Children learn from an early age that their behavior is important, that adults want them to obey. Children learn to listen to their parents and teachers and, quite often, when they disobey they are told they should “try harder—strive to get better.” External listening is rooted in trying harder, but internal listening is rooted in a desire to obey.
In the book Dreaming of More for the Next Generation, Michelle Anthony describes external listening as “gaining knowledge through books, teachers and resources, whereas internal listening is “learning to discern God’s voice.”
External listening is not a bad thing, but when it becomes the main focus children miss the opportunity for their soul’s to be transformed. Anthony says an aim at transformation of the soul leads to internal listening, desiring to obey and “obeying in the power of the Holy Spirit.”
As a parent, teacher, small group leader or any adult with influence in a child’s life we can help children learn to discern God’s voice, while also helping them understand that like us, we don’t always hear His voice. But, when God seems silent He is still alive, He is still working and speaking into our lives.
If we want children to be Christ loving, honoring and fearing, and build a relationship with Him that withstands adolescence is moral behavior the goal? Or is a complete transformation of the soul the goal? As adults, we can have good intentions, we can even have transformation as the goal, but get caught up in an emphasis on external behavior and become discouraged when a child acts out. We can change our aim by providing opportunities and an environment for the children in our lives to not only learn about God, but also encounter Him. We can emphasize learning to listen to God’s voice, rather than learning to act properly.
Of course, teaching children morals is not a bad thing, but the roots are often rarely revealed fully. Yes, the revealing is a gradual process. A three-year-old cannot fully understand what it means to be transformed through the spirit—this comes with time. But it is not enough to say, “Be good, because Jesus wants you to.” With each year, we can help children see that a life-long relationship with Jesus is what leads to a changed heart, from which changed behavior flows. We can give children opportunities to listen to God’s voice, by encouraging them to not only pray, but to listen. Encourage them to read the Bible—for the little ones read with them—and then encourage them to sit in their rooms, at the park, anywhere, in quiet and listen. Naturally, they will feel awkward and probably tell you that, but with diligence the Holy Spirit will turn awkwardness into growth.
We can cultivate a space that allows honesty without shame. Children are bound to lie at some point, but if they feel they have a safe space to share their flaws and mistakes with an adult(s) this is already setting up ample opportunity for internal listening: building up children who obey not out of fear or to be seen as good, but out of a desire to obey through the power of the Holy Spirit.