The Struggle Toward Conversion

Does this story sound at all familiar?

A nine-year-old child, who has always shown an interest in spiritual things and a tenderness toward the Gospel, suddenly gives evidence of disinterest or even unbelief. He may even begin to voice antagonism toward prayer, Bible reading, going to church, etc. What's happening? Should you ignore this as simply a "stage" he is going through?

In our resource, Helping Children to Understand the Gospel, Sally Michael explains the spiritual struggle that many children experience sometime during the ages of 7 to 12 years old, and she offers some wise counsel about how we can help and guide children through this struggle.

Remember that conversion does not always happen instantaneously but often involves a journey of questioning, evaluating, struggling, and learning to trust. Conversion is a process. The struggle is good—the ugliness of the human heart needs to be experienced and grieved over. Often at this stage, our temptation as adults is to be impatient and jump to the resolution of the struggle—to “insure salvation for the child.” Hence, this is where our faith as sowers is really tested: do we trust God to bring the child through victoriously? Will we trust in the sovereignty and goodness of God? It is at this time of waiting that our sin nature tempts us to take things into our own hands and push the child to make a commitment that he may be unprepared to make. We fear the outcome of the child’s struggle and we want to secure the desired result. But we need to let go—to guide, encourage, point to Jesus by all means, but also to let go and let the child deal with God, and God with the child. We must not try to manipulate a response. Sometimes this struggle can last for years, and it may be that we will not see immediate results from the truth we sow. But God calls us to be faithful sowers throughout the battle. One Reverend Edward Payson patiently guided his daughter through years of self-effort—all the time showing her error and the necessity of grace. Payson records Louisa’s struggle to faith in the book The Pastor’s Daughter. Her father understood that the message of the Gospel must be experienced not just told, and thus he was not afraid to let his daughter experience sorrow, heartache, anger, guilt, or shame. He guided her through years of trying to earn her salvation by “being good” enough to win God’s favor—and confronted her over and over with her inadequacy. But her will was not easily broken, and the result of these years was as follows:

On the whole, the principal benefit she derived from all these years of trial and disappointment, was increased knowledge of the desperate wickedness of her heart, and a deeper conviction, that, of herself, she could never perform one holy act. These convictions did not, it is true, affect her heart, but they gained over her understanding and conscience to the side of truth.

Edward Payson allowed his daughter to reach a point of despair. He relentlessly confronted her with her need for a Savior; but he also kept holding out the grace of God to her. And then one day when her father was preaching on the love of Christ, Louisa (called Maria in the book) heard—and responded. This was the response with which God graciously gifted her:

Maria forgot herself, and her despondency; she thought only of the Savior who was thus presented to her; admiration, love, gratitude, and penitence filled her heart; and when her father said, that, if it were necessary to man’s salvation, Christ would undergo all his sufferings again, a flood of tears burst from her eyes; she hid her face in her hands, and was ready to exclaim, “O, it is too much—too much! Such love to such a wretch!”

Instead of complaining that she could not “make her heart love God,” she wondered how she could help loving him. Instead of thinking herself unfortunate in not being able to obey the commands of God, she perceived that it was entirely her own fault that she had not done so sooner. This is true conversion—worth years of struggle and turmoil.

(Helping Children to Understand the Gospel, Copyright © 2009, 2011, 2019 pages 16-18)

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