One of the most reassuring passages in scripture for me is Romans 8:22-23, which says, “For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now. And not only this, but also we ourselves, having the first fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our body.” This is reassuring on so many levels. It reminds me that there is a great redemption in the future —for me alongside the whole of creation. It gives me hope for that which is to come, but to me one of the sweetest promises found in this verse is found in this phrase: “even we ourselves groan within ourselves.” In this phrase I’m reminded that God has made room for the times when I’m overwhelmed and find myself clinging desperately to my faith.
At every stage of our walk with Christ, we’re faced with the “already/not yet” reality of God’s kingdom. The battle is already won; our salvation is complete. Nevertheless, we still struggle with sin, and we still must balance the promises and character of God against the pain and flaws of the world and our own lives. Even though we have great hope in Jesus, we still groan within ourselves. We all continually struggle to maintain an unshakeable faith when faced with the brokenness around and within us.
As children’s ministers, this can be especially daunting, because we’re seeking to prepare our students to live out their faith for the entirety of their lives. We’re all striving to guide our kids into faith that is joyful, hopeful and life-giving. Doing so, however, entails equipping students to deal with periods of dryness and doubt as they seek to follow Christ for a lifetime. Although doubt can take on a variety of forms, there’s no escaping it for anyone who follows Jesus. That’s not always a bad thing. A faith seasoned with humility, strengthened by periods of questioning, is the strongest faith available. Nonetheless, it’s nerve-wracking to envision the kids we love questioning the teaching they receive.
So, what is there to do? How do we equip our students to walk faithfully through the seasons of doubt they will face? After all, if we plan to see our students journey through their doubts and emerge with their faith even stronger, it’s imperative that we equip them to face the moments when they grapple with their doubts. As I’ve wrestled with this question, both for my kids and for myself, I’ve repeatedly returned to three key elements that have enabled Christians across the ages to face their doubts and see their faith strengthened.
The first step we can take in helping our kids navigate doubt is encourage them to embrace honesty, especially with God. Repressed questions often undermine authentic faith, so allow kids to ask them. Even more importantly, encourage your kids to be honest with God about their inquiries. This is important for so many reasons. We should encourage our kids to have a prayer life with nothing held back. A strong relationship with God is one in which everything is laid before Him.
Sadly, most of us treat our prayer lives like we treat heirloom china—very delicately. This is especially easy to model to our students, many of whom won’t want to offend God (or you) by displaying their doubts or fears. Many of your students want nothing more than to please you and God, and so they address God as if they were addressing their matronly, proper great-grandmother.
However, not only is this counterproductive, it’s not even biblical! Think of how people such as Job, Abraham and Paul interacted with God. They spoke to God honestly and freely. Encourage your students to do the same. Empower them to give voice to the questions, fears and disappointments they face. Let your students know that following God won’t mean perfection, happiness, or having the answers all the time. By doing so, you give them freedom to honestly interact with God, no matter what they’re facing.
It’s intimidating to think of our students facing down their doubts. However, a lifelong faith is one that has faced the questions and persists through them. Giving our kids the freedom to speak honestly (to us and to God) is a key part of them building a faith that is strong enough for the entirety of life.
The next thing our kids need when they’re facing their doubts is “big picture” knowledge of God and His Word. Scripture is big and diverse—just like life itself. That’s why it’s not enough to hammer in a few key memory verses. As your kids grow into adults, they’ll need a holistic picture of what God is really like, one that’s accurate enough to inform everything they’ll experience.
When we face a crisis of faith, questions we usually ask ourselves are, “What is God really like?” and “How does that apply to what I’m experiencing?” A full, wide-ranging view of Scripture allows us to fall back on stories, doctrines, and passages that enable us to walk through the valleys of faith, because it gives us a more complete image of what God is really like and how He moves. That’s why we need to be equipping our kids with a large-scale knowledge of what He has to say.
Finally, our kids need to experience the reality of the Holy Spirit. The first lens that we process our lives through is our personal history. Whenever we’re faced with something that’s surprising or overwhelming, we fall back on the experiences of our lives. This can be good news for us as children’s ministers, because we have the opportunity to introduce kids to the Holy Spirit early in life. If our students encounter the love, peace and strength of God, it can be the guiding light for them when they journey through periods of doubt at any point in their lives.
That’s why we should be intentionally setting the stage for the Holy Spirit to impact our kids. Big steps in that direction include times of unscripted prayer, times for personal responses, and service opportunities that pull our students out of their comfort zones. We also need to be giving our students reasons to wonder and be amazed at the power, love and creativity of God. These experiences are the strongest foundation of faith. There’s nothing that shapes us like experience, and there’s no experience as lasting as a profound encounter with the Holy Spirit.
Life with Jesus is a wonderful, messy contradiction. We walk in faith and hope, but we still struggle to hold onto faith when we don’t have all the answers. As we seek to introduce students to faith that lasts a lifetime, we’re called to show them that God’s wondrous love is grand enough to encompass our joys and our sorrows, our hopes and our groans. That’s why we must equip our kids to face their doubts, because we know that God can do great things when they do.
Collie is the children’s pastor at First Christian Church in Santa Maria, CA. Besides children’s ministry, he loves his wife and son, playing the drums, and every flavor of jelly beans. Twitter @colliecoburnjr or blog at innovatekids.com