Teenagers Need A Safe Place to Ask Hard Questions
Recently I was on a long car trip with one of my boys. We listened to music, and chatted, and stopped for Chick-fil-A. I was in mommy heaven having my busy teenager all to myself, until the conversation turned to a hot-button topic. I assumed the topic would not be controversial in my home because I raised my children to know the truth according to the Bible, right? But here was my thoughtful, insightful, tenderhearted kid, raising questions about an issue that seemed completely clear to me.
I started arguing so hard I was sweating. I whacked him over the head, figuratively speaking, with relevant Scripture. He tried to protest that he was just questioning, not throwing out everything I’d ever taught him. Of course the more upset I got, the more he dug in his heels. The conversation ended with my exasperated proclamation: “I just can’t talk with you about this right now!”
I knew I had blown it, but his questioning scared me. I assumed if he questioned this issue, he would question others, and that led me straight to the worry that he could abandon his faith altogether. That was not in fact what was happening, but my overreaction not only ended all hope of a good conversation, it left him annoyed and me afraid.
I thought of that car ride again when I read this article by my friend Kris Fernhout. Writing as a youth pastor to the kids he leads, Kris made a comment that struck me with cold hard conviction: “I’m sorry that I’m often more concerned about you knowing the right answer than about making sure you had a safe place to ask hard questions.”
I confess I have parented to (what I think is) the “right answer.” I have patted myself on the back whenever I heard one of my children say something that seemed to prove I taught them well. Certainly it is my responsibility to guide them, to point out when their assertions contradict Scripture. To be honest, I fear their questions because questions seem to suggest doubt, and doubt can be a slippery slope. However, my fear only nudges them down that hill farther and faster.
That fear actually reveals my own doubts. Do I think that God can’t handle their questions (or mine)? That He will reject us because we ask for explanations? That His goodness won’t stand up against scrutiny? Asking questions is actually a mark of respect and trust.
God can handle our questions. In fact, He invites them. Christian journalist Philip Yancey writes that Christians “tend to ignore the Old Testament, which is where many of the questions (and questioners) are. The Old Testament proves that God honors questioners. Remember, grumpy Job emerges as the hero of that book, not his theologically defensive friends.” David was the first to prophetically utter the question Jesus echoed, the hardest question of all: “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” (Psalm 22:1)
Jesus created a safe place to ask hard questions. Nowhere is this more evident than in his relationship with the disciple Thomas. Thomas adored Jesus (John 11:16). He witnessed many of His greatest miracles, including the resurrection of Lazarus. But Thomas was not afraid to tell Jesus he didn’t understand.
At the Last Supper, Jesus told His disciples He was going to prepare a place for them, and that they would know where He was and how to get there. Thomas challenged Jesus respectfully but urgently: “Lord, we do not know where You are going, and how can we know the way?” (John 14:5) Thomas knew Jesus was the Son of God, yet he found Jesus completely approachable. He questioned because he really did want to know where Jesus was going and how he could get to Him. He receives one of the most beautiful answers in all Scripture: “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” (John 14:6)
Thomas was not done with his questions. He was even more puzzled when his friends saw Jesus after the Resurrection, and he did not. He declared that he would not believe until he put his own finger in the nail prints on Jesus’ hands and his own hand into Jesus’s wounded side. Thomas was a man who wanted to understand everything before he believed.
Maybe Thomas had an idol of practicality (I’ll believe it when I see it). Maybe he worshipped common sense (dead people usually stay dead). Maybe Thomas thought he was smarter than everyone else (I’m no fool – I am going to stay out of this resurrection nonsense). Whatever the case, Jesus let Thomas wait eight days before revealing Himself to the doubting disciple.
Eight days of wondering must have been awful. His friends were rejoicing because they had seen the risen Jesus, yet Thomas was clutching his doubts. But then Jesus met Thomas in his doubt and gave him what he needed. He urged Thomas to do exactly what Thomas said he wanted, to put his finger in the nail prints and his hand in Jesus’ side. Astonished and humbled, Thomas sets doubt aside for good, “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28)
Jesus knew that He would ascend to the Father, and Thomas would be the only one who would have his doubts answered in such a concrete way. His gentle rebuke to Thomas is an encouragement to those of us who come after him: “Thomas, because you have seen Me, you have believed. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” (John 20:29)
Jesus is the one who rescues us from unbelief. We cannot do that for ourselves or anyone else. If my teenager is struggling with doubt or questions, it is not up to me to convince him of the truth, though I do have a responsibility to speak it. There are things we can do, however, to encourage doubters and questioners to keep wrestling with God:
Leave room for mystery and questions; don’t be afraid of “I don’t know.” Acting like you have all the answers is just plain wrong, and it makes the questioner feel isolated and alone. The consequences of suppressing honest questions can be severe. Philip Yancey describes the oppressive church atmosphere of his youth: “If you doubted or questioned, you sinned. I learned to conform, as you must in a church like that. Meanwhile those deep doubts, those deep questions, didn’t get answered in a satisfactory way. The danger of such a church like that is that… you don’t really resolve the doubts. They tend to resurface in a more toxic form.” Our homes and our churches must encourage teenagers (and adults) to take their questions to God and trusted counselors.
Live out your faith with honesty. Don’t pretend you have felt #blessedandgrateful since the moment you came to Christ, that the hard things of this world can’t touch you now. Yancey again: “Christians tend to be propagandists. We want to convince others, put on a brave face, inspire… So Christians naturally tend to hide behind a thin veneer of cheerfulness and health, while they surely doubt and hurt.” If I really believe, as the bumper sticker says, that my God is bigger than my storm, then I am not afraid to acknowledge the storm.
Persevere with your doubting teenager. Demonstrate that “love that will not let me go.” When your teenager expresses doubt about Jesus or contradicts Biblical teaching, recognize that your child is wrestling with the God who laid down his life to save him. This helps you relax into curiosity: “You’ve really been thinking about this. Tell me more.” Above all, don’t do what I did and blast your kid with capital-T Truth. Keep in mind the way Jesus loved Thomas; that is how He loves us still.
One day every question will be answered, as we will no longer walk by faith, but by glorious sight! (2 Corinthians 5:7)