1. Let them know that it is not abnormal to experience doubt. This does not mean that your children will experience significant doubt, it just means that doubt is a common issue they will experience, to varying degrees, in a fallen world. Typically, your child’s struggles with doubt will not start until he reaches adulthood and begins to stand on his own two feet in many ways, including in his faith walk. But if you have helped your child understand that doubt is something common to all Christians, he won’t be scared to share his struggles when they arise later in life.
2. Share with them some of the doubts you struggle with. Of course, this is assuming you have brought your children up in the faith, showing them the strength of your faith as well. However, from time to time you should feel free to let them see you wrestling with God. This lets them know you are real, especially when they are older and more reflective. Showing them your doubts may embarrass you somewhat, but it can also go far in demonstrating that your faith is not shallow, but rather is marked by thoughtfulness. Sharing your doubts from time to time legitimizes the faith you do have, so they will be less tempted to think you are just a naive follower when they are older.
3. Help them prioritize their faith now. Make sure they don’t believe all issues are equal. Help them see the difference between negotiables and non-negotiables, essentials and non-essentials, cardinal and non-cardidal issues. Ensuring they understand the distinction between doctrine and dogma prevents the “house of cards” problem so that, even if they come to question one particular issue (i.e., creationism, inerrancy, premillenialism, Calvinism, etc.), they do not find it necessary to reject their faith completely.
4. Facilitate a love of Christian heroes. With all the exposure to cultural heroes (actors, musicians, models, etc.) so typical today, it is important that your children see the characteristics of godliness exemplified by real-life Christians. These examples should come from inside and outside the Bible. Reading about the heroism of Perpetua and her servant in their martyrdom is very difficult (and may be “R” rated), but your children need to know about people who actually lived out their faith with the same resources available to them today. Learning about Augustine’s life of sin before he was converted may be something you think you need to protect your children from, but perhaps they will remember the common struggle with sin when they are older and not feel so alone (which is the most fearful thing when one is doubting).
5. Allow for a great deal of mystery. We live in a western world and we love systematic theology. We want all the I’s dotted and the T’s crossed. But often, when we provide answers to all of our children’s questions, we don’t allow them to develop a respect for God’s inscrutability. He is beyond figuring out. His nature and his ways are mysteries to us. From “Why did God create the dinosaurs?” to “Why does God allow Satan to have so much power?” these questions need to be left unanswered (at least dogmatically). Allowing for and rejoicing in the mystery of God will help your children, giving them the freedom to worship in mystery and truth.
6. Ask the difficult questions. Many times we attempt to protect our children from hard issues that we think may cause them to doubt their faith. However, this is not wise. In fact, parents should be the first ones who bring up difficult issues, working through them with their children. “Why do you think God would take Spot away when he knows how much you loved him?” “It has been so long since Jesus rose from the dead, I don’t think he is coming back. What do you think?” Of course, you are guiding them to talk through things they may not have thought of otherwise. If you push them on these things early, they will be better prepared to hold on to their faith when their professor in college asks them similar questions in a much more hostile environment.
7. Make sure they know the heritage of their faith through church history. We all need to know that the anchor of our faith goes deeper than mom and dad. Again, times of doubt are intensified because we feel alone. However, these feelings of loneliness can also create doubt. By cultivating knowledge of church history, it will help your kids trace their faith origins back to the very beginning, making the picture of their faith much clearer when times of confusion arise.
8. Continually teach your children an apologetic defense of the faith. It is never too early to start your kids in apologetics. The most important doctrines of our faith are the simplest to defend. Your kids should know about all the arguments for the existence of God, the resurrection of Christ, and the reliability of Scripture. Often, this can be done by parents taking the antagonist role, then allowing the children to come up with the answers. I remember a time when Katelynn, my oldest, forgot a pencil that she needed for school. I asked her why God, so powerful, allowed her to forget something so important. She prayed for the pencil to miraculously appear in her bag; when it did not, I told her, “I don’t think he exists.” She responded, “Dad, that is dumb. If there was no God, there would not be a pencil to begin with.” Simple, correct, and profound.
9. Take your child on a missions trip. Kids in the U.S. have a strong sense of entitlement, believing they must have everything their friends have (and more!) or they are suffering abuse. The skewed points of reference they normally encounter (friends, neighbors, people they see on TV) create an inability to see the blessings they do have in their lives. Taking your child on a missions trip early (say, around age 12), reorients their perspective and gives them a good dose of reality.
10. Give them a chance not to believe. I remember hearing Billy Graham talk about a conversation he had with his son Franklin when he very young. He said, “Frank, your mother and I have decided to follow Jesus. We hope one day you will do the same thing.” And he left it at that. You children need to know they are free to not follow your same path so they take ownership of their own beliefs, rather than feel forced or tricked into believing the way you do. This disarming approach is very important for the future reality of their faith.
11. Prepare them for suffering. There is nothing that causes people to lose faith more than unexpected or “meaningless” suffering. This is where good theology is of utmost importance. When your children get older, they will surely suffer a great deal in one way or another. If they perceive that their suffering is something that was not supposed to happen, if they believe it is not God’s will for people to suffer, they will be very confused later in life, not knowing how to square what they believe with their life experience. But if we have taught our children well, giving them a strong biblical theology of suffering (i.e., we live in a fallen world; they should expect pain and difficulty), then disillusionment will not be a source for doubt.
12. Teach them to take care of their bodies. Many times doubt is brought about or intensified due to poor physical health. Your children need to know how vital the connection is between the spirit and the body. When one suffers, so does the other. A good eating and exercise routine will do much to prevent this type of doubt – which may be the most unnecessary of all sources of doubt (and depression).
C. Michael Patton is the primary contributor to the Parchment and Pen/Credo House Blog. He has been in ministry for nearly twenty years as a pastor, author, speaker, and blogger.
Th.M. Dallas Theological Seminary (2001), president of Credo House Ministries and Credo Courses, author of Now that I’m a Christian (Crossway, 2014) Increase My Faith (Credo House, 2011), and The Theology Program (Reclaiming the Mind Ministries, 2001-2006), host of Theology Unplugged, and primary blogger here at Parchment and Pen. But, most importantly, husband to a beautiful wife and father to four awesome children. Michael is available for speaking engagements. He can be contacted at [email protected]