“Morning, Mrs. Duckworth!” my sister and I, 5 and 6 years old, happily greeted our primary school teacher. “Guess what? We went without food and water yesterday!” Thinking back now, I’m not sure how Mrs. Duckworth responded to that statement—perhaps she was concerned about how neglectful our parents must have been! For many people, the idea of fasting, especially for religious purposes, seems fanatical! My sister and I, not really understanding this truism at that age, were in happy spirits that day—but I can say with certainty that we weren’t the day before. After all, fasting is difficult, especially for children. So how can you help your children find joy in the Day of Atonement?
Later in life, and especially after baptism, one grows to know the real depth and meaning behind Atonement and what it pictures. And we understand that “man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word of God” (Luke 4:4; Matthew 4:4; Deuteronomy 8:3). We know that we not only require physical food for nourishment—we must also strive after much-needed spiritual food! A famine of the Word is coming (Amos 8:11), something much worse than a physical famine. This may be fully understood by converted adults, but how can you help your children understand?
First of all, let’s consider how and when children should begin fasting.
In a January 1959 Good News article, Dr. Herman Hoeh wrote about Atonement: “No explicit instruction is given for infants. Nursing infants were assembled in a special fast (Joel 2:16), but there is no indication that they did not nurse on the Day of Atonement. Since fasting on this day has a special meaning, little children should be taught to fast when they can first comprehend the fact that God commands it, and not before. It is worse for a child to turn back on what he should do, than not to have known about it at all.”
Lesson 33 of the Herbert W. Armstrong College Bible Correspondence Course asks: “Should children fast? If they are old enough to understand that God requires it on this day, they can be taught to fast for perhaps 12 or 18 hours before allowing them to fast 24 hours.” It is probably not a good idea to plunge a small child right into a 24-hour fast to begin with.
As children get older, it can be a good idea to start easing them into the Day of Atonement—perhaps with a 12-hour fast for a couple of years, before taking on an 18-hour fast, and then finally the 24-hour fast. The key is in helping them understand what this day is all about.
But that still doesn’t answer our question: How can a child have joy in a day such as this? Certainly, no joy comes physically from this day. And our children are indeed physical beings, unconverted. But because of converted parents, our children are sanctified, set apart (1 Corinthians 7:14). While they do not yet have the Holy Spirit within them, it can certainly work with them. So it is the job of converted, spiritually minded parents to help their children understand the spiritual joy that comes with this holy day.
We fast on this day to afflict our souls (Leviticus 23:27)—not a pleasant thing! But the inherent joy in this day goes beyond the physical, and comes with understanding that Satan is shortly to be bound in chains and locked away (Revelation 20:1-3, 10), allowing man to finally, unhindered, be at one with God. Fasting on this day helps humble us and draws us closer to God, just as the name suggests: At-one-ment! That is certainly something to be joyful about! It is also something we can help our children be joyful about.
Get the focus off food on the Day of Atonement. It is so easy for children to gripe about their hunger—don’t allow it! Of course, don’t push the child past his or her limits. Make sure your children have plenty to do. Take some time to conduct a Bible study with them. Explain the meaning of this day: How exciting it is to be able to draw close to God, and the blessings that come from it; how exciting it will be when the day comes when Satan will be put away and there will be no more tears and suffering in this world—no more bullies at school, no more pain, no more dangerous animals. Have them read the Bible Story volumes. I remember sitting down as a child and coloring in big murals of the Millennium, drawing pictures of different imaginary animals we wanted to create on our own planets, designing the threshing machine of Isaiah 41:14-16. Make it fun! Get them thinking about the glorious future, not bemoaning the present discomfort.
Finally, your example is crucial. The more excited you are on the Day of Atonement, and the more eagerly you await its arrival, the more excited your children will be. Children are very perceptive. More than likely, they will wonder why you are so joyful when such a painful day is approaching. Explain it to them in language they can understand.
The Day of Atonement is an uncomfortable day; there is no getting around that fact. It is supposed to be—it is a day to afflict our souls. But if we do our part as parents, we can help turn our children’s dread for this day into one of real joy!