Children and teens like to ask “why” but they’re not always great at answering it.
If I ask my daughter why she yelled at her sister, that conversation is going nowhere fast. The most common response I get is “I don’t know.”
Ask a teenager why they followed friends into bad decisions and you’ll get a shrug and an “I dunno.”
Dads aren’t great at these types of introspective questions either. Oftentimes, we don’t ask ourselves the question. And when we do, it can be difficult to discern a helpful answer that isn’t just destructively introspective.
The Need for a Sin Postmortem
We’ve all seen the shows. A crusty-looking investigator arrives at the scene of a horrific murder. He scans the room under eerie lighting to discover hidden fibers, scattered fingerprints, and tell-tale marks on the victim’s body.
No investigator answers the question “how did this happen?” with a shrug and an “I don’t know.” We expect a postmortem to prevent future crimes and to catch the culprit.
I’m calling for the same healthy introspection following sin—especially repeated sin. I’m not suggesting a self-condemning, discouraging spiral of guilt and doubt, but an honest look at “why does this keep happening?”
Engaging Your Children in the Postmortem
James 4 opens with a direct analysis of sin. In this particular case, jealousy and selfishness had divided and harmed the churches to whom James wrote. James 4:1 reads,
What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you?
Notice that James invites you to ask the question “why?” Then he offers an answer, expecting you to agree with him (you can hear that anticipation in “is it not this…”). James puts his finger on “passions.”1
In verse 2, he continues, describing how these desires lead to sin. I’ve taken from this text a couple of questions that help my children start to analyze their sin:
- What did you want that you didn’t get?
- What did you have that you didn’t want?
They’re the same question, just from different angles. And it’s a question that’s much easier to answer than “why.” I find even my three-year-old can discern the answer.
Example: Anger in a Child
We have a daughter who is particularly prone to explosions of anger. She can go from a calm lakeshore to an atomic bomb level in about ten seconds.
After she would blow up, I would have her go settle down in her room. When she was calm, I’d ask her my questions: What did you want that you didn’t get? or What did you get that you didn’t want?
Over time, we identified together that she especially struggles with anger when she expects a certain outcome and plans suddenly change.
She responds particularly well to stories and visual aids, so we talked about anger. “There are two main types of anger that people struggle with,” I explained. “Lava anger that slowly burns and destroys people in a quiet way and bomb anger that explodes suddenly and destroys everything around you. Which do you think you struggle with?”
It wasn’t hard for her to divine the answer. “Do you know what they do to stop bombs from blowing up? They send in a bomb squad.”
We used the picture of a dynamite fuse burning. “You only have about 10 seconds when you first feel the burning and want to blow up!”
When my wife and I see my daughter take the first step toward bomb anger, we tell her to go “bomb squad.” Bomb squadding (is this a word?) means 1) going to another room, 2) sitting down, and 3) praying to God to ask for his help, even though life changed suddenly and she’s not getting what she wants.
She will regularly suddenly disappear for a few minutes and return to whisper in my ear, “Daddy, I just bomb squadded.” Even at 5, the moments leading up to sin are identifiable with practice and help. And it’s led her to grace. God has help for her!
Benefits of the Sin Postmortem
We’ve seen at least three benefits in ourselves and our children when we’ve consistently evaluated past sin and made plans to avoid it.
1. You can see sin coming
My little five-year-old can now spot the first seconds of explosive anger. It triggers a response in her. Uh oh! I’m going to explode.
2. You see sin as deceptive
We use lots of words for sin in common life: mistake, misstep, accident, and more. When you get good at seeing sin coming, you start to see the lies in sin. Sin is no longer something to tame; it’s something to kill.
3. You learn dependence
Your children need to learn to pray at the moment of temptation. They need to practice reaching out to God for help. If you ask for help and then commit the sin, it also helps identify a key component of sin as described in the Bible: sin is always against God.
May God help us guide our children in their battle against sin.
This is not the typical word for lust, but the more general term meaning “enjoyment” or “pleasure.” It’s the word from which we get the English word “hedonism.” While verse 2 uses the word “lust” (i.e., strong desire), here it seems James is identifying the subtle error of living for personal enjoyment over all else. ↩