Will there be faith – some thoughts on Deuteronomy 6

God gave the Israelites deep, precious and timeless words of instruction and guidance. Deuteronomy 6 is God’s response to the question of how faith will survive in the “new land.” The passage gives crucial principles and guidance for passing on the faith from generation to generation, from parents to children, and grandparents to grandchildren.

Greg Priebbenow is an Australian pastor in the Lutheran tradition. He writes regularly at Forming Faith – where this article first appeared

This week I began reading Thomas Groome’s book, Will There Be Faith?  Early in the book, he says that up until about 200 years ago the Western world had “sociocultural conditions that favoured religious belief, even required it. … Faith in God and belief in a spiritual realm pervaded daily life.” But now, he argues, we live in very secular age in which sociocultural conditions actively discourage faith. Postmodern society promotes a view of life and a way of life that has no place and no room for God. It encourages self-sufficiency and self-expression as the purpose and goal of human life. So while we may live in the very same physical locations as did our parents and grandparents and great-grandparents, we are really living in an altogether new land.

As I reflected on Groome’s words, my thoughts went back to Deuteronomy 6. After more than 40 years of wilderness wanderings the people of Israel were finally to enter the Promised Land. This was a big moment for them. So much was about to change. They would be no longer pilgrims but settlers. In the wilderness they were a very separate nation, but now they would be among peoples of different religions and life practices. There would be temptations aplenty to abandon the God of Abraham. And God would not be as visibly present with them as he was in the wilderness, leading them by a cloud and a pillar of fire. A big question that loomed before them was, “How would their faith in God be passed on in the new land?  How would it survive?”

At that critical point, God gave the Israelites deep, precious and timeless words of instruction and guidance. Deuteronomy 6 is God’s response to the question of how faith will survive in the “new land.” The passage gives crucial principles and guidance for passing on the faith from generation to generation, from parents to children, and grandparents to grandchildren. It’s a section of Scripture that the church and its households need to go back to again and again, generation after generation, and especially in sociocultural contexts the likes of which we are in today.

A first big piece of wisdom we receive from Deuteronomy 6 is that passing on the faith is a matter of the heartVerses 4-6 say this:  Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.  Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.  These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts.” For faith to be passed on from adults to youth and to children, it first of all needs to be vibrant and real in the lives of the adults. The truth is that when it comes to passing on faith and values to others, we tend to reproduce who and what we are.  In other words, churches can put together all sorts of programs and activities for children and young people, but if the adults in their churches and in their homes aren’t following Christ from the heart, then those programs and activities probably won’t have a lasting impact.

It has been said that “faith is more caught than taught”. For it to be caught by children and young people, adults who are infected with the love of Jesus are first needed. The most important thing that a parent or a grandparent can do to make a spiritual impact on their families is to focus on growing in their own faith: on being people of the Word and prayer, on worshipping regularly, on living out their faith in giving to and serving others, on forgiving others and confessing their own sins before God and others. And as much as age-specific ministry to children and youth is important and valuable, a focus on adult spirituality by pastors and congregational leaders is equally vital for faith transmission. Forming the kids in faith requires that we form the adults in faith, and cultivate contexts and create experiences where the adults and the kids can share and “do” faith together.

A second piece of wisdom from Deuteronomy 6 is that passing on the faith involves making an impression by practicing the faith over timeVerse 7 says,  Impress [God’s teachings] on your children.” The Hebrew word translated here as “impress” implies repeated action. The picture that comes to mind for me is of water dripping on a large stone, year after year, decade after decade. Eventually the water will wear away the stone, leaving an impression. If the same amount of water flowed over the stone in a day, there wouldn’t be the same result. Faith is passed on in our homes and in our communities of faith as Christians practice the way of Jesus together from day to day and from year to year … as they tell and listen to the God story over and over again … as they interweave that faith with their lives and one another’s lives.

Deuteronomy 6 points to specific ways of making a faith impression, particularly in our home or family settings.  It says, “Talk about [God’s teachings] when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up.  Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads.  Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.”  (Deuteronomy 6:7b-9). There are three significant things we should note here.

  1. We make a faith impression by talking about our faith as part of our daily lives – at the dinner table, while cooking or doing the dishes or gardening or cleaning, while travelling in the car, while on outings and holidays. If faith is a “whole of life” thing, then “God-talk” can and will happen anywhere and anytime.
  2. We make a faith impression by establishing regular patterns and habits of faith practice. The words “when you lie down and when you get up” suggests setting aside time in the morning and time in the evening to focus on God in the home. Other regular patterns or habits might include saying “grace” at every meal, coming to worship every week, setting aside a particular night every week for a family faith time. The point is that when we shape our lives around regular patterns and habits of faith practice, those patterns and habits begin to shape us. We are inviting and allowing the Holy Spirit to act and speak into our home lives on a regular basis.
  3. We make a faith impression by establishing faith-based rituals and traditions in our homes. Rituals and traditions help us to act out or express our faith in visible ways.  Church seasons and festivals like Advent, Christmas, Lent, Easter and Pentecost are great opportunities to bring Christian rituals and traditions into our homes. The more we can express our faith with one another by using the five senses – touch, taste, sight, sound and smell – the more of an impression it makes.

A third piece of wisdom from Deuteronomy 6 is that passing on the faith means telling OUR stories of rescueVerses 20-21 say, In the future, when your son asks you, “What is the meaning of the stipulations, decrees and laws the Lord our God has commanded you?” tell him: “We were slaves of Pharaoh in Egypt, but the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand.” When God spoke these words, none of the adults who had crossed the Red Sea over forty years earlier was still alive, except Caleb and Joshua. And yet God told them to say, “the Lord brought US out of Egypt.”  God was instructing the Israelites throughout the ages to tell their sons and daughters not about how someone else had been rescued but how they had been rescued. He wanted them to tell the divine rescue story as their very own story.

As people who have been saved through the cross of Jesus Christ, Christians of all ages and generations have their own “rescue story” to tell. We are invited and call to give a personal account of our faith to the children and young people in our midst. Think on it:  how and when and where has the grace of God broken through into your life? How has the cross of Jesus been hoisted up over and into your life? What does your great rescue in Jesus mean to you, personally? If you have children and young people in your life – be they children or grandchildren or nephews or nieces or family friends – resolve to share your story with them. Write or speak of what Jesus has done for you and what difference it has made for you. You might be amazed at the impact your own personal story has on them.

Deuteronomy 6 can easily be read as a matter of law – as another list of “have to’s”.  I don’t believe that is how God intends for us to receive or understand these words. They are not a demand or a burden but a gracious invitation for us to be part of God’s life changing work in the lives of others – and especially in the lives of our children and young people. Passing on the faith is something we do not because we have to, but because we know what a great thing is to be rescued by Jesus and want the same for others.  It is not a matter of “got to” but “get to”. And as we strive to make a Godly impression for Jesus’ sake, we do well to remember that the same God who parted the Red Sea is right there with us. He can and does do wonderful things as we make ourselves available for his good purposes!  By his power and grace at work in us and through us there will be faith in the new land!