Helping Children Plant Lasting Seeds of Faith

Helping Children Plant Lasting Seeds of Faith

27 min read
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I recently participated in a panel for the Mormon Matters podcast, hosted by Dr. Dan Wotherspoon (Ph.D. in religion), with Jordan Harmon (Licensed Clinical Social Worker) and Dr. Jennifer Finlayson-Fife (Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology & licensed psychotherapist) on the topic of teaching robust faith to children. As a father of 4 children (currently ages 12 to 2) and as someone who sees a need for more robust faith I’ve sought out how to give my children seeds of faith that can grow with them into and throughout adulthood rather than seeds which likely will need to be discarded or replaced later in life (often causing great angst).

After connecting with Dan on the topic a couple times he suggested we do a panel discussion on it. I thoroughly enjoyed the conversation and the opportunity to dive deeper into teaching children, learning from the expertise of Jordan, Jennifer, and Dan. It was great to hear from them how some of my own experiences are creating a positive foundation of faith for my children and also learn ways Irene and I can do better.

As part of the discussion I brought 10 one-liners which Irene and I use with the kids that we discussed together as a panel. These serve as mantras for our family. And we’ve collected or created these with the hope that they can grow with and adapt to the development of our children into and throughout adulthood — hopefully avoiding potentially destructive attitudes and interpretations of faith and the gospel that can cause harm or lead to abandoning faith.

Here are the 10 one-liners:

  1. The 11th commandment: Thou shalt use thine own head
  2. Good things happen to bad people, and bad things happen to good people
  3. God is not a magic genie
  4. In this church you don’t have to believe anything that’s not true
  5. The law and the prophets hang on the Two Great Commandments
  6. Prophets make mistakes even when they are acting as prophets
  7. We’re not called to be sifters, we’re called to be gatherers
  8. The gospel works differently for everyone
  9. Missions are not saving ordinances
  10. Covenants are not about what to think, they are about how to live

1. The 11th commandment: Thou shalt use thine own head

This is a tongue-and-cheek phrase we use with our kids. I can ask them what the 11th commandment is and get predictable eye-rolls and groans. The basic principle here is one of agency – that learning how to use our agency to love others and experience joy is the purpose for this life. God won’t make the decision of how to do this for us.

Hugh Nibley once wrote about the need to balance the zeal of the heart with knowledge of the mind in his essay titled “Zeal Without Knowledge”:

Zeal makes us loyal and unflinching, but God wants more than that… [Joseph Smith] said that the people “were depending on the Prophet, hence were darkened in their minds, in consequence of neglecting the duties devolving upon themselves.” They must do their own thinking and discipline their minds. If not, that will happen again which happened in Kirtland: “Many, having a zeal not according to knowledge,” said the Prophet, “have, no doubt in the heat of enthusiasm, taught and said things which are derogatory to the genuine character and principles of the Church.”

We need both our mind and our heart in our discipleship. Discipleship needs to be a conscious and intentional endeavor.

2. Good things happen to bad people, and bad things happen to good people

Kids instinctively know this as they utter phrases like, “That’s not fair!” or see instances of bullying. This is heavy stuff and it comes right to the problem of evil and suffering in the world. I feel hiding this reality from our kids as we teach the gospel does them a great disservice. But at the same time we need to be careful not to peddle easy answers to the very real, and unresolved, problem of suffering and evil.

I once served as a ward mission leader which provided the opportunity to frequently teach with the missionaries. One time when I was out with the missionaries teaching a new member discussion with a family the elders asked at the end if they had any questions at all about anything. Their teenage daughter said she had a question and mentioned a horrific murder of a local mother that happened in the area recently and asked if that was part of God’s plan. She was sincere in her question and I could tell that it bothered her. This 15 year old girl perfectly enumerated the thorny problem of evil and suffering in the world.

The missionaries looked a little frazzled (after all, they’re only a few years older than this girl), so I gave this answer:

First I read out of Moses where Enoch witnesses God weeping and God explains (Moses 7:33,37):

And unto thy brethren have I said, and also given commandment, that they should love one another, and that they should choose me, their Father; but behold, they are without affection, and they hate their own blood; … Should not the heavens weep, seeing these shall suffer? Wherefore, for this shall the heavens weep, yea, and all the workmanship of mine hands.

This tells us that God weeps with us in our pain aware of the evil in the world.

I then shared a quote from the gospel of Mr. Rogers:

When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” To this day, especially in times of “disaster,” I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.

I pointed out that just as we all have the agency to cause pain and suffering, that we also all have the agency to relieve pain and suffering. We have great power in the choices we make.

I pointed out that I, personally, don’t think God knows every decision we’ll make (at least not in the way people often think). Instead God knows all decisions we could possibly make and then leaves it up to us to open up those possibilities or close them down based on our choices (I didn’t go into my quantum interpretation of this). So while we can’t thwart God’s ultimate goals, we do have great power to do good or evil in this life.

Finally, I ended by emphasizing that this isn’t a final answer. The problem of suffering is difficult, and we may never know satisfactory “Why?” answers. But I did emphasize that the gospel gives us powerful tools to deal with suffering in positive ways.

While this isn’t an air-tight theological resolution to the problem of evil (I’m doubtful one exists in a completely satisfactory way at all), but it does frame it in ways that children can understand and which can give them power to face the evil in the world and seek to heal suffering with faith.

3. God is not a magic genie

This avoids the vending machine, prosperity, or Santa Claus approach to gospel. This is especially important as we teach children about prayer. One way to do this is to draw the link between serving others and the answers to prayer:

after ye have [prayed over everything], if ye turn away the needy, and the naked, and visit not the sick and afflicted, and impart of your substance, if ye have, to those who stand in need… behold, your prayer is vain, and availeth you nothing, and ye are as hypocrites who do deny the faith.

Alma 24:28

This helps to set realistic expectations about prayer. It shows how our prayers are for us to tune into what God’s will is, to find charitable ways to act, and to seek positive meaning in our experiences. Finding healthy meaning in life and in the events that surround us is powerful. And using prayer to inspire and form our charitable response to that meaning is divine.

4. In this church you don’t have to believe anything that’s not true

This is a paraphrase from Henry Eyring’s father’s advice to him as he went to college (the father and grandfather of Henry B. Eyring). In fact, this was once dramatized in an excellent (albeit sometimes corny) video the church produced in the 1960s titled “The Search for Truth”. As Henry Eyring was going off to college to study science his father challenged him to go learn all he could and to accept whatever is true and to harmonize it with his faith in God.

More than 50 years later, Steven Peck, at a 2013 Interpreter Conference on Science and Mormonism, pointed out that people seem to be struggling with this:

What’s at stake here is often our youth who are torn between two views of the world that in many people’s minds are incompatible… We have these battle lines drawn and often our youth wind up in the middle of it… If we leave them with a choice that they have to make a decision between science and religion it becomes very problematic because, in actuality, there are many difference choices to be made in life and I believe religion and science work together very, very well as ways for finding the truth.

Sadly, when we pit science and religion against one another, it often manufactures faith crisis. Rather than pit them against each other, we can instead seek harmony and acknowledge the different worlds science and religion inhabit. Science is how we learn how to get along with things. The gospel is how we learn how to get along with others.

John A. Widtsoe pointed out how learning from science has, in fact, greatly helped religion:

By recognizing our universe as one of law, order, and intelligence, science has driven fear from the hearts of men… There arises therefrom a trust in the things about us. The age-old horror, called fear, which has so long distracted humanity, vanishes. Superstition is laid low. [We] come to understand better the love of God, and his offerings of goodness. Certainly, in so doing, science has contributed to religious faith.

Evidences and Reconciliations, Bookcraft, 1960, pg. 171

I have collected many, many quotes which illustrate how this harmony can be sought.

5. The law and the prophets hang on the Two Great Commandments

This is a paraphrase of Christ’s teachings on the two great commandments (Matthew 22:35–40). After teaching that the two great commandments are to 1) love God with all your heart and 2) to love your neighbor as yourself, Christ went on to point out that “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

One Monday evening FHE we wanted to have an object lesson that illustrated this point. I went out into the garage and found some nails and scrap wood. I nailed two nails on either end of a board and strung a string from the two nails. We then wrote down on pieces of paper several different things God has blessed us with in the gospel (e.g. temples, scripture, church, priesthood, commandments, prophets, etc). We took turns hanging these pieces of paper from the string using paperclips. We read the scripture from Matthew above and talked about how just like that scripture, these two nails represent these two great commandments and we’ve hung these things in the gospel on them. I then took one end of the string off a nail and asked what would happen if I dropped it. After the kids identified that all those thing would fall to the ground we let the string drop and talked about how we must always keep our testimony and these things in the gospel securely tied to these great commandments.

Elder Uchtdorf, in an address titled “The Pattern, the Path, and the Promise” which he presented to the Salt Lake City Inner City Mission December 4, 2015 , plainly taught the non negotiable nature of charity.

To put it simply, having charity and caring for one another is not simply a good idea. It is not simply one more item in a seemingly infinite list of things we ought to consider doing. It is at the core of the gospel—an indispensable, essential, foundational element. Without this transformational work of caring for our fellowmen, the Church is but a facade of the organization God intends for His people. Without charity and compassion we are a mere shadow of who we are meant to be—both as individuals and as a Church. Without charity and compassion, we are neglecting our heritage and endangering our promise as children of God. No matter the outward appearance of our righteousness, if we look the other way when others are suffering, we cannot be justified.

One of the best ways we’ve found to teach the principle of charity to our children has been to try to provide real, in-person experiences with serving others. Ways to do so include using resources like, suggesting and supporting service projects in your local church congregation, or subscribing to calendars and email lists for community and inter-faith events.

6. Prophets make mistakes even when they are acting as prophets

This one is often hotly debated in Mormonism. However, acknowledging some basic, pragmatic, realities about our humanity can help create a faith which avoids the brittleness of authoritarianism.

We first started explicitly teaching this to our children when we were reading through an abridged Old Testament as a family. In one part talking about how those who followed the prophet were blessed and those who did not were cursed our daughter commented, “That’s why we must follow the prophet no matter what.” We paused scripture study to correct that misconception.

In Doctrine and Covenants 1:24-28, it gives a warning against treating the words of prophets as infallible:

Behold, I am God and have spoken it; these commandments are of me, and were given unto my servants in their weakness, after the manner of their language, that they might come to understanding. And inasmuch as they erred it might be made known; And inasmuch as they sought wisdom they might be instructed; And inasmuch as they sinned they might be chastened, that they might repent; And inasmuch as they were humble they might be made strong, and blessed from on high, and receive knowledge from time to time.

It turns out the moment God involves any of us in the process of prophecy is the moment God accepts that we’re going to cause errors in prophecy. That’s Paul’s “seeing through the glass darkly” principle (1 Corinthians 13:12). If God requires perfection in prophecy, then God can’t allow human agency to function in it. And I don’t see God doing that. This recognizes that we should avoid pulling our humanity out of the process of prophecy.

Now, the question becomes then, “What do we do when we have a conflict between what we prayerfully feel is right and what a prophet has said?” Sadly, sometimes what’s advocated is to just keep silent about it or to pray until we think differently — which I think is essentially asking someone to bury the gift of agency and personal revelation. I think this creates really brittle faith and can set people up for some serious faith crisis. So rather than pit personal witness against prophecy, or visa versa, I think there’s a way forward that invites Christ into the picture.

George Handley, a professor of humanities at BYU, gave a wonderful lecture titled “On Criticism, Compassion, and Charity” where he points out a way to use disagreement to invite charity and compassion into the process of seeking truth.

On criticism he says:

…criticism is not the same thing as contention. Contention isn’t what happens when people disagree. It is what happens when they lose trust and respect for one another. Criticism, on the other hand, is the means by which we protect ourselves from deception and by which we strengthen our autonomy as moral agents. It implies that we can see ourselves in a context of difference and plurality.

He then highlights how compassion is a vital companion to criticism:

Compassion is an important companion to criticism. If we never allow ourselves to feel what others feel or see through another’s eyes, our critical judgment will become centripetal and self-reinforcing. We will end up only talking to those we already like or identify with. It can lead to cynicism and categorical mistrust of others. Compassion, which means to “suffer with,” can trigger learning and change.

And he explains how charity operates on the tension between criticism and compassion:

Charity… is the means by which we learn to live with the tension between criticism and compassion. And I want to make it clear that wherever charity emerges, there Christ is also…. It helps us not to be driven by emotion, to weigh things in the balance, both the good and the difficult, and it recognizes that there is a gap between our thoughts and God’s thoughts that we must seek to overcome by a perpetual search for more truth. In this way, it helps us to avoid polarized and polarizing conclusions.

Obviously, there’s a lot of meat here, some which make take a while to chew through. But I think we can start from a basic premise with young kids that while prophecy is a wonderful gift to lead us to God, it is not perfect and that we can still choose to have faith, hope, and charity despite real disagreements as we’re true to the witness we have prayerfully received. And I feel this will give kids robust tools to find lasting faith.

As an aside, I’ve taken the time to more fully flesh out this approach to prophecy in an essay titled “‘Unto what shall I liken?’ – Breaking the Fourth Wall of Revelation” which I presented at Sunstone NW in 2016. I’ve also collected a bank of quotes from LDS authorities which advocate for a non-authoritarian approach to religious authority.

7. We’re not called to be sifters, we’re called to be gatherers

(note: I modified this one from the original list discussed in the podcast based on feedback from the discussion)

When differences, disagreements, and divisions cause tension it can be often heard “It is a time of sifting.” A danger with this imagery is it can foment this tension as members pit their own righteous desires against one another. It divides the Body of Christ through contention. An example of this is Peter’s defense of Jesus as he was arrested. The defense of Jesus was a righteous desire. Unfortunately, his zeal that lead to cutting off the ear of Malchus was out of line (Luke 22:49-51; John 18:10-11).

Currently, I’m saddened and ashamed of all the ears being cut off in religion today. Swords are drawn on various sides as authoritative exercises of institutional power cuts off members who are hurting – and swords of indignation are swung at the flaws in the institution. We even see this play out in families where faith can become a contentious wedge rather than a healing balm.

Contrast this with Jesus’ response to Peter and Malchus as he stops Peter and heals Malchus’ ear. Can we see in this example how Christ is perhaps calling us to put away our religious and institutional weapons and instead see and heal the suffering of others — for us to become gatherers, not separators? With so many who are hurting today, we have a much greater need for healers and peacemakers than we do for zealots. I think we all have the responsibility to find ways to put severed ears back on and begin listening to one another.

The Greek for the word “judge” (κρίνω) in Christ’s teaching “judge not that ye be not judged” (Matthew 7:1-3) means judge but more in a final, legal way – perhaps another translation might be “condemn”. Strong’s translation notes it properly means “to pick out (choose) by separating”. While I do agree that how we choose to react to things in life can have a sifting effect, I think the gospel is clear that we are not called to sift and separate one another, but to gather and heal.

8. The gospel works differently for everyone

1 Corinthians 12 lists a “diversity of gifts” of the spirit with the admonition “That there should be no schism in the body; but that the members should have the same care one for another.” We can fall short of this vision when we become reductive in our attitudes about the gospel. When we teach a gospel of conformity and austerity vs a gospel diversity and charity we often create these “schisms”.

It can also be helpful to note that gifts of the spirit come in even more forms. Marvin J. Ashton, in a talk he gave in the October 1987 General Conference titled “There Are Many Gifts”, points out even greater diversity of these gifts:

Taken at random, let me mention a few gifts that are not always evident or noteworthy but that are very important. Among these may be your gifts—gifts not so evident but nevertheless real and valuable.

Let us review some of these less-conspicuous gifts: the gift of asking; the gift of listening; the gift of hearing and using a still, small voice; the gift of being able to weep; the gift of avoiding contention; the gift of being agreeable; the gift of avoiding vain repetition; the gift of seeking that which is righteous; the gift of not passing judgment; the gift of looking to God for guidance; the gift of being a disciple; the gift of caring for others; the gift of being able to ponder; the gift of offering prayer; the gift of bearing a mighty testimony; and the gift of receiving the Holy Ghost.

We must remember that to every man is given a gift by the Spirit of God. It is our right and responsibility to accept our gifts and to share them. God’s gifts and powers are available to all of us.

In teaching children, it can be important to point out to them how there are many ways to experience God. While prayer works for millions of people, for some it is not a gift that works well (or at all). Some are able to empathize better with those who are suffering while others struggle more with empathy. Faith in the word comes naturally to some, but not others. Helping children experience this diversity of gifts can avoid the false idea that if they don’t have a particular gift that something is wrong with them and free them to discover their own gifts in the spirit. It also helps our children be able to identify and acknowledge the good in their friends or family members who are not of our faith.

Dieter F. Uchtdorf, in his April 2013 Priesthood Session talk titled “Four Titles”, makes the point that diversity in the gospel is not only acceptable, but critical to the strength of the church:

But while the Atonement is meant to help us all become more like Christ, it is not meant to make us all the same. Sometimes we confuse differences in personality with sin. We can even make the mistake of thinking that because someone is different from us, it must mean they are not pleasing to God. This line of thinking leads some to believe that the Church wants to create every member from a single mold—that each one should look, feel, think, and behave like every other. This would contradict the genius of God, who created every man different from his brother, every son different from his father. Even identical twins are not identical in their personalities and spiritual identities.

It also contradicts the intent and purpose of the Church of Jesus Christ, which acknowledges and protects the moral agency—with all its far-reaching consequences—of each and every one of God’s children. As disciples of Jesus Christ, we are united in our testimony of the restored gospel and our commitment to keep God’s commandments. But we are diverse in our cultural, social, and political preferences.

The Church thrives when we take advantage of this diversity and encourage each other to develop and use our talents to lift and strengthen our fellow disciples.

9. Missions are not saving ordinances

I think we need to better contextualize missions for our children. We sometimes, culturally, push youth in the wrong ways regarding missions. I loved the mission I served and I will encourage my kids to serve a mission. But I will not have them believe that things like their salvation, testimony, faithfulness, future in the church, worthiness, or my respect or love for them is in jeopardy if they don’t choose to serve a mission. From personal observation as well as hearing stories from many others, if we give the impression to youth that they must either serve a mission or their salvation or their future in the church or gospel is at stake then we’re liable to push them out of the church.
One phrase which I think better points us in this direction is: Missions are not saving ordinances.

The goal here isn’t to discourage serving a mission; I encourage my children to serve a mission having done so myself. The goal here is to make sure that our zeal for the blessings many experience serving a mission does not drown out the commandments we have to always put love first and respect personal agency. I think we could better model the unconditional love taught to the Romans in the New Testament in how we love youth as they make this decision for themselves:

For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Romans 8:38-39

10. Covenants are not about what to think, they are about how to live

I agree with Nephi when he declared that his “soul delighteth in the covenants of the Lord” (2 Nephi 11:5). I believe Mormonism (and indeed religion) isn’t found through spectatorship; it is found primarily through discipleship. It isn’t something to derive or merely think about; it is something to be lived, brought to life. It’s similar to music written on a page. Its beauty isn’t discovered until it is rendered and expressed. Christ-centered covenants that enable righteous living are a powerful unifying force against divisive and contentious forces which so often separate on ideological grounds.

I think Joseph Smith was sensitive to this in his statements against creedalism and sectarianism:

The most prominent point of difference in sentiment between the Latter Day Saints & sectarians was, that the latter were all circu[m]scribed by some peculiar creed, which deprived its members the privilege of believing any thing not contained therein; whereas the L. D. Saints had no creed, but are ready to believe all true principles that exist, as they are made manifest from time to time.

The Latter-Day Saints’ Millennial Star, Volume 20

The creeds set up stakes, & say hitherto shalt thou come, & no further, which I cannot subscribe to.

Joseph Smith, sermon, October 15, 1843

I never thought it was right to call up a man and try him because he erred in doctrine, it looks too much like Methodism and not like Latter day Saintism. Methodists have creeds which a man must believe or be kicked out of their church. I want the liberty of believing as I please, it feels so good not to be tramelled.

The Words of Joseph Smith, pp. 183-184

One way to illustrate this is to contrast some of what we have and have not covenanted to in Mormonism. Have I covenanted to believe a particular thing about the age of the earth or the detailed biology of life? No. Have I covenanted to believe in the absolute literal historicity of scripture? No. Have I covenanted to never disagree with leaders or acknowledge their faults? No. Etc.

Contrasting some of the covenants in Mormonism: Have I covenanted to live the Word of Wisdom? Yes. Have I covenanted to live the law of chastity? Yes. Have I covenanted to mourn with those that mourn? Yes. Have I covenanted to pay an honest tithe? Yes. Have I covenanted to love my enemies and to love my neighbor as myself? Yes. Etc.

This isn’t to say that the covenants in Mormonism are absolutely perfect or that correct doctrine or ideology isn’t important. But framing covenants in terms of how we choose to live for Christ vs. merely what we think can keep wind in the sails of faith.


These 10 one-liners are by no means exhaustive and they are certainly biased towards my own perspective. But I think as we “dig deep” (Luke 7:48) and focus on improving the quality of the seeds of faith we give to our children for them to plant, seeds which can weather the storms of life, they will be better secured to the foundation of faith in Christ.