When Your Child Doubts
- Monday, April 26, 2004
Paradoxically, doubt is a part of living faith, and most children will have their doubts. We were on vacation in the Rockies when young Kent, then twelve, was having doubts. After a morning of fishing with his father, he indicated that he wanted to talk about God. So that afternoon he and his father descended a ravine, settled under a pine tree because it was misting, and began to converse. His questions were about the existence of God. It is difficult to believe in a being you cannot see. Kent was asking questions many have but do not always feel free to ask. His father was answering the best he could, but not always to Kent's satisfaction. But their talk was long and good.
At last they prayed together and climbed out of the ravine, our son first. Kent startled his father by exclaiming, "Dad, look -- two rainbows!" And sure enough, there were two distinct rainbows, separate from each other. Young Kent, thinking of Noah's rainbow, said emotionally, "It's a sign, Dad. One for you and one for me." For him, it was an affirmation of God's existence.
That is a treasured family memory, a memory our son fondly recalls, and an ongoing encouragement amidst the recurrent doubts that come to him, as indeed they come to us all.
Doubt is part of belief. As Oxford theologian Alister MacGrath has said:
Doubt is natural within faith. It comes because of our human weakness and frailty...Unbelief is the decision to live your life as if there is no God. It is a deliberate decision to reject Jesus Christ and all that he stands for. But doubt is something quite different. Doubt arises within the context of faith. It is a wistful longing to be sure of the things in which we trust. But it is not and need not be a problem.
McGrath suggests that we need to learn to be relaxed about doubt -- and we emphatically agree. Building on this wisdom, we offer some suggested disciplines for dealing with your children's doubts as they grow in faith.
Don't get "Shook"
Parents who recoil in pious shock at their children's doubts make a crucial mistake. Hear them calmly. Objections like "How can you think such a thing?" or "That's blasphemous!" notify your child that rational discussion is out of the question and that you are not as secure in your faith as you would like to think. Be confident. After all, the historic faith can stand very well on its own.
Dealing with doubt requires that there be dialogue -- a two-way conversation. Resist the parental impulse to lecture, a sure death to dialogue. Listen. And we mean truly listen, with consistent eye contact. Follow what your child is saying even if to you it seems illogical or boring. At the same time, never patronize. Listen intensely and patiently to an illogical argument or doubt, but then do not refrain from gently explaining what you believe and why. Also resist the compulsion to get in the last word. Last words rarely settle anything.
Don't Offer Bromides
Dismissing doubt with a shallow remark -- "If you want to think you came from a monkey, that's your privilege" -- or answering with pious jargon -- "Just trust, and you'll come to see it as I do" -- is deadly. Your children can tell when you're being flip or speaking in cliches. Don't think you must have a glib answer for every question. In fact, admitting that you don't know something may have more effect in building a child's faith than a quick answer would.
Do Your Homework
The benefit of a questioning child is that he will drive you to do some healthy homework and thus become more articulate about your own faith. A doubting child can be the impetus to initiate some healthy conversations with your pastor and some enriching reading in areas like the problem of evil, biblical creation, the existence of God, and the authority of Scripture. Christian parenting is not for the mentally lazy -- praise God.
As you oversee your children's spiritual development, have the good sense to give them some space. Often anxious parents become so controlling and smothering that their claustrophobic children become crazed for space, eventually rebelling. Remember that the words child and change are virtually interchangeable. Everything is in flux: body, glands, persona, and mental processes. Because of this, children are often a bundle of contradictions. One of our teenagers spent a week alternatively practicing his break-dancing moves to the heavy beat of his sound system and tenderly weeping as he read the poignant biography A Man Called Peter.
Understanding the need for space, we determined that we would say yes to as many things as we could while saving our no' for the truly important issues, and that we would be stringently biblical in deciding which was which. When Carey's soccer team went to the regional play-offs his senior year, each team member decided to have an ear pierced and don a team earring until the team either was eliminated or won the play-offs. Some parents -- both churched and unchurched -- objected, but we did not. We were not enamored with his studded ear, but we saw that it was not a biblical or moral issue and certainly not a sign of rebellion. We had the common sense to give Carey some space and save our no for something else. Today the earring is long gone, but the Lord still has our son's heart.
From Disciplines of a Godly Family by Kent and Barbara Hughes, © 2004. Used by permission of Crossway Books, a division of Good News Publishers, Wheaton, IL 60187, www.crosswaybooks.org.
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