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How to Nurture and Preserve a Child’s Faith in God

For Orthodox families, living in an environment of godlessness and apostasy, where children are actively lured into the nets of neo-paganism, this issue is extremely vital and agonizing. How to nurture the fear of God in children, when they are so thoroughly brainwashed into believing that God does not exist, that the Church is retrograde and reactionary, that there is no need to obey parents, since children have “rights”? How to preserve faith in teenagers, who are encouraged to rebel against parents and family values, who with the aid of technotronics are being turned into robots obedient to evil, who are being inculcated with the principle that everything is allowed, that one must live solely in accordance with the Epicurean philosophy of “eat, drink, and be merry,” that religion and the Church are unnecessary and unimportant, and only serve to prevent one from enjoying life? The below wonderful opus by Protopriest Sergey Chetverikov examines and responds to these agonizing questions.

Can children be educated in religiousness?

The Law of God that is taught in schools (wherever it is taught) is not aimed at providing children with knowledge of God (it presupposes this knowledge to be already existent); it only provides children with knowledge about God. And since knowledge about God, just like any other knowledge, is acquired only by means of the mind and memory, the study of the Law of God in school usually becomes an abstract, external assimilation of religious truths, which does not penetrate to the depth of the heart.

Knowledge of God differs from knowledge about God. Knowledge of God is a direct perception of God through inner feeling; knowledge about God remains in the sphere of mind and memory. Knowledge of God is explained to us by the Gospel thus: And this is life eternal, that they might know Thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, Whom Thou hast sent (John 17:3). Even the word “religion” means not only a simple understanding of God, but a live connection between two living beings – man and God.

I remember how in my early childhood a religious life existed within me independently of lessons in the Law of God. I truly felt the presence of God, and this feeling was manifested in a desire to attend church, in a love for church singing and festive religious customs, in reading religious books, particularly lives of the saints, in a love for home prayer, etc. As a child I did not find church services boring, and when I learned to read, I used my modest pocket money not to buy treats, but books on the lives of the saints. And this religious life existed within me not because I had somehow learned about God through external feelings, learned about God as an external subject. Such a comprehension of God is impossible in any case, so that when unbelievers say that they do not believe in God because they have never seen Him, they make the gross mistake of applying to knowledge of God the same method that we use in learning about the visible objects that surround us.

On the other hand, no one in my early childhood ever tried to prove the existence of God to me by means of reasoning; there was no need of it. Like any other child I came to know God at that time not through external experience or the process of reasoning, but directly, through inner perception, because I am created in the image and the likeness of God. This inner perception of God is inherent in all people. If we cease to feel God within ourselves, it is not because we are unable to feel Him, but because our perception of God is stifled in us by the delusions of our proud mind, or by the sinfulness of our corrupt heart.

To arrive at knowledge of God does not mean to find God outside oneself as some external object, nor to become convinced of His existence by means of logical deduction, – it means to give our inner self, in some mysterious way, the possibility to see God with our inner eye. From this we can clearly see that no amount of theological knowledge can help us achieve an understanding of God. The Jewish scribes, greatly educated in theology, were unable to recognize in Jesus Christ His Divine power, which simple fishermen, publicans, and fallen women were able to see in Him clearly.

Even in our times, theological and academic education does not guarantee religiousness. If knowledge of God is attained through the heart’s inner eye, then the main goal of religious education consists of an effort to preserve or awaken in a child this inner sight of his heart, or, in other words, to achieve such a transformation in his heart whereby his spiritual eyes would open to see God.

This does not mean that I wish to denigrate in any way the significance and importance of theological education and instruction in the Law of God; I only wish to point out that knowledge of God should be clearly distinguished from knowledge about God, and, while instructing children in the latter, not to think that this exhausts the task of religious education. Knowledge about God is undoubtedly necessary, since it gives a concrete form to our knowledge of God; it clarifies to us our understanding of God and the relationship between God and the world. A child’s soul, particularly one that has been reborn in the sacrament of baptism, possesses a natural ability to know God. The Lord Himself said: Except ye be converted and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the Kingdom of Heaven (Matt. 18:3). Some people retain this inner ability to see God spontaneously throughout their entire life. Such, for example, were saints like Sergius of Radonezh, Seraphim of Sarov, and others.

They did not arrive at knowledge of God through external experience or by means of reasoning and logical deduction. They knew God just as directly as we directly perceive the light and the warmth of the sun. No one needs to prove the existence of the sun. Thus the Bible does not prove the existence of God, nor do saints seek proof of the existence of God. To make the acceptance of God’s existence dependent on the workings of our mind is the same as to look at the sun with the aid of a dimly-lit candle. And not only the saints, but even ordinary people sometimes preserve this direct, live perception of God throughout their entire life, and this is especially true of simple and humble people who are free of the temptations of a proud mind or an unclean heart.

Why children lose faith in God

Why is it that some people are able to know God and believe in Him until the end of their days, while others lose their faith while still young? How does this loss of faith occur, and by what means can faith be preserved or renewed?

Before answering these questions I would like to say a few words to those who say that religious beliefs should not be “foisted upon” children.

Religious faith cannot be foisted upon a person; it is not something which is alien to man, but, on the contrary, it is an essential need of human nature and constitutes the primary content of man’s inner life.

When we take care to have a child grow up truthful and good, when we develop in him a correct understanding of and a taste for beauty, we do not foist upon him something alien or extraneous to his nature; we only help him extract this from within himself, we help him recognize within himself those traits and sentiments that are common to all human souls.

The same should be said regarding knowledge of God.

According to the principle of not foisting anything upon a child’s soul, we would generally have to renounce all assistance to the child in developing and strengthening the talents and capabilities of his soul. We would have to leave him to his own devices until he grew up and decided which principles to adopt and which to reject.

In this case we would not have guarded the child from external influences, but would have only made those influences chaotic and arbitrary.

Let us return to the question of why some people retain within their hearts a constant and unshakeable faith until the end of their days, while other lose it, sometimes completely and sometimes returning to it with great difficulty and suffering?

What is the reason for such a phenomenon? It seems to me that it depends on the direction which a person’s inner life takes in his early childhood. If a person is able, consciously or instinctively, to preserve a correct relationship between himself and God, he will not lose his faith, but if his ego occupies an unseemly prominent and dominant place in his soul, then his faith will be superceded. In early childhood a person’s nature does not yet occupy first place, does not yet become an object of worship. For this reason it is said: if you do not become like children, you will not enter the Heavenly Kingdom. As the years advance, our innate egoism grows more and more within us, becomes the center of our attention and the object of our gratification.

And this self-centered egoistic life usually runs along two channels – the channel of sensuality, gratification of the body, and the channel of pride, of strict trust in and worship of reason in general and one’s own in particular.

These two channels do not usually coexist within one and the same person. Some are dominated by the temptations of sensuality, while others by the temptations of reason. With age sensuality sometimes changes into unhealthy sexuality, from which those who are dominated by reason and pride are often free.

Sensuality and pride – two ways of serving one’ nature – are precisely the traits which, as we know, were manifested in the original sin of Adam and Eve, and created a barrier between them and God.

What happened to our forebears now happens to us.

The unhealthy direction of our inner life from childhood, which leads to the development within us of either sensuality or pride, pollutes the purity of our internal spiritual sight, deprives us of seeing God. We stray away from God, we remain alone in our egoistic life, with all the consequences of such a condition.

Such is the process of our abandonment of God.

In those, however, who succeed in keeping a correct relationship with God, the development of egoistic, sensual, and proud attitudes is impeded by the memory of God; such people preserve their purity of heart and humbleness of mind; both their bodies and their minds are placed within a framework of religious consciousness and duty. They look upon all that springs within their soul from the height of their religious consciousness, evaluate their feelings and passions properly, and do not allow them to take control. Despite all temptations that come across their path, they do not lose the basic direction of their lives.

Thus the purpose and the difficulty of religious guidance lies in helping the child, and later the teenager, to preserve the right relationship between himself and God and not allow the development within himself of the temptations of sensuality and pride, which pollute the clarity of internal spiritual sight.

Remembering my youth, I must admit that it was precisely through such an internal process that I lost my religious faith when I was 13-14 years old. The enticements of sensuality, the excessive trust in reason and the pride of rationality that were developing in me, deadened my soul. And I was not alone: the majority of my friends suffered the same fate.

Had an experienced spiritual instructor happened to be alongside us and peered into our souls, perhaps he would have found something good in them, but primarily he would have found idleness, gluttony, deceit, hypocrisy, self-assurance, inordinate belief in one’s powers and abilities, a critical and skeptical attitude towards the opinions of others, a tendency towards hasty and rash decisions, stubbornness, and a credulous attitude towards all kinds of negative theories, etc.

The only thing he would not have found in our souls would have been the memory of God, and the inner quiet and humbleness which it engenders.

We did not have such an instructor. Our religious teacher, a venerable protopriest, barely had time to check on our lessons in the Law of God and explain further. And we regarded these lessons with the same boredom and indifference as all the others. Outside of these lessons we had no contact with our teacher. Confession, to which we went once a year, we approached with no understanding whatsoever.

And nothing prevented us from becoming spiritually extinguished and deadened.

How to preserve or renew a child’s faith in God

In an American handbook for religious youth instructors I happened to read several pieces of advice on how to conduct the matter. I would not say that this advice was satisfactory. They say: teach the children to notice the presence of God in all the circumstances of their everyday life, both at home and at school, and you can help them keep their faith. This is not always so. Children who have faith undoubtedly see the presence of God in their everyday life, but, unfortunately, this does not prevent them from losing their faith as they get older, and that which in their childhood they saw as having been evidently influenced by God, in their teen years appears to them in a different light, and they begin to look upon their childhood faith as a na?ve delusion. Ideas which in childhood seemed well-founded and convincing, no longer satisfy the adult. Once, when I was 11-12 years old, I was unable to solve a difficult math problem. In vain I sat the whole evening, trying to solve it. As I went to bed, I prayed to God to help me solve the problem. During the night I saw the solution in my dreams, and when I got up in the morning, I joyfully wrote it down, with my heart full of gratitude to God, Whose help I did not doubt. However, when I turned seventeen, this childhood experience did not prevent me from considering myself an unbeliever, and I explained the incident by a subconscious effort on the part of my relaxed brain.

This example shows that our childhood conclusions concerning the participation of God in our lives in no way guarantee the preservation of our faith in adulthood. Young people in general regard everything with great skepticism, especially that which is presented to them by older people as an unarguable and concrete truth.

They say: read the Bible to the children; the Bible will teach them to know God.

Undoubtedly the word of God, heard in childhood, leaves its trace in the soul and bears fruit in its own time. However, in this case, too, it is not the validity of Biblical truths which is significant to the mind, but a deeper transformation of the heart that occurs under the influence of the word of God. If the Bible remains only in the mind and in the memory, it will not help preserve a child’s faith.

Biblical stories, which are heard and accepted with total trust in childhood, in teenage years – particularly under the influence of negative scientific criticism and prevalent beliefs in society – evoke disbelief and denial. One must have a deep and unshakeable faith in the Bible as the genuine word of God, in order not to lose a pious attitude towards it, and even professional theologians, as we know, often lack such a faith.

The same can be said about reading the lives of the saints. The lives of the saints can naturally encourage us by their example of Christian striving, but we must look upon these saints not only as heroes of olden times and exceptional circumstances, but as our eternal companions, instructors, and helpers, as living members of the Church, with whom we can be in constant contact and to whom we can appeal with prayers for help. In other words, the remembrance of saints gives us real help only when we life a full Christian life, when we live within the Church in an indivisible unity with the saints, when the saints are more than just historical figures of the past for us.

All the aforementioned methods of influencing young people suffer from the same basic shortcoming – they skim the surface, they appeal primarily to reason and do not apply themselves to the internal condition of a child’s soul, which has already begun to deteriorate under the influence of sin.

In order to offer real and effective help with religious life, it is imperative to analyze this internal spiritual process which takes place in the young soul and which leads it to religious desolation. Only by understanding this process in each individual case may the solution be realized.

The most important aspect of this process is the development of a sinful frame of mind, enclosed upon itself. This is what one must struggle against and not only appeal to the mind with arguments of a general nature.

Both the loss of faith and the return to it never occur through a calm, theoretical, exclusively reasonable process. The loss of faith and the return to it usually constitute a heavy internal drama, extremely painful, sometimes leading to despair, to a wish for death, and this drama sometimes lasts for many years.

It is impossible to heal the internal condition only with words and pious instructions or learned lectures.

Against the painful process of inner disintegration one must set up another, a creative process of inner amelioration, by having the soul influenced by a healthy, positive, creative force.

The most important concern in religious education is to make sure that contact with God is preserved not only in a child’s conscience, not only in his memory and habits, but in the deepest part of his soul. This inner contact with God must be the bulwark against which all the temptations of sensuality and proud self-delusion will be shattered.

The child may be helped in this matter first of all by a favorable environment of active religious faith and love for God. As a candle is lit from a flaming candle, so in a child’s soul the flame of faith and love is lit not from precepts and rules, but from a surrounding spirit of faith and love.

Of primary and most important significance in the religious life of children is, of course, the family. But in the words of the Apostle Paul this family must be a small home church, i.e. not only be officially counted as an Orthodox unit, not be limited to only an external observance of church rules, but to truly retain the Lord Jesus Christ as the focal point of its life.

Only under such a condition will the atmosphere of the Orthodox home and the entire mode of family life penetrate deep into the child’s soul.

Then a mother’s or a father’s prayer, an icon or a cross over the crib and the bed, the partaking of Holy Communion, the sprinkling with holy water, the lampada lit before an icon, – all will not just be an empty external manifestation, but rather the expression of the family’s genuine religious spirit, and as such will not evince contradictions and doubts in the child’s soul.

In the presence of complete unity between the spirit and the form of the family’s religious life, as a sponge soaks up water, so will the child’s soul soak up impressions of an Orthodox family’s way of life.

The family’s religious traditions, the celebration of Christmas, Epiphany, or Easter, the Pentecost or Great Lent, – all of this does not disappear without a trace from a child’s religious life. Out of all of this the soul amasses a reserve of holy impressions, of joyous and pure experiences, which form the foundation of the future conscious religious life. In years to come, during moments of danger, of inner crises, these impressions, this childish religious experience rises to the surface of the soul and becomes the source of salvation and renewal.

The benevolent effect of a religious Orthodox family is immeasurable – unnoticeably, organically, lightly, and freely it lays down within the child’s soul the foundation of a healthy religious life.

The second environment, even more necessary to proper religious development, which comprises the Orthodox family itself, – is the Orthodox Church, whose focal point is the Lord Jesus Christ. The soul of the Orthodox child must be fortified with the realization that not only is he part of an Orthodox family, but part of the Orthodox Church, with whom he is organically and eternally united, and which is his spiritual nurturer and educator.

Such a feeling easily arises within the child’s soul if his surrounding family lives with this feeling. The feeling of belonging to the Church is more important than the feeling of belonging to the family. The family may be destroyed, but the Church – never. Whoever is conscious of being a member of the Church will never feel alone in the world: he will always be held in God’s strong hands. He will always feel an indestructible foundation under his feet. He will always live in constant communion with Christ, with the saints, and with the souls of the departed.

The strengthening of such a realization in the child is a highly important task of religious education.

How a child should recognize Christ

We have already mentioned that the core of church life is our Lord Jesus Christ. He should also be the core of family life.

A child should recognize Christ not from a picture book, but from the mood, the way of life, the thinking, the mutual relationships of family members. If he becomes acquainted with Christ in such a manner, then Christ will become near and dear to his soul for his entire life.

It was thus that early Christians, martyrs, and Church Fathers were brought up in their Christian families. It suffices to remember the rearing of the three sisters – Faith, Hope, and Charity – by their mother Sophia, or the saints Basil the Great, Gregory the Theologian, and John Chrysostome by their mothers.

Thus the basis of a proper religious upbringing is to plant positive Christian content into a child’s soul from his earliest years, and to plant it not as something external and temporary, but as a personal response to the most profound needs of his soul. With such positive content in his soul, it will be easier for the child to overcome the dark and sinful temptations and passions that will arise within him.

How young people abandon Christ

And yet we must acknowledge that only a few fortunate and forceful natures are able to retain the positive Christian foundation of their souls, while the majority of young people suffer through a difficult and tormenting process of departure from God and subsequent return to Him.

I will make an attempt to briefly describe this process.

The stirrings of sensuality and proud self-delusion which arise and gradually develop within the young soul finally become the dominant elements of the soul. The young soul becomes their obedient slave. Young people look upon this obedient service to their own desires and passions as a manifestation of their freedom and ardently protest against all attempts to restrict this supposed freedom.

It cannot be said that the idols which have been created in the young souls bring them true satisfaction. They cater to these idols, but do not find any comfort in them. They become miserable and depressed, they search for something better, purer, more truthful and beautiful, and this gives rise to that thirst for discovering the meaning and purpose of life which is so inherent to youth. This is also the reason for their attraction to various teachings and theories which promise universal happiness and well-being.

Having lost the religious ground of their early childhood, young people make an all-out effort to attach themselves to another foundation. However, all these strivings and noble impulses do not usually go beyond the boundaries of daydreaming. There is not enough will for doing real good or anything positive in general, for overcoming sensuality, for cutting oneself off from fruitless philosophizing.

(Note: Nowadays we should also add to this the terrible demonization to which contemporary youth is being subjected, and which turns it into robots with emasculated souls, obedient to all modern influences.)

A terrible inner drama finally arises, dissatisfaction with oneself, a melancholy frame of mind, often a wish for death. Overcome with such feelings, young people shut themselves in, forget their nearest and dearest, experience horrifying loneliness. And in the throes of this loneliness they make the most fantastic and unhealthy plans. Neither intense work, nor noisy gaiety are able to disperse this heavy frame of mind.

How a turning point in religious life occurs

It is at such a time that a turning point in religious life may occur. The previous path of life has led to a dead end. One’s inner condition seems abominable, although the young man or woman perhaps cannot yet recognize it as being sinful. There is a desire to find a true and lofty meaning to life, since to live without finding such a meaning means to lead a pitiful, colorless, aimless, and senseless existence.

At this fateful moment when the young life reaches a turning point, suddenly, by some unknown and mysterious means, a certain light appears in the soul, a certain fresh and joyous feeling, a certain hope that life is not meaningless.

Where does this certainty that life is not meaningless come from? What is life? Up to now the young mind had been inclined towards a mechanic view of the world: life is an assembly of atoms and forces, and their constant movement and interaction; life is a causal collection of manifestations, whose sum total comprises the entire picture of cosmic, earthly, and human experience. And suddenly within this huge, boundless, and soulless mechanism the young soul begins to perceive the presence of something living, great, wise, and beautiful – the presence of God.

From where does this feeling arise?

Many circumstances can contribute to it; the main thing is that the young person’s faith in his own infallibility has been shattered, and he has deeply felt his inner bankruptcy. He no longer feels support within himself. The need has arisen for another, more powerful support.

The soul stands at a crossroad. It finds itself in a state of instability. Former influences and attractions have lost power over it. New forces have not yet defined themselves within it. At this moment every jolt, no matter how insignificant, can have an extraordinary and decisive influence on one’s entire life.

The sweet religious experiences of one’s childhood emerging from the soul’s subconscious, the ringing of church bells heard unexpectedly, a religious book coming to hand, a meeting and conversation with a profound believer, a visit to a monastery, the silent and mysterious beauty of nature, and many other factors can contribute to a successful exit from the turning point of the soul. The long-forgotten childhood faith will awaken and will sweetly glow within the soul as a brightly-shining guiding light. Life will suddenly gain meaning, and there will be a desire to live and work in the name of the new ideal flaming in the soul. The old materialistic view of the world will have turned out to be insolvent. The new religious world viewpoint will warm the soul and give meaning to life.

Remembering my own youth, I find in it the confirmation that it was precisely along this path, a path of inner drama lasting many years, that we returned to our lost religious world view and ideals. The religious feeling which awakens within the soul immediately lights up the world and life in a totally different manner. The young soul begins to perceive the beauty and the majesty of the universe, attains a belief in the lofty meaning and purpose of life, and the heart opens up to an acceptance of the Gospel.

One feels the desire to go to church, to attend services, to go to confession and partake of communion, even though some heretic thoughts often remain.

And when these new needs and thoughts begin to manifest themselves in the young soul in place of the chaos through which it has passed, then one can boldly say that such a soul has stepped onto the path of salvation. There begins a new period of spiritual life, when, having established himself firmly upon the rock of faith acquired through bitter experience rather than through reason, a person consciously being to build his life upon this foundation.

Protopriest Sergey Chetverikov
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