I’ve reached an interesting age. I am not so old that I cannot remember what it was like to be a teen-ager and young woman; I am old enough that my own children have now all either reached or passed that stage of development of character. Talking to my kids is enlightening, for I’ve discovered that the spiritual journey that each of us believes to be unique is actually fairly universal for every child raised by believing parents. It looks different in each person, but basically it is the same. Each of us reaches a time in our lives when we must examine the beliefs of our parents and decide for ourselves whether we accept them.
And I’ve found that most of us react in one of two ways: either after a struggle, whether lengthy or brief, we accept our parents’ beliefs as true; or after this struggle, we reject the teachings of our parents with varying degrees of hostility or regret. What makes the difference between these two opposite conclusions? I believe we as parents must equip our children to deal with the normal doubts and questions about faith from an early age. After all, we have been through this ourselves. We have, one hopes, acquired the tools necessary to doubt effectively.
Doubt. Such a frightening word. Many Christians are raised to believe that doubting is sinful. It’s true that Jesus gently rebukes His disciples on occasion for doubting Him. I can imagine it was a disappointment to Him for those who lived with Him and witnessed His miracles and heard His teachings on a daily basis to doubt Him. But He never said they were sinning. Doubting is one of the most human ways we have of processing information and experiences in order categorize and quantify them. God knows this: He made us this way! Denying the need to work through our faith on an intellectual level is to deny our humanness. It’s a path we must all walk down, some of us for a short time, some for far longer. Some of us leave the path and wander off into trackless wastelands. But it’s a process that is necessary for each of us to endure in order to make the faith of our parents real in our own lives.
So what tools do we give our children in order to help them get through this process successfully? The first and most important tool is truth. We must admit to our children that faith is hard; that Christianity is sometimes unbelievable; that the world is a mess and hard to understand; that God is unfathomable and that there are questions we will have about Him and how He works that will never be answered in this lifetime; that it’s okay to have questions and to feel angry and resentful about how horrible the world is and to wonder why God lets things go on when it would seem more humane to put a stop to the pain and suffering and ugliness once and for all.
How do we know that it’s okay to doubt and to question God? Because so many of the writers of the Scriptures we turn to for truth did so. The writers of the hard passages, that we often pass over when teaching the Bible to our children, and all too often avoid reading ourselves. When is the last time you taught the book of Habakkuk to your young child? Now there’s a man who could express dismay about how God was handling the world! Or the book of Lamentations? Jeremiah could express depression and disappointment with unsurpassed eloquence! Do you pick through the Psalms and avoid the ones that rant bloodthirstily against the enemy or question God’s involvement in human events? Read through these Scriptures and remember as you read that these words are inspired by God Himself! II Timothy 3:16: “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.”
Does God understand our questions and our doubts? Looks like He does. Read Habakkuk 1:1-3: ‘The oracle that Habakkuk the prophet received: How long, O LORD, must I call for help, but you do not listen? Or cry out to you, “Violence!” but you do not save? Why do you make me look at injustice? Why do you tolerate wrong? Destruction and violence are before me; there is strife, and conflict abounds. Therefore the law is paralyzed, and justice never prevails. The wicked hem in the righteous, so that justice is perverted.’ Notice that this the oracle Habakkuk received from God; Habakkuk did not come up with this himself. God not only is okay with our questions and our doubt, He apparently encourages it! Read Lamentations 3:1-20: ‘I am the man who has seen affliction by the rod of his wrath. He has driven me away and made me walk in darkness rather than light; indeed, he has turned his hand against me again and again, all day long. He has made my skin and my flesh grow old and has broken my bones. He has besieged me and surrounded me with bitterness and hardship. He has made me dwell in darkness like those long dead. He has walled me in so I cannot escape; he has weighed me down with chains. Even when I call out or cry for help, he shuts out my prayer. He has barred my way with blocks of stone; he has made my paths crooked. Like a bear lying in wait, like a lion in hiding, he dragged me from the path and mangled me and left me without help. He drew his bow and made me the target for his arrows. He pierced my heart with arrows from his quiver. I became the laughingstock of all my people; they mock me in song all day long. He has filled me with bitter herbs and sated me with gall. He has broken my teeth with gravel; he has trampled me in the dust. I have been deprived of peace; I have forgotten what prosperity is. So I say, “My splendor is gone and all that I had hoped from the LORD.” I remember my affliction and my wandering, the bitterness and the gall. I well remember them, and my soul is downcast within me.’ This is not some rebellious sinner speaking, one who deserves such treatment: this is the prophet Jeremiah, who obeyed God all of his life and suffered for it. This is the Jeremiah who was warned from the beginning of his ministry that no one would ever listen to him and that he would be persecuted for speaking God’s Word to the people. God not only is not angry at Jeremiah for all this self-pity, He records it in His Holy Scriptures for all believers to read and empathize with. God is not threatened by our doubts and our questions. He understands that we are dust and that we can’t see the whole picture that He sees.
This leads me to the other tool with which we should equip our children: a safe place to take our doubts and questions. Hopefully, we as parents can be a safe place for our children to come and talk things out. I admit, I am not good at this. It is a terrifying thing, watching your child walk along the brink of the high cliff and not want to snatch him back from the edge of doom! I tend to panic too quickly. My husband is much better at this than I, and so I have tried to let him handle this important spiritual responsibility without sabotaging his expert efforts!
But the very best place for anyone to go with doubts and questions is to God Himself. If we can steer our children to the throne at an early age with their easier, more childish questions, they may automatically go to Him as adolescents and adults with their weightier, more difficult matters. That’s where Habakkuk and Jeremiah went with their rants and depression. Read Habakkuk’s prayer in his book, chapter 3: ‘LORD, I have heard of your fame; I stand in awe of your deeds, O LORD. Renew them in our day, in our time make them known; in wrath remember mercy. God came from Teman, the Holy One from Mount Paran. “Selah” His glory covered the heavens and his praise filled the earth. His splendor was like the sunrise; rays flashed from his hand, where his power was hidden.’ (verse 2-4) And his conclusion in verses 17-19: ‘Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the LORD, I will be joyful in God my Savior. The Sovereign LORD is my strength; he makes my feet like the feet of a deer, he enables me to go on the heights.’ Read Jeremiah’s declaration in Lamentations 3:21-33: ‘Yet this I call to mind and therefore I have hope: Because of the LORD’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. I say to myself, “The LORD is my portion; therefore I will wait for him.” The LORD is good to those whose hope is in him, to the one who seeks him; it is good to wait quietly for the salvation of the LORD. It is good for a man to bear the yoke while he is young. Let him sit alone in silence, for the LORD has laid it on him. Let him bury his face in the dust– there may yet be hope. Let him offer his cheek to one who would strike him, and let him be filled with disgrace. For men are not cast off by the Lord forever. Though he brings grief, he will show compassion, so great is his unfailing love. For he does not willingly bring affliction or grief to the children of men.’
As it turns out, when we bring our doubts and questions, our anger and grief to the throne of God and place it all before Him, we find that the answer is not intellectual after all. Faith is a matter of trusting Him in spite of circumstances and in the face of adversity, and this faith comes from knowing His heart, not His mind. We can never fathom the mind of God and can never hope to understand why the world He created works the way it does. But we can know His heart. He has written it on every page of His Word; He pours it out on us whenever we come to Him in humility and need. It can’t be grasped by the intellect. But only in intellectually understanding this can we intelligently set aside the need to understand everything and accept our own inadequacy and His superiority.
It is absolutely necessary for every child of believing parents to struggle with God in order to come to a strong, personal faith of our own. Doubt is often the route by which we come to peace with God and with faith. But it can also be the vehicle that speeds us away from God, often forever. This happens when we do not take our doubts and questions to the Source of all knowledge and depend only on our own intellect and the words and opinions of others. Our minds are limited and fallible, and so is every other humans’. It’s good to talk to others during a crisis of faith and it’s good to think things through on our own. But in order to come to the truth, one must ultimately come to the Truth. The Heart of Truth is greater than anything our little human minds can conjure.