How do I know the Bible is real? What about the gods in other religions?, one of my kids asked at the age of four. I was a bit caught off guard because she was being raised in the church and homeschooled at the time. Her questions weren’t coming from outside influences, but her own mind and heart.
As adults, we are called to disciple the next generation in our homes and churches. So what do we do when they ask us big questions? How do we respond when they question their faith?
Whether you’re a parent, aunt or uncle, or Sunday School teacher serving young people, here are some ways you can walk with children and teens through their questions and doubts.
1. Be a safe place for questions and doubts.
I often tell teens at church that I’m passionate about church being a safe place for them to bring their questions because I have worked through doubt my whole life. Sometimes, I’ll give them examples of questions I’ve wrestled with. My desire is that their uncertainty wouldn’t drive them away from the church, but to find the answers God has for them.
Children and teens need to know that we welcome their questions and doubts. Two ways you can show them that it's safe to bring them up is:
Not being afraid of hard questions. Don’t immediately interpret doubts as unbelief or rebellion. Many times, questions are actually spiritual growing pains as children learn to reconcile their observations about the world with what the Bible says. Their faith in God is prompting questions where there seems to be a disconnect. Thus in many ways, questions and doubts can be an opportunity for their faith to grow deeper through testing. It is an opportunity for them to experience on their own that God is trustworthy.
Letting them know doubts and hard questions are normal parts of the Christian life. It can be scary, even shameful, for children to admit having doubts about what they’ve been taught in church or at home. Let them know that you understand this. Assure them that the Bible and history of Christianity is full of people who asked tough questions and still followed Jesus.
2. Invite them to look at the Scriptures with you.
One way that kids can grow in their trust in the Scriptures is actually by bringing hard questions to it. If the word of God is true and has handled the scrutiny of many throughout the ages, then it is able to handle the questions they have today.
Often, the questions children and teens have aren’t so much a challenge to the truth as much as it is an attempt to make sense of it. They aren’t attacking Christianity from the outside, but testing its trustworthiness from the inside. Though their questions may seem like challenges to the Bible (e.g. If God is really in control, why is there suffering? What about other religions? What about science?), these are questions the Scriptures actually do address and that Christians have historically wrestled through and answered. Thus, these questions are opportunities to show them how God’s word is relevant, compelling, and has explanatory value in real life.
Other times, children and teens will know what the Bible says, but have trouble believing it. These are also opportunities to examine God’s word together. However, before going there, make sure you really understand the question being asked. Before jumping in to answering with truth, make sure it’s the truth they need.
When I was first trained to work with middle schoolers, my leaders emphasized that “at the heart of every question is a question of the heart.” The question at hand is important, but there may be more going on under the surface. Practice listening and asking questions to see where the dissonance truly lies for those you speak with. Are they doubting because their experiences seem to contradict what the Bible says about God? Is it because they believe the Bible is saying something it doesn’t actually say? Is it because Christians have treated them unkindly? Is it because they are struggling with temptation, sin, or shame? Is it because they are going through deep suffering? Once you get to the “heart of their question,” then you can begin to show them how God speaks to them in it.
3. Help them bring their questions to God.
God is not only concerned with our minds, but our relationship with him. When we hear our children or students are struggling, it is an opportunity to let them not only experience God’s truthfulness, but his patience, presence, love, and grace. In your family and at church, you can teach children to pray honestly about their questions, modeling humility, candor, and trust in God even in the midst of doubt.
Churched kids in particular may need the assurance that since God already knows their questions, there’s no need to be afraid or ashamed to bring them to him. Remind them of stories in the Bible about Jesus’ kindness toward those with questions and doubts–Nicodemus, Thomas, or the man who prayed, “I believe, help my unbelief!” Assure them that they can pray like that too, honest about where their hearts are as they seek him and his answers. Sometimes, that might mean a simple prayer like, "God if you're there, show me" or "God, I'm not even sure I believe in you, but I think I want to." And if it's hard for them to pray that, ask if you can pray with and for them.
4. Don’t be afraid to say “I don’t know.”
Sometimes, we can feel the pressure to give an answer that will resolve all questions in the moment. But it’s okay to admit what we don’t know. When our kids ask us questions the Bible is silent on, we may have to say, “I don’t know, God hasn’t told us that. But that's a good question.” Other times, our answer will need to be, “I don’t know–let me think about it and get back to you.” (Just don’t forget to get back with those answers!)
Saying “I don’t know” doesn't mean we've failed because our goal is not to have all the answers. We seek to model the Christian life for those we teach, and part of following Jesus means admitting the limits of our own understanding. The way you seek answers alongside of your children and students is in and of itself a life lesson for them. You are modeling for them what to do when they encounter questions they can’t answer. You are also demonstrating that you can have true faith without knowing all the answers.
5. Equip your kids with resources on apologetics.
When we think of apologetics, we often think of conversations we have with people outside the church. But I’ll always remember a professor in seminary speaking about the way it serves to strengthen the faith of Christians as well.
Here are some recommendations for resources you can read and pass on to your child:
- The God Contest (Ages 3-6) (Not apologetics, but does address other beliefs)
- Everything A Child Should Know About God (Ages 3-6) (Again, not apologetics, but addresses big questions)
- The Radical Book for Kids, The Really Radical Book For Kids (Ages 8-14) (Not an apologetics book but includes some helpful apologetics content in it)
- How Do We Know That Christianity is Really True? (Ages 9-13)
- Why Does God Let Bad Things Happen? (Ages 9-13)
- Who Am I and Why Do I Matter? (Ages 9-13)
- What Happens When We Die? (Ages 9-13)
- 10 Questions Every Teen Should Ask (and Answer) About God (Ages 12-16)
- Surviving Religion 101 (Ages 16-18)
- Mere Christianity (Ages 16-18)
- The Reason for God (Ages 16-18)
- Help My Unbelief: Why Doubt Is Not the Enemy of Faith (Ages 16-18)
One of the most precious gifts my parents gave me was stocking their libraries with books like those. It was a gift to be able to grab them off the shelf in the middle of my own seasons of doubt. Years later, I’ve tried to do the same–and now have heard my own child saying that reading through some of these books has helped her work through questions I didn’t even know she’d had.
6. Trust the Lord with your kids’ hearts.
My daughter’s questions at four reminded me that at every age, the Christian faith requires just that–faith. And this faith is a gift from God. As a mother and Sunday School teacher, few things make me feel more helpless than my inability to change hearts. Paradoxically, nothing is more freeing to know–because that means that the faith of the next generation is not dependent upon my ability to teach perfectly.
None of us came to trust God on the basis of good arguments alone. Rather, in his grace, the Holy Spirit opened the eyes of our hearts to see his worth. As we pray and trust God to do the same in the lives of young people we love, he frees us from teaching them from a place of anxiety. He helps us to be patient as we prayerfully wait for him to accomplish his work in their hearts.
If God loves the children in our lives and has them in his hands, then we are not the main actors here. Thus, with peace, we can walk them through questions and doubts, patiently engaging their minds and hearts, trusting that as we sow and water the seeds of truth, God is the one who will make things grow.