How Do I Help Teens Who Doubt?
The movie 10 Cloverfield Lane follows a young woman named Michelle who is hit by a truck and knocked unconscious. She wakes to find herself on a bed locked in a room in an underground bunker. The man in charge insists that an event has left the surface of Earth uninhabitable, but after seeing the truck that crashed through the window of the bunker door, Michelle begins to doubt. Was she rescued or captured? Will she believe what she is being told, or does she have to experience it outside the bunker for herself?
Doubt comes naturally to most as we’ve been conditioned to believe that if it is too good to be true, then it probably is. The gospel, however is more than good. As teens get into their later years of high school and early years of college, they like Michelle, are solidifying what they believe. It can be during this time they ask or say:
- “I don’t believe God is for real.”
- “How can you believe the resurrection?”
- “How do you know that this is not all made up?”
In the Gospel of John, the disciple Thomas doubted the resurrection. Thomas witnessed Jesus’ crucifixion and burial and was devastated that the messiah was now dead. To make matters worse, Thomas was not present when Jesus first came to visit his disciples. Thomas was left having to believe the testimony of the other disciples.
Consider putting yourself in Thomas’ shoes: “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” (20:25). A part of me thinks: can you blame the guy? That is a lot to go through in one week. It is not every day that someone who was dead is now stopping by for a visit. Yet I also wonder why Thomas won’t believe, since Jesus told him this would happen.
John the Baptist also expresses doubt. He was all alone in a prison with too much time on his hands. Reflecting on the circumstances that brought him to his current situation, he may have wondered if his ministry had been in vain.
John was called to prepare the way for Jesus. He goes from baptizing him and proclaiming him as the Son of God, to sending two of his disciples to ask Jesus if he is indeed the one. It doesn’t seem that John should be doubting after what he had witnessed, but sometimes circumstances we find ourselves in can cause us to question.
How did Jesus respond to their doubt?
Thomas wanted physical proof for his doubt and John needed reassurance. Graciously, Jesus responded to their doubt by giving them exactly what they needed. To Thomas, Jesus says, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe” (v.27). To John’s disciples, Jesus says, “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor” (Matthew 11: 4-5).
Jesus does reprove Thomas by saying, “stop doubting and believe,” but the reproof comes with physical touch. As John’s disciples were leaving, Jesus told the crowd that among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John, so his doubt did not disqualify John from greatness.
How do we respond to doubt?
Before you panic and set up a meeting for your teen to sit down with the pastor, elders, and deacons, I want to encourage you to lean into their doubt. Let them know that their doubt is normal. Doubt can often be the beginning to a more genuine faith and or the way one expresses their questions.
Hold doubt and faithfulness together in a delicate tension. Welcome hard questions while being ready to explore together. If you skip this opportunity, you might communicate that there is no place for doubt and unintentionally create a stumbling block for their faith.
Leaning into their doubt involves asking questions and active listening. Begin by asking why this doubt/question is coming up now. They will provide you with valuable insight into what currently is going on in their life. With this question, you are trying to narrow down if their doubt is about proof or circumstantial, so you can more accurately point them to the truth or assurance they need.
If they wonder why God would allow suffering or if Jesus did really rise from the tomb, they might be experiencing intellectual doubt and need proof like Thomas did. Ask some follow- up questions to get to the core of where their doubt lies. For example: what about ________ do you find difficult?
You do not need to be a scholar to answer a teen’s questions, but also don’t pretend to be one either. If you are uncertain about a topic, acknowledge that. You will build trust with them and leave the door open for them to come to you again. Suggest that you two could explore that together or talk with someone that might speak better on that topic.
You may find that your teen is just expressing their emotions from a current crisis, experiencing circumstantial doubt like John. If they have been dumped, or a friend is no longer talking to them, or someone close to them died, they may wonder why God would allow this to happen. Never down play their emotions. Consider them and express empathy. Invite them to tell you more.
Remind your child of the truths and promises in Scripture. John needed reassurance that Jesus was the Messiah. The teen in your life needs reassurance that they have been bought at a price and belong to God.
God is not going to let go of your child: “Those he predestined, he also called, those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified” (Romans 8:30). God did the work, is doing the work and will continue doing the work. God will give them the hope they need to sustain their faith just as he did with Thomas and John.