Children seem to have an infinite capacity to ask the “why” question. They start early with their questions. “Why do I have to eat my vegetables?” “Why do I have to go to bed?” As children go off to school, the questions keep coming. “Why do I have to get up so early?” “Why do we have to study calculus?” And sooner or later, children will ask the “why” questions about your family’s rules and moral choices. How you answer reveals a lot about how you see the world. How you answer will also shape your child’s understanding of your beliefs. What do you say when they ask why?
Let me first admit that we’re usually too tired and frustrated to give a great answer. Little children have a way of wearing down tired parents and the “why” question is one of their most frustration-inducing weapons. “Because you’ll pay for it!” is often what we’re tempted to say. “Because I said so!” is often what we want to say. But those responses train children that doing what we say is mostly about fear or authority. Neither false threats nor power plays are particularly effective in shaping long-term behaviour. What do you say when your children ask why?
This week, I was reading one of the most rule-intense portions of the Bible: the Ten Commandments. In the very next chapter after the commands are announced, God anticipates an interesting question. In Deuteronomy 6:20-21, it says,
“When your son asks you in time to come, ‘What is the meaning of the testimonies and the statutes and the rules that the LORD our God has commanded you?’ then you shall say to your son …”
The form may be different but it’s a “why” question, right? What’s the meaning of all this? Why do we have to do all these things? God anticipates the question and coaches parents on how to answer it because how they answer will radically affect whether their children understand the Bible’s message or not. In just five verses, God gives five answers. I’d summarize them like this.
1. Tell them about God’s salvation.
The first thing God says to say in response to the “why” question is, “‘We were Pharaoh's slaves in Egypt. And the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand” (v. 21). God’s commands are a response to His salvation so we ought to often explain God’s great deliverance. The good news that Jesus died to bring us life is the ultimate reason that we do what He says.
2. Tell them how great God is.
After explaining God’s salvation, we’re to point to His power and might. “And the LORD showed signs and wonders … before our eyes” (v. 22). God’s miracles and wonders, His faithfulness and power stir wonder and awe in our hearts. And this awe is the second great reason that we do what He says.
3. Tell them about God’s grace.
After stirring wonder in God’s greatness, we’re called to explain His grace and love to us. Moses says, “And he brought us out from there, that he might bring us in and give us the land,” (v. 23). God has given so much that we don’t deserve. His grace motivates us when obedience is hard.
4. Tell them that God wants what’s best for us.
Sometimes, we’re tempted to see our obedience to God’s commands as what we do to keep God happy. We think that we’re helping Him out by doing some things that are important to Him. But the Bible reminds us that God has given us His commands “for our good always” (v. 24). In love, God wants what’s best for us, and He knows what that is better than anyone.
5. Tell them that this is right.
Once you’ve told your children all of those other things, remind them that we do what God says because it’s the right thing to do. It is “righteousness” (v. 25), God declares. Our rules should ultimately be rooted in things that are inherently right and intrinsically good. And God is the only One with the wisdom to declare those things.
Obviously, we can’t say all of these things every time our child asks the “why” question. But over time we can shape their motivation in profound ways by reflecting on these answers that God gives us. And while we’re offering these answers to our children, it’s likely we need reminding of them ourselves. Give your heart a 5-point sermon next time it asks you the “why” question in response to God’s commands. Because God is as much concerned with the “why” of what we do as He is with the “what.”
May His grace and glory stir our hearts to follow Him.
In awe of Him,