I recently read Jack’s book Show Them Jesus: Teaching the Gospel to Kids. I so enjoyed it, I asked Jack to guest post on my blog about how to teach the parts of the bible that are difficult. I hope you find it as helpful as I did.
Teaching the Bible’s Disturbing Stories
I’ve spent much of the past Sunday school year teaching through the book of Genesis for a class of elementary kids at my church. Just a few weeks into this class, I had a decision to make. The published curriculum I’m using as a rough guide had given me the expected lessons about creation and the sin of Adam and Eve, but it skipped the story that comes next in the Bible—where Cain murders his brother Abel.
I suspect the violent content had something to do with the publisher’s decision to skip that story. A bloody family killing does not feel kid-friendly.
But should I teach it anyway? On occasion, I too will decide it’s best to spare the youngest children from particularly rough stories or from certain details. I don’t enjoy shocking kids or telling them horrific tales. But usually I’ll go ahead and teach most Bible stories—including the gory or sinful parts. And in the case of Cain and Abel I hardly had to think about it. I knew I wanted to teach that story, and so I did.
During lesson time, I even drew a stick-figure picture of Cain standing over Abel’s body. Then I added some red smears for blood pooling on the ground. I was as gentle as I could be about it, soberly warning the kids that it was ugly and sad, but still I drew that picture. It was important for them to see it.
So why, of all things, would I want kids to see that? I have three main reasons, each of which applies not only to Cain and Abel but also to many other Bible stories.
- It’s good to teach the Bible the way God has given it. If we poke around the Bible looking to use just the cheery parts, we end up skewing its message. We give kids the idea that the Bible is something like Aesop’s fables or after-school cartoons instead of the gritty, soaring, beautifully diverse message from God that it is. We also might miss key themes.
With the Cain and Abel story, I recognized it as part of the Bible’s foundational opening pages and the introduction of a critical theme: the contrast between a bad heart mastered by sin and a good heart devoted to God. I didn’t want to skip over that. I also noticed that the Bible specifically mentions Abel’s blood five times (in four different books). That made the blood a necessary part of my lesson if I was going to be true to the Bible’s own emphasis.
- Sanitized Bible stories leave a shallow understanding of Jesus. Jesus taught about himself from every part of the Bible (see Luke 24:27). When we do the same, we give our students a full picture of who Jesus is and all he’s done for us. In fact, many of the Bible’s most disturbing accounts also give us the richest understanding of the cross. Consider Abraham on his way to sacrifice Isaac, explaining that “God himself will provide the lamb” (Genesis 22:8). Stories like that reveal deep truths about Jesus.
As for Abel, the point of his spilled blood is that it cried out to God for justice (Genesis 4:10). Every time I teach this story, kids feel the need for fairness. They know God must punish Cain’s sin. Theywant God to be fair and punish sin. And yet they also sense that the story’s resolution, with Cain justly banished, is sad and unsatisfying. What about love and forgiveness, or redemption?
Well, the Bible teaches that the story of Cain and Abel does eventually reach a better ending. It finishes with Jesus and his “blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel” (Hebrews 12:24). Jesus’s blood cries out for justice too. But because Jesus shed his blood to take the punishment we deserve, his blood justly demands that we be pardoned. God is both loving and fairwhen he saves sinners who belong to Jesus. That’s what I tell kids when I teach about Cain and Abel, and they gain a new appreciation for Jesus.
- Faith in Jesus grows when we see what horrors he rescues us from. It isn’t enough for kids simply to be told Jesus saves them in some generic way. Many of them have already experienced betrayal, death, and other great evils—and if they haven’t, they soon will. When this happens, we want them to turn to God because they’ve learned from a young age how God is faithful and good especially in the midst of such horrors. Sadly, many people instead turn away from God at such times because sugarcoated stories about him are all they know.
Kids need to see that God was working to bring salvation even as Cain was murdering his brother. Yes, it’s unpleasant to discover incidents of brutality in the Bible, but it’s much harder to discover them without the Bible. I like for kids’ early exposure to the cruelty of this world to come through the Bible, where God’s story of healing and forgiveness is also told. Let them see that the Bible is honest about life and has an answer to every kind of evil.
It’s interesting, don’t you think, that God uses blood as the emblem of salvation. It’s almost as if he anticipated our protest, as if he understands that we will recoil at all the bloodshed in these stories and in the world, and so Jesus says, “Look! I have triumphed. I have beaten blood at its own, gruesome game. I have waded into your agony and made blood—my own spilled blood—the most beautiful sight in all the earth. Run to that blood, and live!”
If you teach Bible stories to kids you will still have to decide for yourself how much they can handle and understand. Much depends on the specific kids, so I can’t tell you exactly what to do. But I will say that when you teach the Bible the way it’s given, acknowledging the evil of the world and tracing a path to the love of Jesus, you give kids the one lesson they most need to hear for all of life. Don’t be too quick to skip those disturbing stories.