Teaching Children to be Human Like Jesus

In this article I want to talk leadership—your leadership as a children’s pastor.

It is often said that leadership is influence. I would like to suggest that just because someone has influence does not make them a leader. As one Harvard professor put it, “Hitler wielded power; he didn’t lead.” Hitler was a misleader, not a leader. It’s your responsibility, as a children’s pastor, to build a team of leaders, not misleaders. What is a leader? A leader is someone of influence who recognizes people as people. A true leader sees people as human beings and summons human beings to exercise their human dignity. Hitler didn’t do that. Hitler used his influence to exalt himself. Hitler failed to see himself as a fellow human being—which is why he failed to recognize and honor the humanity not only of the Jews, but also of the Germans whom he inspired to become murderers. Hitler was a misleader because Hitler refused to submit to the authority of truth.

What’s the difference between a leader and a misleader? Anyone who uses their influence to steer people toward truth is a leader. Anyone who uses their influence to steer people away from truth is a misleader. Jesus said, “I AM the Truth” (John 14:6).

Your job, as children’s pastors, is to teach children the truth of God’s Word.

The truth is that God, not Hitler, is God. God alone is Creator, Redeemer, Judge.

The truth is that every single person in the history of the world has inherent dignity because each was created in God’s image. To be human is to bear the image of God. Let’s think about what I just said. It’s your job to help children understand that God wants them to be more human.

We want children to be more Christ-like, right? Jesus Christ was human. Jesus who never sinned was fully human. It’s a good thing to be human. The very famous statement, “To err is human” is not a Bible verse. It’s simply not true that “to err is human” because Jesus was human, and Jesus did not err. Therefore we can reason that it’s bad theology to say: “Well, I’m only human. What do you expect?” or “I was all too human in that moment.”

One of the distinctive of the Christian faith is that it promotes the truth that God wants us to be human. He created us in His image—that’s what it means to be human, to bear the image of God. If we think comparatively (and this is something kids need to know), the overarching idea in Islamic thinking is to prove yourself. Indeed, a number of religious systems falsely claim that God requires people to earn their own salvation. By contrast, the overarching idea in Deep Ecology (an environmentalist spirituality that says that earth is afflicted with a fever called global warming, and people are the earth’s pathogens) is to blame yourself for the problems of the world. In Buddhism, however, the idea is to escape yourself. Buddhism teaches people to disengage from suffering by becoming a drop in the ocean, so to speak, and entering Nirvana.

In stark contrast to these notions, the overarching idea in Christianity is to become yourself, and yet you can only do that in Christ. The reason why sin is sinful is because it prevents people from fully being themselves.

All sin dehumanizes people. Your job, as children’s pastors, is to train children to become more human, not less human. A big part of doing that is helping them to emulate Jesus, the Great Human. Jesus wasn’t at war with His own humanity. He wasn’t angry about His many limitations. Yes, Jesus was God (“In Him the fullness of deity dwelled in bodily form,” Colossians 2:9), and yet He “emptied Himself” such that He “did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped” (Philippians 2:6). Because He had humility of mind, He was able to come to terms with His finitude and dependency on God.

Miraculously, the Word became flesh (John 1:14). Certain indignities come with having a human body. It’s humbling, for instance, to have to pause at times for physical relief. I personally would like to have a home office chair that functions simultaneously as a toilet, so I won’t have to be interrupted so often from my writing. I have repented from that wish because I realize it’s dehumanizing for me not to have to bother with having a body. It is likewise dehumanizing for me to wish I didn’t have to sleep so regularly. When my ambition runs amok, I would rather try to advance myself than care for myself in humility. Jesus didn’t have that problem. He trusted God so much that He never once worried about not getting enough done in a day. He relied on God to prompt Him what to do in each passing moment (John 5:19).

The Son of God took on human flesh. Having a body makes a person vulnerable. Bodies can get sick. Bodies age. They can be attacked and hurt. They can be made fun of. People normally struggle with having fears of physical pain or fears of not looking good enough to please others. Jesus didn’t have those fears. His mentality was so unburdened by thoughts of self-preservation that He was able to do God’s will without holding back. Jesus wasn’t self-conscious. That’s part of what made Him so human. He wasn’t fearful. The only One He feared was God Himself. Though many people claim that Jesus was afraid in the Garden of Gethsemane on the night before He died, that is not what the Bible says. The Bible says He was “very distressed and troubled . . . and . . . deeply grieved” (Mark 14:33-34) and “in agony” (Luke 22:43).

Did Jesus’ faith in God fail? Some say it did when on the cross He cried, “My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?” (Mark 15:34). But that is mistaken. The Bible says “whatever is not from faith is sin” (Romans 14:23). Jesus was sinless (II Corinthians 5:21). That’s why He was so utterly human. He didn’t follow His urges like a beast. He didn’t disengage from reality by zoning out like a vegetable. He didn’t kick into high gear performance like a machine. Jesus hung on the cross as a human. He didn’t sneer at God like an angry dog. Nor did He shake like a leaf. Yes, He feared God, but the fear of the Lord is the beginning of not of faithlessness, but wisdom (Proverbs 1:7).

Jesus’ faith didn’t fail. On the contrary, Scripture enjoins us to “run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the Author and Perfecter of faith” (Hebrews 12:1-2). Jesus trusted God because He knew that God is trustworthy (Lamentations 3:22-24). He entrusted Himself to Him Who judges righteously (I Peter 2:23). He did not entrust Himself to other people because that would dehumanize Him (John 2:24). It is degrading for a person made in the image of God to worship anyone else, but God.

When Jesus was about to die, He agonized because He knew that taking on the sins of the world would separate Him from God. He was troubled and very distressed due to His fear of God—which, by the way, kept His humanity intact. When Jesus died on the cross, He appeased the wrath of God (I John 2:2). He absorbed God’s holy anger against sin. Remarkably, He trusted God to the point of quoting Psalm 22. In the Hebrew tradition, quoting the first verse of a Psalm implies quoting the whole Psalm. So in effect, Jesus was saying on the cross, “My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me? . . . Yet Thou art holy . . . In Thee our fathers trusted. They trusted, and Thou didst deliver them. To Thee they cried out and were delivered. In Thee they trusted and were not disappointed.”

Even when His body was being wracked, Jesus trusted God. He played out His humanity all the way to the end. In doing so, He conquered death, so that those of us in Him might be raised into new life, not as angels, but rather as glorified humans. Your job, as children pastors, is to teach kids that God wants us to be human, treat all other people as humans, and follow the Great Human Who died on our behalf so that we might live eternally with Him.

Dr. Sumner is Special Assistant to the Dean for Strategic Development and Professor of Theology and Ministry in Haggard Graduate School of Theology at Azusa Pacific University. Her books include Leadership Above the Line and Just How Married Do You Want to Be? co-authored with her husband, Jim. Sarah and Jim have been married for twelve years and are in the process of adopting an older child from India.
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