Sloppy Theology: Naughtiness and sin

Some time ago, I came across a resource that suggested children keep a stone by the side of the bath.

The idea seemed to be that every night the children would place the stone in the bath and ask God to wash them clean from sin – “all the naughty things we do”.  

“Why ever would you do that?” asked my friend Heidi, baffled. “When I was putting my children to bed, I wanted it to be a calm, happy time with songs and stories.  I didn’t want them lying awake worrying about everything they’ve done wrong since breakfast.”

I knew what she meant. My own children would have been: openly scornful (eldest), dramatic embroidery (youngest) and arriving in our bed at three in the morning to confess something he had forgotten at bath time (middle child).

The writers of the resource presumably thought that the very act of washing the stone would be enough for children to go to bed feeling clean and forgiven.  But how many of us have not experienced times when we haven’t felt forgiven, even though we know that we are?  

(Perhaps I am being over critical. There may well be families who find this activity helpful.)  

However, the main problem I have with this resource is that it equates sin with naughtiness.  This is sloppy theology.

I am fairly sure that neither the writer nor those sending out the resource actually think naughtiness is the same as sin.  

No church service directed at adults ever includes the words: 

“Let us now remember the times when we have been naughty and ask God to forgive us…”

This is because naughty is a word that has a different connotation for adults and children.  For adults, naughtiness is a mix of illicitly consumed chocolates and Carry On Doctor.

In the child’s world naughtiness is about disobedience or mischief. Disobedience that is to adult rules, adult wants and adult needs. Disobedience to adults not to God.

It is possible to see sin as disobedience to God – though I think I would add in that it needs to be intentional for it to be sin.  But as I see it, sin is when we put ourselves at the centre instead of God.  When we are at the centre, it is difficult for God to reach us; we turn away from him. We all do it, every day, all the time.  This self-centredness leads to the actions we call sins: lying, pride, jealousy, lack of compassion.  But the self-centredness comes first.

Many years ago I used to visit church schools to report on their ethos, Collective Worship and R.E.  Most schools had a list of golden rules displayed in the classroom.  Usually compiled by the children they included things like listening while others speak and taking care of the classroom.

I used to ask the children individually which rule they thought was the most important.  Most answers were about being kind to each other but at one school the children all assured me that it was the rule about not running in the corridors.

It is very easy for children to get the wrong idea about what is intrinsically important.  If not running in the corridors is mentioned daily in assembly for a week, it naturally gains importance in children’s minds.  The adults probably assumed that the children knew that they placed a higher value on kindness and honesty. 

Children do not always make the connections that adults expect them to. I once watched an assembly devoted entirely to being kind to each other and not bullying, and then watched two children reduce a third to tears, literally on the way back to the classroom.

When adults equate children’s naughtiness with sin, it is through a desire to simplify the abstract nature of sin into something that children can understand. Children, they think, know when they have been naughty and they know that naughtiness is wrong.

Although children do know when they have been naughty, this is usually because of adult reaction.  Often adult anger and upset is their first indication that they have done something wrong.  Who could imagine that playing hairdressers and cutting a friend’s hair, shrieking games in the garden in the middle of the night or using the clean washing to mop up paint water were intrinsically evil? 

Also some things can be “fun” one moment and “naughty” the next.  Who has never encountered the adult happily engaged in games with wildly excited children who suddenly switches to the adult who wants them to stop and calm down because it is bedtime and the adult has had enough?

Naughtiness is not sin.

It is possible to teach children about sin without talking about naughtiness.  In junior church I once set up the little wooden figures to show how people turned towards God and then turned away and chose to follow their own path. We talked about the things that people did that cut them off from God – they suggested bullying, greed, prejudice and lying – and they drew pictures to illustrate these themes. We then talked about forgiveness (and the little wooden people turned back to God) and the children decorated the other side of their pictures with stars and stickers and wrote the word “Forgiven” in large letters.  We later used the pictures for the confession in our all age service.

Perhaps most importantly this activity placed God in his proper place as the determiner of sin.  Naughtiness is determined by the adults in the children’s lives, not by God. We should not be putting adults into God’s place.

4 thoughts on “Sloppy Theology: Naughtiness and sin

  1. Love this Post. I agree wholeheartedly with everything you said. Much of it resonated with my experiences and I laughed my socks off in places. I think you should publish more widely

    Liked by 1 person

  2. “We should not be putting adults into God’s place.” So true – nor co-opting God as a cosmic version of the naughty step! Naughtiness is inherently about transgressing rules … sin has to be about something more profound than that? I think I would want to help children develop a strong sense of grace – not just debts cancelled, but a constant, welcoming, transformative love inviting us to really get to grips with our faults and failings. Thank you for raising these issues.

    Liked by 1 person

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