What does it mean to be a faith model?
If the chorus of R.E.M.’s song “Shiny, Happy People” springs to mind, you’re not alone. Sadly, what we think of as faith modeling is often little more than pretending. Instead of reflecting the reality of life with God (which includes its share of ups and downs, as the psalmists testify), it’s tempting to put on a smile and pretend like everything is peachy all the time.
But kids don’t learn how to offer and receive forgiveness, or how to trust God through hard times by watching us put on a brave face. In their book, Celebrating the Milestones of Faith (Faith Alive Christian Resources, 2009), Laura Keeley and Robert J. Keeley write, “Children and teens need to see adult people of faith who are deepening their relationship with God. They need to know how adults pray. They need to see them in times of sorrow and doubt, and in times of sadness and joy. We cannot expect children to grow into mature disciples unless they see how other followers of Christ live a life of faith.”
This year for Good Friday, I attended a solemn service with a friend. On Easter Sunday my church was alive with joy and song in celebration of Jesus’ resurrection. In-between the two services was Saturday, which turned out to be a pretty ordinary day for me. But it was far from ordinary for the first disciples. Imagine their despair and confusion in that time between Friday and Sunday—when they couldn’t yet see that the dawn would bring new hope, and they didn’t understand why Christ had died.
That lull exists in our lives, too. There are times when we’re right in the midst of the action—we see God’s hand at work, we sense God’s leading, we feel a close connection with Christ. And then there are times when we don’t understand God’s plan, we can’t see the way forward, or we feel the pain and shame of our failures.
Can we really model faith for kids and teens if we still struggle like this?
We can if we don’t mind the company of people like Moses, David, and Job. Only Jesus can offer a picture of perfection. What we can do is demonstrate that hard times don’t disqualify our faith. We model what it means to have faith in a God who is bigger than our doubts, diseases, fears, and failures when we ask God the hard questions, when we pray the same prayers over and over again and wait for an answer, when we get help for an addiction, when we ask others to pray for us or with us, when we cry with someone who is mourning, and when we get away from the crowd every now and then to find refreshment in God.
We may actually model the essence of faith best when we don’t have all the answers, when we know our great need for God, and when we are open to the encouragement and wisdom of other believers.
Our kids face trouble too, and they need to know that God is there with them. They need to see that God’s Word still speaks to us in everyday situations, giving us guidance, strength, and conviction. They need to see us admit our mistakes and ask for forgiveness—because Christ’s forgiveness is strong enough to restore us to God and each other every time we fail. These aren’t always things that are taught in a lesson, but they are evident in our actions, our attitudes, and our prayers.
Faith modeling is simply about living our faith with kids—praying with them and for them, sharing conversations and stories about faith, and talking about how God is at work in our own lives.
I want to be able to say with Paul, “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1). But I identify more with Peter, who loved Christ imperfectly as he tried to serve him with all his heart. He walked on water with Jesus, he witnessed the transfiguration, and he preached boldly on Pentecost. He also denied Jesus three times and was forgiven and restored. That part of Peter’s life tells me something very important about God’s grace and about faith—it gives me hope that Jesus will hold onto me too, no matter what. And that he’ll somehow use both the shiny, happy times in my life as well as the weak, painful times to testify to his goodness and grace.