My wife, Theresa, and I have been married for thirty-one years. And in raising our six children, we have learned an important lesson: if we want our kids to know Jesus, it’s not enough to teach them theological truths; we have to witness to our own encounters with the living God.
Scripture teaches us that “witness to Jesus is the spirit of prophecy” (Revelation 19:10). It sounds daunting, but being prophetic simply means sharing about our own revelation that Jesus is risen. This has always been the heart of effective evangelization, even in the domestic church of our families.
How well do our children grasp the freedom that Jesus’ cross has won for them? Do they know that Jesus died so that they could experience his new life? These powerful truths come to life for our kids as we “show and tell” how they have transformed us.
What’s Your Story? Each of us has a unique story to share. What I tell my children is that when I was in high school, my prayer life consisted of asking God to give me good grades, help me score a touchdown, or get me out of a speeding ticket. All that changed when I met a fellow who told me about his conversion and then asked me if I had Christ in my life. I didn’t know what he was talking about, but his confident assurance moved me to pray in a whole new way: “Jesus, if you are real, and if you really are risen from the dead, then I want to know you.” I prayed this way for fifteen minutes every day for two weeks, but nothing happened. Fortunately, I also began attending a prayer meeting where I saw many other people talking about a personal relationship with Christ. So I persisted.
The breakthrough came when I was praying with some guys for a friend who was dying. I began to feel overwhelmed by my own past sins. I looked up at the cross that was in the room, and for the first time, I realized that Jesus’ death was not some abstract theological formula. He knew me intimately, including all my sins, and yet he loved me. I knew he was alive and moving in me, washing me clean. My shame and guilt were gone, and I felt brand-new. Where I had felt overwhelmed by a sense of unworthiness, now I was overwhelmed by his love. God’s mercy triumphed, and I have known ever since that my Redeemer lives.
So, parents—and grandparents, godparents, aunts and uncles—what’s your story? Don’t underestimate the power of your testimony! Give it some thought. Then tell the children in your life why you go to Mass. Tell older children about your special encounter with the Lord, whether it was on a retreat, at a penance service, or as you worked through a painful situation. It may be a little uncomfortable at first, but God will help you.
Live It Out. Our children need to understand that they can begin to experience heaven here and now as they accept the Lord into their hearts. Of course, we can’t give them a personal encounter with Jesus, but we can encourage them to persist in seeking it. The peace, joy, and love that they see in our lives will spur them on. The daily example of how we cope with life’s trials presents countless opportunities to live out what we profess.
One day, Theresa took our children to a farm with a pumpkin patch. As they were getting ready to leave, she realized she had lost her car keys. Okay, Lord, she prayed silently, it’s one of those times. She gathered the kids, explained the situation, and asked them to pray with her: “We don’t know where the keys are, but we do know God. He knows where they are, so let’s ask him to do a miracle for us.”
No flash of inspiration came, so they began searching. Theresa still marvels at what happened next: “I walked over to the barn, put my hand down into a haystack—and scooped up the keys.” What a relief! And what a great opportunity to talk with the kids about how Jesus always wants to help us.
Jesus is real, he is near, and he enables us to face every trial and situation. Let your example demonstrate your belief in that reality. By your witness, you will help your children know the Lord and experience the power of the cross for themselves.
Give It a Try. Along with the witness of our example and experiences, we need to tell our children clearly—and often—that God wants the message of the cross to become a personal reality for them: “God so loved you, Gina, that he gave his only Son” (John 3:16). “When you, Jimmy, were baptized, you became dead to sin and alive to God” (Romans 6:11). They have to know that Jesus is calling them to become like him. They have to know that holiness isn’t a theory. It’s a relationship with a risen Lord who empowers us to be and do all that God wants.
I tell my kids that being a Christian is challenging, but it’s worth it. Just as it takes hard work to become a professional basketball player or a rock star, living the Christian life can be challenging. But, as with those dream careers, it’s also a lot of fun. There is nothing as exciting as experiencing almighty God speaking to your heart or giving you power over sin. So it’s worth fighting the good fight every day and taking your temptations to the cross. Once they experience Jesus filling their hearts and giving them power over sin, they will become convinced that they can live the Christian life. They will become confident, even, that they can make a difference in the world!
Why not give it a try? Ask your older children, “Why do you think Jesus was willing to go to the cross? What do you think was going through his head while he was up there? How does that make you feel? What does the cross mean to you personally?” Tell them your story, and ask them to tell you theirs.
I suspect that three things will happen. First, you will probably be encouraged by your kids’ responses. Second, you will probably see some gaps in their faith that you can fill. And third, you will probably get a sense from God about how you can help them take another step closer to the Lord.
Trust that Jesus is with you. He can help you be a prophetic witness. The God who can pluck car keys from a haystack will surely give you wisdom, if you ask.
Dr. Leyva, a clinical psychologist, teacher, and lecturer, is president of Montgomery Clinical Services in suburban Maryland.