I was in a Bible study several years ago when the question was raised: how do we teach our children that God is not just an imaginary childhood character? How do we instill in them the kind of relationship that will carry them through to adulthood? My initial response to this is an overarching belief that I think is as applicable for our own relationship with God as it is for teaching our children. It goes something like this:
I believe faith is like colostrum. Take, for example, the dairy cow. (Yes, I know. You can take a girl out of animal science, but you can’t take the animal science out of the girl!) Colostrum is the first milk that a dairy cow (and other mammals) produces for her calf. This milk is so rich with nutrients that it is yellow in color. And in this colostrum are antibodies to bolster the calf’s immune system and protect it from diseases for the first few months of its life. The cow passes on all the immunity she has accumulated over her lifetime in the form of these antibodies. This is known as “passive immunity.” The trick is that the calf must drink this colostrum within the first few hours of its life. By the end of the first day, the calf’s stomach is developing rapidly, and within 48 hours these “free antibodies” from the mother cannot be absorbed by the calf. The window for passive immunity will have closed and the risk for disease is drastically higher – this calf will always be weaker than other calves its age.
The second point about passive immunity is that it will gradually fade over time. The mother has given her calf a jump start, but in order to remain healthy, the calf must learn to develop her own antibodies. As the calf ventures out into the world, she encounters all kinds of germs. The antibodies from mom help ward off some of these, but the calf’s own immune system also begins to develop antibodies. This is known as “active immunity,” and though slower to develop, it is much stronger than passive immunity because the calf’s own body is learning how to respond when under attack. As new diseases are encountered, the calf develops more and more antibodies and her immune system becomes stronger and stronger. The passive immune system – so critical in the early stages – is now hardly functioning at all, and the active immune system is allowing the calf (and the cow she is becoming) to remain healthy and strong.
The faith we instill in our children is like this colostrum. It is something we give them in the early years when they can absorb it and use it to fend off attack. It is a critical jump start to the development of their faith. Once there, it will always be there. But as the child grows, he or she needs to develop an individual faith – an active faith – stronger than anything we can passively provide. This comes from the trials of life. The doubts. The questions. Small ones at first so that young faith can fight back and grow stronger because of it. And then larger ones – sometimes ones that seem to topple our faith entirely – that cause our “faith immune system” to shudder with the strain as it tries to learn how to respond. It is not easy. It is not supposed to be easy. Faith, like our immune system, only grows stronger by responding to attack.
When we are down with the flu it is hard to cheerily express gratitude that our immune system is adding another antibody to its arsenal. And when we are struggling with doubt and fear and anger it is hard to believe such shattered emotions are making us stronger. But if we persevere, the end result is always the same: a stronger immune system, a more mature faith.
Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. (James 1:2-4)