It’s what parents of faith fear most; what we’ll train, teach, and pray against from the moment we conceive until we leave this earth.
Our most deeply felt goal? That our children would grow to love and serve our Savior with every fiber of their being. But what happens when our children begin to question those very truths we build our families upon? Is it our fault? Will they reject the faith? Is there anything we, as parents, can do to buffer them from unbelief?
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These were the very questions Rhonda* wrestled with when her fifteen year-old-son came to her with some difficult questions. After years in the church, mission trips and youth group events, and countless Sunday school classes, suddenly, doubts arose. “How do we know Christianity is real?” Clint* asked. “How do we know our religion is better than all the others? What if we’re praying to the same God but using a different name?”
Rhonda’s first reaction was panic. But then, her nerves began to settle and God showed her Clint’s questions weren’t dangerous. They were normal. In fact, according to Joe Nelson, Student Pastor at Ridgecrest Baptist Church, it’s healthy for teens to ask these types of questions. “I believe it forces them to a deeper level of faith,” Nelson says, “and to test everything we’ve been taught instead of just taking it at face value.”
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The question is not, does your child have doubts, but rather, whom do they turn to when doubts arise. The Bible is full of men and women who doubted, from Sarai, Abraham’s wife who couldn’t fathom how God could grant her, a barren old woman, a child (Genesis 18:1-15), to the apostle Peter, a man who refused to believe Jesus the Messiah would soon die (Matthew 16:13-23). Consider two vastly different biblical characters, both who doubted. First, we have Judas, a man who, upon encountering Jesus, quickly became an apostle but will forever be known as the one who betrayed the Christ. Why? The Bible doesn’t say explicitly, but when we read the gospels, I believe we can see seeds of doubt that exploded into betrayal. Ultimately, Jesus didn’t fit Judas’ mold of what the promised Messiah would look like. And so, instead of digging deeper, instead of questioning not only the Man he encountered but his own preconceived assumptions as well, Judas rejected.
Then there’s Thomas, another man filled with doubts. Many of you might be familiar with his story. He was part of Jesus’ “inner circle” of disciples. He saw Jesus perform miracle after miracle, share truth after truth, change heart after heart. But then one day, at the height of the Rabbi’s ministry, Jesus was crucified. To Thomas, I imagine it felt as if his world fell apart. Can you imagine all the doubts this would stir? Had Thomas made a terrible mistake, the day he encountered the Man named Jesus and left everything—everything—to follow Him? Where would Thomas go from here? Back to his old life, as if nothing had happened? And what of all the truths he’d been ready to base his life, his future, on?
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Then, one day, in the midst of Thomas’ inner anguish and despair, the other disciples run to him, full of inexplicable joy. “We have seen the Lord!” they say.
But he said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe” (John 20:25 NIV).
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How did Jesus respond? Not with rebuke but instead, with grace and love, answering Thomas’ doubt and bringing Thomas into an even-deeper relationship with his Savior.
A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe” (John 20:26-27 NIV).
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You see, Judas never sought answers. Not truly. When the truth didn’t fit his expectations, he walked away. But not Thomas. When faced with questions, Thomas gave his doubts over to Christ and allowed Christ to answer them, which led Thomas to full surrender. After touching Christ’s wounds himself, Thomas exclaimed: Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!” My Lord—my master—and my God.
As parents, one of the best things we can do for our children is to pray that their hearts stay soft to God, and that they will seek Him and His truth with every fiber of their being. If they do that, God will make Himself known to them (Jeremiah 29:13).
When doubts arise—and they will, Pastor Nelson encourages parents to remember, “The fact that your child is questioning their faith is not a poor reflection on you as a parent.”
So parents, relax and take a deep breath. Your teen’s doubts aren’t about you. They’re about their spiritual growth and their ever-growing relationship with their Savior.
Nicole O’Dell, author and founder of Choose Now Ministries, encourages us to consider Josh McDowell’s story, an atheist turned Christian. “Several decades ago, John McDowell wrote his mega-bestseller, Evidence that Demands a Verdict because of his own questioning journey,” O’Dell says. “He set out to prove that God was a myth and faith was a lark. However, when he finished his searching, he couldn't deny the evidence. He's been winning souls for Jesus ever since. God has a plan and He will use everything for good in the lives of His children. We can trust that even the times of doubt will be used for His greater purpose.”
As parents, we have the opportunity to use our children’s doubts as teachable moments. “Parents should be thankful, not scared,” O’Dell says. “There’s opportunity when there’s communication.”
Communication doesn’t mean fact regurgitation, and, according to Pastor Nelson, there may be times when parents purposefully don’t provide all the answers. “Parents need to give their child some freedom to explore these things while watching from the fringe,” Nelson says, “steering them in the right direction, and interjecting when helpful. Parents can guide their child’s exploration through Scripture and other resources, including pastors and volunteers at church.”
Never underestimate the power and safety of a Christ-centered youth group. “A good youth group can pre-empt a lot of the questions your teenagers might have,” O’Dell says. “If they are grounded in Biblical teaching, fellowshipping with other believers, and being taught to worship and pray, they have a good foundation already. When questions and doubts pop up, not only will they already have some of the answers they need, but they’ll also have a solid support team in place.”
As a Sunday school teacher, I encourage parents to talk with their teenager’s spiritual leaders. Let us know where your child is at spiritually, what questions they have, and ways you feel we can best address their needs. Personally, I don’t believe God intended us to parent alone, which is one of the reasons He gave us the safety of our local church. This is why it is also extremely important parents lift up and support their church leaders. If a child knows their parents trust their youth pastor, it will make it easier for them to approach him with difficult questions. There is safety and growth in unity, from the pulpit to the Sunday school classroom.
Parents, tough questions are going to come, but that doesn’t mean your teenager will reject your faith. In fact, if handled correctly, parents can help their teens turn a seedling of doubt into a deep and growing faith. Remember, growth comes from effective communication, sound teaching, the utilization of biblical resources, and the safety net of a body of believers. God is faithful, and He loves your teen even more than you do. Trust Him to meet your teenager in his moment of doubt and to use that doubt to draw your child ever closer to Him.
*Names changed for privacy purposes
Jennifer Slattery lives in the midwest with her husband and their teenage daughter. She writes for Christ to the World Ministries, Internet Cafe Devotions, and maintains a devotional blog at JenniferSlatteryLivesOutLoud. Her work has appeared in numerous publications and compilation projects.
Publication date: October 29, 2013