How to talk to young people about doubt
Photo by Toa Heftiba
I’ve been through 26 grades of school, including a Master’s of Divinity degree and a PhD in Practical Theology.
And my 12-year-old’s questions about God can stump me.
But I don’t feel bad about that. For one thing, if God could be fully understood and explained, God wouldn’t really be God. God would then be more of a “cool person.” For God to be God, there need to be aspects of his nature and actions that are inexplicable.
Not only that, but it’s time to reframe young people’s questions and doubts not as challenges, but as opportunities. In both our Sticky Faith and Growing Young research, we found that feeling the freedom to express doubt was actually correlated with faith maturity. Put more simply, it’s not doubt that’s toxic to faith, it’s silence.
Even if you and I can agree on both of those reasons to welcome young people’s doubts, that doesn’t mean we always know how to best respond. The way we respond to doubt sends a message about God. We’ve found that when leaders and parents tend to silence young people’s doubts, young people not only learn that their church and family can’t handle doubt; they think God can’t handle doubt either.
God can handle all our doubts. And then some.
4 steps to better handling young people’s doubts
1. Memorize this phrase: “Great question. I don’t know, but …”
Odds are good that sometime soon, a teenager or young adult is going to ask you a tough question about God that you can’t answer. Why would a loving God allow such suffering in the world? Why would God send people to hell? Isn’t it narrow to believe Jesus is the only way to God?
For most of us, it’s hard to come up with a great answer on the spot to these sorts of questions. We need a placeholder. We need a way to affirm that young person’s curiosity and make sure the conversation continues in the future. So try saying something like …
“Great question. I don’t know, but how about if you and I get together for coffee next week and talk about it?”
“Great question. I don’t know, but I do know a scientist [therapist, engineer, artist, etc.] in our church who loves those types of questions. How about if the three of us grab lunch this week?”
In those adrenalin-filled moments when a young person asks a question that stumps us, we need a “go-to” phrase that honors the young person’s curiosity and sets the trajectory for the next conversation.
2. Preserve the relationship at all cost.
As our young people gain their intellectual wings and become more abstract thinkers, they notice more of our world that doesn’t quite add up. That means they’re going to have new questions.
For teenagers and young adults who have grown up in the church, these new questions aren’t just “intellectual,” they are also relational. Internal challenges about faith often lead to internal concerns about their faith community. Will my faith community be able to handle my doubts? Will I still be welcomed, or will I be abandoned?
I long for the church to be the first place young people go with their tough questions about God. But they will only head in our direction if they know that we will not reject them—no matter what. So when you’re interacting with a young person who is doubting, go out of your way to show that you, and the community you are both part of, are not judging them, but journeying with them.
3. Connect young people with other resources.
The good news is you don’t have to act solo. You can integrate the wisdom of others into your ongoing conversations with young people.
Maybe you invite a person you know who has asked the same types of questions and wrestled with Scripture to pin down answers to join your next conversation.
Perhaps you send an email to a researcher who has thought deeply about God’s role in the creation of our world or world events today.
Or maybe you seek out a book or online resource that can help your young person better navigate their question.
You don’t have to do this alone. So why would you want to?
4. Pay attention to your own doubt.
Amazing spiritual leaders—ranging from Martin Luther in the sixteenth century to Mother Teresa in the last century—have had their own internal questions. What if doubt isn’t a sign of spiritual immaturity we need to suppress, but instead a sign of curiosity, growth, and exploration we can engage?
What do the doubts of a young person trigger in you? What questions about God distract you, or keep you up at night?
If appropriate, share your own doubts with teenagers and young adults. Your example of being an adult who doesn’t have faith despite doubt but has faith in the midst of doubt will give them hope for their own spiritual journey.
Take the Growing With parenting quiz and discover practical tips to pursue a relationship with your child.