“Pastor, if I raise my finger, will God know which one I’m going to raise even before I raise it?”
Thirteen year-old Steve attended church every week with his parents, and he had stayed after church to get an answer to his pressing question from his pastor. The pastor replied, “Yes, God knows everything.”
Steve, who was haunted by the plight of African children suffering from dire famine, then pulled out a Life magazine cover depicting two hungry children. He asked the logical follow-up, “Well, does God know about this and what’s going to happen to those kids?” The pastor gave a similar response: “Steve, I know you don’t understand, but yes, God knows about that” (Walter Isaacson, Steve Jobs [Simon & Schuster, 2011], 14-15).
Would you be inspired by that answer?
Steve wasn’t. In fact, he walked out that day and never returned to a Christian church again. When he had tried to talk with his pastor about some of his faith dilemmas, the pastor’s answer — although well-intentioned — repelled Steve from the faith.
Maybe you have heard of Steve. His last name is Jobs. The young Steve Jobs, founder and CEO of Apple, Inc., was a churchgoing junior high student who had doubts about faith.
Now imagine if Steve had been greeted by a different answer from his pastor. One that was less of a conversational dead end and more of an onramp to a deeper discussion about faith. Imagine if the pastor had replied to thirteen-year-old Steve, “That’s a great question, Steve. How about if you and I and your dad meet for breakfast this week and talk about it?” Or imagine if Steve’s parents had been attentive enough to initiate a discussion with Steve themselves. Imagine if some adult hit the conversational ball over the net to Steve, instead of letting it slowly dribble off the court.
Unfortunately, no adult had those conversations with Steve.
Many of us can relate to Steve. Perhaps you have a story of your own. A time when you were faced with an injustice or a tragedy and felt completely helpless to do anything about it. Wondering why God didn’t just fix it. Why God couldn’t figure out how to make the suffering stop.
Some teenagers come from traditions or training that suggest that doubt is troubling or even sinful. But our research at the Fuller Youth Institute found that doubt actually can help form our faith in stronger and perhaps more lasting ways. Below are a few illustrations of the role of questioning in the spiritual growth of adolescents.
Thanks in large part to a sizable research grant from the Lilly Endowment, the Fuller Youth Institute launched research that has been summarized in our “Sticky Faith” resources. Our six years of quantitative and qualitative research with students was fueled by two goals: to understand better the dynamics of youth group graduates’ transition to college and to pinpoint the steps leaders, churches, parents, and students themselves can take to help students stay on the path of long-term faith. Seventy percent of the students in our longitudinal study of youth group graduates reported that they had doubts in high school about what they believed about God and the Christian faith, and just as many felt like they wanted to talk with their youth leaders about their doubts. Yet less than half of those students actually talked with leaders. Likewise, less than half talked with their youth group peers about their doubts. In other words, a lot of young people are wrestling with tough questions alone and in silence.
When college students were asked to reflect back on the doubts they remembered having during high school, responses tended to cluster around four central questions (listed in no particular order):
1. Does God exist?
2. Does God love me?
3. Am I living the life God wants?
4. Is Christianity true/the only way to God?
As we have shared these questions with leaders and parents across the country, one of the resounding responses has been that these are questions adults have, too. Perhaps when adults are silent about our own faith questions, teenagers don’t know they can ask their questions aloud.
Safety to express doubt seems to be connected with stronger faith. We found that high school seniors who feel most free to express doubt and discuss their personal problems with adults also showed greater faith maturity in college. Further, among those who had doubts and did talk with leaders or peers about them, about half found these conversations helped them. This helpfulness was also linked to stronger faith across the transition. It might be that simply creating safe spaces for young people to explore hard questions can deepen faith. In other words, it’s not necessarily doubt that is toxic to young people’s faith; it may in fact be silence.
Thankfully, we do not need to leave young people who are doubting alone in our ministries or our homes. Below are some ideas for creating space in our relationships and programs with adolescents so their questions can be both heard and unpacked within the faith community.
The perception that “good Christians don’t doubt” can easily (and sometimes unintentionally) be fostered in our congregations. This understanding can be intensified by the letdowns that may follow retreat and camp highs and hype, haunting students who wake up the next week and do not “feel God” as viscerally as before. Somehow, many congregations today have failed to embrace the teaching of Jude 22: “be merciful to those who doubt.”
Our responsibility to the young people in our care includes creating safe places for questions that emerge along the faith journey. In the family, small group settings, mentoring relationships, and in the context of the broader congregation, how are doubts and struggles being voiced, and how are they being received?
One ministry works to create space for struggles and doubts to be safely heard. They now close each session of their fifth and sixth grade group with 56 seconds of silence where kids can write down any question on a note card. The hope is to make asking questions a normal part of faith development starting in early adolescence, even if some of those questions are not answered right away.
Another church is working hard to foster honesty in the midst of its Confirmation program. At the conclusion of the six-month process, most students write a statement of faith. Last year one student felt safe enough to write a “Statement of Doubt” instead. This allowed her to share openly with the community that her own journey of faith was not yet at the place of trusting Christ. Several months later, she came to the point where she had wrestled through her doubts and decided to be baptized as an expression of her newfound trust. Alongside her were several adults who had supported her, prayed for her, and walked with her through her valley of doubt to the other side of faith.
Although scripture does not always give us answers to all our questions, the Bible does include a section where doubts and struggles are freely expressed: the Psalms. The Psalms are commonly thought of as a book of praises, but the writers of the Hebrew songs and prayers that became their worship book weren’t afraid to ask God to show up in the midst of ugly situations. Out of the 150 psalms, over one-third are considered laments (see Pss 6, 10, 13, 61, 79, 80, 88, 94).
A lament can be defined simply as a cry out to God. It is both an act of grief and an act of asking for help. In fact, lament is usually something we do in the dark places, often at the darkest points of our life journeys. For example, Ps 88 ends with the phrase “darkness is my closest friend” (v. 18). Walter Brueggemann calls these psalms of “disorientation.” He urges that our worship in community with others should not just focus on the cheerful aspects of life and faith, but must also consider the disturbingly incoherent and painful realities as well. He suggests that lament is necessary in faith formation:
Where capacity to initiate lament is absent, one is left only with praise and doxology. God then is omnipotent, always to be praised. The believer is nothing, and can praise or accept guilt uncritically where life with God does not function properly. The outcome is a “False Self,” bad faith that is based in fear and guilt and lived out as resentful or self-deceptive works of righteousness. The absence of lament makes a religion of coercive obedience the only possibility. (The Psalms and the Life of Faith, ed. Patrick D. Miller [Augsburg Fortress],103-4)
One of the most frequently asked questions in Scripture is “How long, oh Lord?” (see Ps 13 for several examples). It’s an important question because it calls God to act in order to end our pain or the pain of others. Laments like this don’t answer all of our questions, but lamenting can be a helpful part of strengthening our faith by reminding us that answers are not everything. As the psalmists proclaim over and over, the unfailing love of God is not wiped out by anything: not our crises, not our doubts, and not even our sins. By weaving lament into our corporate worship and prayer life, we open up the possibility that kids might feel freer to share their own hard questions, and maybe even write or sing their own psalms of lament.
The book of Job offers an extended lament that closes with a surprising response from God. When we interviewed one of Fuller Seminary’s OT experts, John Goldingay, we asked him if there is anything we cannot say to God. He cited Job in his response:
A great thing about the story of Job is that Job beats on God’s chest for ages and ages, and eventually God answers back. Job perhaps slightly wishes he hadn’t said some of those things, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that it’s a real relationship. Real things go on between Job and God. When we do speak to God like that, we risk hearing back from God, but that’s great because there’s a relationship! Nobody has to mince words. So I don’t think there’s anything that you can’t say to God. But when you speak to God, you may find there are no limits to what God may say back! (See Jesse Oakes and Annie Neufeld, “A Book We Read That Also Reads Us: A Conversation about the Psalms with Dr. John Goldingay.”)
In response to traumatic experiences in particular, it is critically important for a community of faith to offer space for this kind of response to God. Failing to create an environment for authentic lament can result in spiritually and psychologically short-circuiting the necessary healing process. Authentic trust in God may take a long time, and kids need faithful adults to walk that difficult road with them.
Like the pastor at the start of the chapter with thirteen-year-old Steve, have you ever been in a conversation with a teenager where you weren’t sure what to say next? The question that catches you off guard in the hallway just as you are stepping into a worship service. The one that comes by text around 11:00 pm just as you are shutting down your phone to collapse in bed. Or the question right at the end of Bible study when you really don’t have time or energy to entertain it.
With the theme of companionship in mind from earlier in our discussion, here are the four words we recommend every parent, leader, and mentor keep handy in their back pocket for moments like these: “I don’t know, but….”
There are a handful of great ways to complete that sentence. I don’t know, but…
…that’s an important question.
…let’s find out together.
…I wonder that, too.
…I bet you’re not the first person to ask that.
…who do you think we could ask about that?
…I wonder what stirred up that question just now.
…God can handle that question.
…thanks for sharing it with me.
You might, of course, have an answer to the question. But even if you do, it might be wise to step back and probe a bit before unleashing your “right” answer. It might turn out that being heard is more important than the answer itself, at least at the moment.
When students around us fall into seasons of uncertainty, let’s help them fall in the light of Christ and Christ’s people, ready to catch and hold them through doubt and back into faith, as children of God and members of the family.
Adapted from Kara Powell and Brad Griffin, “Can I Ask That? Imaging a Church Big Enough for Teenagers’ Hard Questions,” forthcoming in Adoptive Youth Ministry: Integrating Emerging Generations into the Family of Faith, ed. Chap Clark (Baker Academic).