This week we are talking about how changes in faith affect our relationships. As I've spoken with college students around the country, I’ve found that many are struggling with parents who react defensively to their questions, doubts, and new ideas. Oh how I wish these parents could talk to my dad!
Peter Held is the senior fellow for Christian Worldview at Bryan College and a professor of Christian Thought and Biblical Studies. He’s also an amazing father, who along with my mother and sister, have encouraged and supported me through all the ups and downs of my faith journey. As he’s encountered other parents with children who doubt, he’s been able to share from his own experience, and has graciously given us a glimpse of what he’s learned in the process.
In her book, Rachel tells of her personal journey from certainty, through doubt, to faith. It has been remarkable to see how her story has encouraged so many people to continue the journey and not to give up. Over the past year I have heard from many parents who see this painful struggle in their children and ask how they should respond. I have said I would never write a book or give advice about raising children. Every parent knows how unique every child is and how different every situation is. When it comes to helping your children through the difficult passages of life, there is no one way that fits every situation. But here are some ideas that may be helpful:
1. Don’t panic.
This is not an uncommon experience. Young adulthood is a time when it is natural to question values and beliefs and make them their own. Although the church is losing many such strugglers, and church attendance is declining by generation, your child doesn’t have to be among them. In fact, sometimes doubt can be a big step toward a stronger, more intimate faith. Some say it is essential.
The casualty rate seems to be increasing, perhaps because the world has become much smaller for our children. Through technology, media, travel, short term mission trips, they are experiencing the world in ways their parents may never have. When I was growing up my mother told me to eat everything on my plate because there were starving children in India. My children know their names. They’ve held them in their arms. As a result, my children will see the world with different eyes and a different heart and they will be more engaged. For some it will mean asking deeper, more personal, and more troubling questions.
Questioning and doubting are not reserved for the young, and it is not anything new. Moses, Mary, Job, David, Thomas, and others expressed serious doubt and conflict with God. Reread the Psalms and you’ll find more doubting and questioning God than you’ll find praising God. You’ll find that most of the horror stories about young Christians leaving the faith are because of how the doubt was mishandled. Drew Dyke, author of Generation Ex-Christian observes that we have done a poor job of responding to young Christians who doubt. Sadly, some of these children not only leave the church but they also walk away from their parents. (Point #2 seems to contribute to this.)
2. Avoid “bundling” your faith.
Know what’s essential to the Christian faith and leave plenty of room for diversity. This may be the most important advice to follow. I have been surprised to see how many parents have bundled their faith inseparably with a particular political view, economic philosophy, worship style, or the latest social issues.
True Christianity is not about politics, political parties, or personal preferences. Do you really want to lose your child because of differing political views? Does it really matter if they are for big government or less government, universal health care or private health care? If these issues seem to be too emotional for either of you, don’t even discuss them. The Kingdom of Our Lord is not limited to one political system or philosophy.
The essentials of the Christian faith are not dependent on certain doctrinal systems or denominations (Calvinism, Arminianism, dispensationalism, covenant theology, election, predestination, free will, and so on). I make my living studying and teaching these important doctrines and I have convictions about them. But godly Christians throughout the ages have real disagreements in all these areas. Keep your convictions but make sure you’re not making everything an essential. Remember, Christians across the theological spectrum have far more in common than we have disagreement. Again, if these issues seem to stir up too much emotion, avoid discussing them. Given what the Bible says about the deceitfulness of the human heart, humbly acknowledge your own bias and limitations.
Unless they request it, resist the temptation to pass along books, articles, or emails hoping to change their minds on these non-essential issues. If your child comes through this struggle loving God and following Jesus, anything else is just extra.
3. Listen well.
Show genuine interest and ask questions. If you want your child to learn from this, provide the example and be willing to learn something yourself. I have learned so much from my two daughters who see and experience a different world than I do. This phase of parenthood can be extremely fulfilling if you allow your role to change appropriately. This is not just a petty phase. Doubt can be extremely painful and frightening for them. Sadly, they may lose some close friends during this time. More than ever they need a caring parent, an ally, not another adversary.
4. Don’t make this about you.
Keep your insecurities to yourself. Forget what other people will think. Avoid the following thoughts and sentiments: “Where did we go wrong?” “We raised you better than this.” “How could you do this to us?” “What will the people at church think of us?” Unfortunately, parents have reported some very disappointing responses from their Christian friends and leaders. Don’t expect anyone else to love and understand your child like you do.
The road ahead may be dangerously rocky and uncertain.
Don’t make them travel it alone.
Has your relationship with your parents changed as your faith has changed? What do you wish they knew about you and your faith experience?