Our 5-year old seems to have begun a new phase: the apparent growth of his conscience. In recent weeks he’s become uncharacteristically concerned about his misbehavior, even to the point of self-condemnation. It’s nothing we’ve ever seen in him before.
Example: he and his 3-year old sister squabble over a toy. He grabs for it, yells at her, and pushes her roughly. I intervene and correct him, and – when he throws himself on the floor in protest over the unfairness of it all – send him to his room for a minute to cool off. When I meet him there he is near tears: “I’m always doing wrong things. I do the most wrong things of anyone in the world!”
The first few times he expressed these types of feelings, I told him that we all do wrong things, explained temptation, and said one key is to pray to God for strength to do something different just as he’s about to sin. “God’s the one who gives us the strength not to do wrong things; He helps us and gives us self-control,” I told him. He accepted this; we prayed together. Similar scenes of him coming undone over his wrong actions occurred. Typically during the misbehavior phase he’d be defiant and naughty; it wasn’t till afterwards that he’d morosely express his sense that he was a boy filled with wrong-doing.
Then during an education workshop with some fellow Christian moms, the topic of training and correction happened to arise. One mom described the steps she goes through with her sons during correction. “Following discipline we pray together,” she said, “and then I tell them to ask me what they did wrong. When they do I say, ‘I can’t remember; I’ve forgiven you already!’ and we giggle and hug. Then we recite 1 John 1:9 together: ‘If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just and forgives our sins and cleanses us from all unrighteousness.'” Brilliant, I thought. Just what I needed.
So the next time my son’s excessive concern over his wrongdoing cropped up (just a couple days later), I talked to him about the nature of his sin. “You sinned, just like we all do,” I told him. “When we say sorry to God; He forgives us. When you say sorry to me, I forgive you. So then, once you’re forgiven, your only job left is to just let it go!” He said sorry to God and sorry to me. Then I told him to ask me what he did wrong and, when he did so, told him I couldn’t remember because I’d forgiven him already. He smiled; it was perfect. Next up (perhaps not, realistically speaking, till after I’ve had the baby), we’ll work on memorizing the Bible verse together and saying it when this issue arises.
The developmental phase my son is displaying has, I’ve been reflecting, both good and bad aspects. The good side is that he’s evidently becoming truly aware of his sin for the first time. He’s grasping the reality about which Paul wrote in Romans when he said: “I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing.” He’s developing the inner sense of right and wrong that we call “conscience” – the thing that shows us our need for God by making us aware of our sin. A healthy conscience and appropriate conviction of sin are the Holy Spirit’s work, so hallelujah for both
The potentially bad side is that self-condemnation is of the enemy, not God. An over-active conscience, if it becomes a permanent fixture in our thinking, causes us to over-value our sin and disbelieve in God’s forgiveness and cleansing. I’m not saying this has happened to my son, but I want to watch for this and pray against it as we move forward. The job of Christ-followers is to engage our wills to receive God’s forgiveness; it’s not okay for us to wallow in a false sense of condemnation. Jesus didn’t die on the cross for us to stubbornly hold onto the sins from which his death cleansed us; no! Mercy is available to us, and we must avail ourselves of it as an act of faith. This truth is critical for us moms to teach our kids and to help them absorb.
We’re at the very front end of all this, and by no means do I expect this issue need be a stronghold for our son long-term. But as I prayed for him about it – that he would know the bottomless love of God and willingly receive His forgiveness – I thought about spiritual warfare, and about how crafty our enemy is. He’d start to work on a 5-year old to develop an overactive conscience, seeking to point him down a road of needless self-condemnation. He’d strive to get the thing rolling, working it deeper over time to heighten unnecessary shame in a young soul. Scoundrel! We’ll have none of that here… Not while training efforts – and my prayers for and with my son – can make any difference.
Thanks be to God that our Jesus is in the business of freedom, and that shame has no part in the life of faith. As we mothers walk in the freedom that Christ died to bring us, may He also empower us to help our children know and walk in His forgiveness.