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If God Is At the Neighbors’ House, How Can He Be Here Too?

“Mommy, will you come with me to the bathroom? You haven’t done it in awhile,” he wheedles, an expert in emotional manipulation at just four years of age. He’s right – I’d just returned from 8 days in Bolivia and hadn’t been available to keep him company in that most fearful of rooms in our home.

I’m not an expert in child development, so I have no idea if this is true, but I cling to hope that his current fear of being alone and especially of sleeping alone in the dark is just another stage of growing up and thus will pass, hopefully soon. When I’m feeling especially pressed for time or exasperated and frayed by the volume and intensity of children at the end of summer, I would rather rip my hair out than stand in the hallway outside the bathroom while the boy pees.

'Child Imagination' photo (c) 2010, Cesar Mascarenhas - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/

Bedtime, always challenging time of day for me because I’m so over being the responsible adult by then, has become another dreaded drama. Every night we cover the same ground. Every night.

Yes, you have to go to sleep – everybody sleeps. No, you can’t stay up later. It’s your brother’s turn for the top bunk – you have to sleep on the bottom bunk right now. No, you can’t trade beds. No, you can’t sleep with your brother. Stay in YOUR bed. There’s nothing to be afraid of. Monsters are just stories – they aren’t real.

Desperate to close the door and clock out of mommy-duty for the night, I pull out the big guns. You can pray, honey, because God is always with you – you don’t need to be afraid.

But even the big guns of God’s omnipresence and protection don’t convince this boy.  He protests, “But he isn’t here, Mommy. God is at the neighbors’ house.” I can smile at that one. I don’t smile when he says, “God isn’t here – I can’t see him.”

How do you explain a spirit? How do you describe the indescribable? What if you yourself struggle to understand and believe that God is Divine omnipresence and really is always with us?

After closing their bedroom door last night, I found myself cloaked in uncertainty at the words I’d used to comfort my son. Once again I’m a child like him, confronting one of my personal weaknesses – believing what I cannot see. I ask questions, I test things, I touch and taste and smell so that I can understand. But I can’t do that with God. That’s why we call it faith, after all – “Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.” (Hebrews 11:1)

I look around and find no reasonable explanation for the beauty, variety, intelligence, and complexity of life outside of a supreme being. I believe this. But a personal God? A God who was born into a newborn body and grew up like we did, peeing and pooping and vomiting and maybe even eating his own boogers? Sometimes the particulars of what we believe blow me away with their craziness.

How is it that parenting can so easily uproot and expose uncertainties I’ve long kept buried? I suppose it’s the constant needing to explain how we see the world and why we do the things we do in simple child-friendly terms. It exposes how complicated we’ve made things one so many levels. Maybe we make things complicated because we struggle so much with the basics.

When it all seems ridiculous, I have to remember what I’ve experienced myself. This is what the people of Israel were told to do — when the going gets tough, remember what God has done in the past and trust God to do it again.

While I may be unable to explain and prove doctrines and theology, I know what it’s like to be overwhelmed by peace that passes understanding in the worst moments of my life.

I have seen Jesus change me, his teachings transforming the way I see myself and others and enabling me to forgive and give second chances.

I know how Jesus’s promises for the future have empowered me to see the ugliness of life here and instead of disintegrating in grief and despair, rise up and work in confidence that together we can repair the brokenness, at least a little, and show people little glimpses of the ultimate healing to come.

Maybe these are the things I need to tell my children — not vague statements with big words but concrete stories about the God I trust. These are the stories that speak to the little girl in me.

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  1. First, I have an (almost) four year old who is also going through an “afraid to be alone” phase. It’s tough.

    Secondly, just this morning, that same almost-four-year-old asked me why God is invisible. Is it just me, or does trying to answer these questions make you doubt everything you believe is true? I feel like a lunatic sometimes when I try to explain God. Maybe that’s as it should be.

    If I were better with my Bible, I would have pulled out Hebrews and faith and not seeing and seeing Him. But I am not. So I mumbled something about God the Father and God the Son and God the Spirit and how His Spirit lives in us and so He is always here, visible in us, and I’m sure she was confused and I’m praying somehow, something takes root.

    Parenting is a theological crucible like no other. Thanks for speaking honest truth about it.

    • EXACTLY. I can have it all settled in my mind, but as soon as I have to explain it to a child, I get all flustered and trip over my words and nothing sounds sensical at all. Like you said — I feel like a lunatic. I guess that’s why Paul wrote that God chooses the foolish things of the world to shame the wise. I’m living that out in living color!

  2. I don’t feel that I have concrete stories to tell either. It leaves me wondering if perhaps I have never truly known God, and maybe the reformed mindset is true, and I am just not elect, which would explain the lack of relationship despite the effort.

  3. I have always struggled to answer my son’s questions. Definitely understand how you feel and not sure I have answers either.

  4. Joy – this is beautifully written. Honest, searching, open. Thank you for it. We’ve all been there – and nighttime terrors are the testing ground for all kinds of things. When my middle girl (also named Joy) was an early grade-schooler (see – it doesn’t go away all that soon, sorry to say), she would creep out of her room, worrying about all the strange noises she heard, certain someone was under her bed or in her closet.

    It drove me NUTS. She was never a great sleeper and I would just tell her, in an extremely exasperated tone, to march herself right back to bed and go to sleep. Well….I have spent many years apologizing to that child (now a grown woman with 3 boys of her own)…because we discovered an entire family of skunks living on that side of our house and she WAS hearing noises every night.

    I now watch her literally lie down every single night (trading off with her husband) with her 5 year old, reading, comforting, sometimes sleeping. She remembers that terrible fear oh-so-well and somehow manages to include this time in her over-packed life. She’s a far better parent than I ever was!

    But the spiritual questions – those are biggies. And SO NECESSARY for us. Because we need to know what we believe and why we believe it and how we’ve experienced it well enough to articulate it to a 4 year old – or a 14 year old – or a 24 year old or a 44 year old. And the only way we learn how to do that is to practice. And to think. And to pray. Which you are doing so beautifully. And there is nothing wrong with an, “I don’t know the answer to that one, sweetie – let’s talk about it again soon.” You don’t have to have all the answers – you just have to be willing to hear the questions and to admit that sometimes it’s not easy. And you are very, very good at that.

  5. Unfortunately, monsters are all too real; they just usually wear human faces. But no benefit in telling a four year old that. 😉

    I wasn’t Christian when my then 5 year old son, recovering from some pretty horrific abuse, was suffering from night terrors. I wove comfort for him from the protective shield formed by his blue lamp/nightlight. (I bought a blue bulb for that purpose.) Kids that age think in different terms. I think letting him know that God sends guardian angels to watch over us might help. Or not. Just a thought.

  6. Our eight year-old still struggles with bedtime, and with the presence of God. I think you’re exactly right: “not vague statements with big words but concrete stories about the God I trust”

    I’ve done the theology, but nothing replaces experience. We’ve all met too many people who know about God, but don’t know him. I would rather raise an Abraham, Isaac or a (redeemed) Jacob than raise the finest theologian in the land. My prayer each night is that our little girl will grow to be God’s friend, because I believe correct doctrine will always follow friendship with Him.