Most Christian parents wouldn’t admit that they want their child to grow up not believing in God. Of course, there will be some who might say they don’t want to force their beliefs on their children and want them to find their path on their own (a completely faulty attitude for Christian parents to make, mind you), but they would still hope that the path they find is the one that leads them to a belief in the God of the Bible. However, if we line up our beliefs and desires with our actions, we might find that we are raising our children to become functional atheists.
To be a functional atheist is to believe that God exists, that he created the world and everything in it, that the Bible is accurate, and that heaven is real, but to live in such a way as if there is no God. Others have referred to this as practical atheism, where the lip-service may be given to God, but for all practical purposes, self is exalted above all else. As one pastor put it, “They may talk about prayer or God’s blessings or even the Bible, but they have no evidence of walking submissively under the kingship of Christ in their lives.”
What does this look like in our parenting? How can we recognize it and correct it? Let me paint a couple of scenarios. We have taught our children that God is sovereign, and he rules over every aspect of our life. We have used scripture to back up our teaching, telling our kids, “We know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (Rom. 8:28) and “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But even the hairs of your head are all numbered.” (Matt. 10:29-30). We may have even used Job 42:2, “I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted,” hoping that they learn that God is in control over everything. But then they see us worry. They hear us complain when difficult situations arise. And more importantly, they don’t see us turn to God and ask for His help when things get tough. We’ve taught our kids that, while we say that God is in control, we stress over inconveniences and look to ourselves to fix our problems.
Here's another all-too-familiar situation. We teach our children that God’s will is always best, that we should trust His plan for our lives, but when it comes time to make a big decision, God isn’t factored into the equation. Perhaps your son or daughter wants to start dating and they mention the girl or boy that they’re interested in. What are the questions we ask? Are we more concerned with how nice they are or how successful they are academically or even athletically, rather than what kind of person they are spiritually? Do we ask if they are a Christian or even attend church? What about when our child starts thinking about what they want to do with their life? I’m not talking about when they’re in first grade and they say they want to be a “dinosaur hunter” or a “space cowboy.” I’m talking about when they really start thinking about what a good career choice would be. Do we encourage them to pray about it and ask God to guide them? Do we ask them how they could use that career to glorify God?
One more scenario (you know, in case I missed anyone’s toes): Our kids have been taught the Ten Commandments. They’ve heard them in Sunday School, AWANA, VBS and maybe we’ve taught them ourselves. We have told them that we are commanded to only worship God, that there are to be no idols in our lives that take God’s place of worship. And then we consistently choose other things over God when it comes to attending the weekly gathering of God’s people for corporate worship. Our children learn that God comes first unless they have a baseball or soccer game. We’re going to worship God, unless family is in town, or someone has a birthday. Church is important but not as important as hunting season, football season, or vacation season.
These are some pretty obvious cases of how we might be raising our children as functional atheists, but we should also be aware of ways that we might subtly pass on a low view of God. Paul Tripp warns that “perhaps the God we remember is small, distant, disconnected, uncaring, and seemingly unwise.” If this is how we view God, then undoubtedly we are passing this on to our kids. So, if we do recognize that this is a problem in our lives, what can we do to correct it. Thankfully, the first step is already complete, in that we have recognized that it is a problem. Secondly, as we ought to do with any sin, we should repent and ask for forgiveness. Then we ask God for help. Quoting Paul Tripp again, “Ask the Lord to give you spiritual eyes that see his infinite grandeur everywhere. You cannot correctly understand your life and make God-honoring choices unless you look at it through the lens of a God-centered worldview. God first, God all the time.”
May we all seek to obey the commands of Scripture, to “train up” our children in the Lord and that the words of God, “shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise” (Deut. 6:6-7).
Soli deo gloria,
Wonderful message Brian! Great challenge to all of us as individuals or parents or grandparents. Do we really live in the presence of God coram deo for His glory or are we culturally "functional atheists"?
Hopefully, by God's grace and the power of the Holy Spirit, we sense the beauty of God's creation and his hand of Providence in all we do. Also, the desire to know Him and please God is lived out in the family, the church and our communities.