. It takes people off guard. The first half feels good, it feels like love. But then the second half suggests that that may be a problem. And it's a shocking thing to them.
It Must Surpass Self Esteem
Very few children's curricula have helped them get ready for this. Most people are trained to think that compliments and boosted self-esteem will produce what we want. And sure, compliments are good. But woe to us if we make that craving for approval the center!
Do you want heaven to be a hall of mirrors? Or would you like for all mirrors to be gone and you to be able to behold God in all his glory forever? Do you go to the Grand Canyon to admire yourself?
We all know that this motif of self-esteem—though it works with children and has a grain of truth in it—is not what we're after. We're trying to create a concept of God-centeredness that draws people out of themselves.
So how do you do that?
I don't blame people who aren't taught about it for not believing in God's God-centeredness. We hate pride and self-centeredness, and rightly so! So why would people want to listen to me if I make God look like that? But you've got to create that kind of dissonance if you're going to get people to understand what you're saying.
If you make much of God because he makes much of you, you're making much of you. And if you treasure God because he treasures you, then you're not treasuring God for how glorious he is himself.
I'm going to list 17 passages of Scripture to take you from eternity to eternity right through the way we experience God. And they are chosen to show you that the Bible really stresses God's God-centeredness.
- Ephesians 1:5-6 - "He predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved." We usually go to this verse and take away from it that we should praise God. But if we understood it we would see that it is like me telling you that my goal in speaking to you tonight is that you would applaud me really loudly at the end. And that's ugly, and wrong!
- Psalm 19:1 - "The heavens declare the glory of God"
- Jeremiah 13:11 - "For as the loincloth clings to the waist of a man, so I made the whole house of Israel and the whole house of Judah cling to me, declares the LORD, that they might be for me a people, a name, a praise, and a glory, but they would not listen."
- Psalm 106:7 - "Our fathers, when they were in Egypt, did not consider your wondrous works; they did not remember the abundance of your steadfast love, but rebelled by the sea, at the Red Sea. Yet he saved them for his name’s sake, that he might make known his mighty power."
- Ezekiel 20:14 - "But I acted for the sake of my name, that it should not be profaned in the sight of the nations, in whose sight I had brought them out."
- 1 Samuel 12:22 - "For the LORD will not forsake his people, for his great name’s sake, because it has pleased the LORD to make you a people for himself."
- Ezekiel 36:22 - "Therefore say to the house of Israel, Thus says the Lord GOD: It is not for your sake, O house of Israel, that I am about to act, but for the sake of my holy name, which you have profaned among the nations to which you came."
- Romans 15:8-9 - "For I tell you that Christ became a servant to the circumcised to show God’s truthfulness, in order to confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy."
- John 12:27-28 - "Now is my soul troubled. And what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? But for this purpose I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name." Then a voice came from heaven: "I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again."
- 2 Corinthians 5:15 - "And he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised." The cross was radically self-exalting. The goal of it was to put the treasure of the universe, namely Jesus, into your heart to be supremely esteemed above all other treasures. That's why he died.
- Philippians 2:9-11 - "Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father." You cannot escape God's God-centeredness in the Bible. It's everywhere! And I'm just keeping it in your face. There's no cheap solution for your dislike of it. There is an answer, and it's glorious.
- Isaiah 43:25 - "I, I am he who blots out your transgressions for my own sake, and I will not remember your sins."
- 1 Peter 4:11 - "Whoever speaks, as one who speaks oracles of God; whoever serves, as one who serves by the strength that God supplies—in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ." God has put me here right now in order to get him glory.
- Acts 12:23 - "Immediately an angel of the Lord struck [Herod] down, because he did not give God the glory, and he was eaten by worms and breathed his last."
- 2 Thessalonians 1:9-10 - "They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might, when he comes on that day to be glorified in his saints, and to be marveled at among all who have believed, because our testimony to you was believed." Jesus is coming back to be marveled at! He's coming back to be praised.
- Habakkuk 2:14 - "For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD as the waters cover the sea."
- Revelation 21:23 - "And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb."
Getting a New Category
So now we have a crisis in people's lives. The crisis is that they like the idea that all of life should be God-centered. But then I went to the God-centeredness of God. And I have created a huge moral obstacle to believing in God for so many people. That's because they don't have the categories to take it in. But the Bible provides them.
John 11:1-6. This is where you want to go with little children to handle logical relations like this. Verse 5: Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus; therefore, verse 6, he did not go and heal him but let him die.
There is a category of thought here that I think is infinitely important. How can this be love? Clearly John wants us to ask this question.
Before Lazarus died Jesus told his disciples that his illness "is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it" (John 11:4). And after Lazarus dies and Jesus raises him from the dead he says to them, "Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?" (John 11:40).
This makes me ask, "What were you trying to tell me here, John?" The main way John shows us what love is is by showing us that love does whatever it has to do to provide the beloved with the deepest and longest satisfaction, which is the glory of God.
The reason that it's vicious for you to lift up yourself to be treasured and adored is because at the moment you do that you're distracting people from finding their satisfaction in the deepest and longest-lasting joy in the universe, which is God.
God is the one being in the universe for whom the highest virtue is self-exaltation. We cannot copy him in this. We should not think: "God exalts self in order to be loving, therefore I must exalt self in order to be loving." Rather, we should think: "God exalts God in order to be loving, therefore I must exalt God in order to be loving."
We're not into indoctrinating. We want to teach the truth and we want to teach it in a way that will enable children to test it in days to come and in a way that models good learning.
And we're not into simply contextualizing. We're also into creating concepts so that children (and everyone we teach) can learn new things.
What we're into is exalting the God-centeredness of God as the source of the greatest and longest-lasting satisfaction for all those who will receive it.