We all want children to know that God loves them deeply. But to really convey the depth of God’s love for humanity, we need to tell children about God’s love of two other things: justice and mercy
Justice means that those who are guilty are punished for whatever they have done. Mercy means that those who are guilty are forgiven for whatever they have done. These might seem like irreconcilable opposites, but God brings them together. In fact, the essence of the gospel is God’s unique ability to be perfectly just and perfectly merciful. As Romans 5:8-9 tell us, God takes the punishment for our sin upon Himself, ensuring that both justice and mercy are accomplished.
Unfortunately, we tend to walk children through the individual stories of the Bible in ways that emphasize either God’s anger or His grace rather than drawing attention to the beautiful way He weaves them together. Every place we see God show mercy, there is also justice. Every place we see justice, there is also mercy.
So how can we reveal a fuller, richer portrait of God’s character to children? How can we help them see that the love of God is beautifully expressed in both His desire to deal with evil AND His desire to forgive? How can we show them that God loves justice and mercy in every story we share? It begins with how we engage with Scripture and share its narrative with the children we serve.
Tell the Whole Story
Some Bible storybooks written for children tend to focus on only one part of the story, in an attempt to simplify it. But if we lose too much of the story, we also lose the beautiful blend of justice and mercy within it. For example, the story of Jonah is often shared with children in a way that focuses heavily on Jonah and his experience. So, it becomes a story of how God forgave Jonah for running away.
But the richness of this story is found in the reason Jonah ran away and in Jonah’s response even after God forgives him. When we share the whole story, we see that Jonah wants only God’s justice. But that is not God’s character! God is full of justice and mercy, and He demonstrates both within the full narrative.
Move Away from Moralism
Be wary of Bible storybooks for children that are rewritten as fables — stories designed to teach a moral lesson. Such a book might tell the story of Joshua and the battle of Jericho as simply a call to be courageous and obedient. The problem with this approach is that it puts the focus on the people in the story instead of on God at work in their lives. It is nearly impossible to see God showing justice and mercy when we only focus on people!
Instead, we must frame the story of Joshua and the battle of Jericho as the Bible does — the true story about God’s mercy for all who are willing to trust in Him. Teach about how God issues justice on a city that has rejected Him, but how He also saves Rahab and her family — not because they had done good — but simply because they recognized Him as God.
Honor the Only Hero in the Bible
When we construct Bible stories around people, we also run the risk of turning them into the heroes of the story. Some children’s books and Bibles even use the word hero to describe people like Abraham, Moses, and David. But none of these people were heroes. God is the hero of each of their stories, and God’s heroism is found in the way He shows both justice and mercy in their lives. They even realize it and declare it to be true!
David understood that God wanted to use him as an instrument of justice when he met Goliath. That is why he described it as God’s battle (1 Samuel 17). Later, though, David realized that God did not want him to be an instrument of justice when he had the opportunity to kill King Saul. In that circumstance, God led David to show mercy instead (1 Samuel 24). Still further on in David’s story, God issued both justice and mercy for David when he sinned greatly and then repented (2 Samuel 11-12). God is the hero in every episode in the life of David — both when he follows God and when he forgets God. And when we share each episode with a focus on God as the hero, we illuminate the way only He can weave justice and mercy together perfectly.
Framing stories of the Bible so that children can see how God loves both justice and mercy is powerful! It will help them see the constancy of God’s character throughout Scripture, the perfect wisdom of His judgment, and the amazing grace of His infinite mercy.
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