We all know the look. You’re engaged in conversation, trying your best to talk about Jesus, but you get the look. The look is the equivalent of a non-verbal scream, “I doubt it!” The person you are talking to has nearly tuned out, waiting for you to take a breath, so they can tear your worldview apart. So they hope. After the look comes the questions. Questions that carefully and strategically plant seeds of doubt in your mind. You begin to think, “am I really being arrogant and exclusive?” “Could there be more than one way to God?” Or, “Is it possible that Jesus didn’t really exist at all?” You recognize the legitimacy of these question posed by your adversary, so you write them down, tuck them into your tattered Bible, and wait for Sunday morning. Surely your pastor or youth leader would have the answer and once again, confidence would be restored and your adversary be branded ignorant and uninformed
But, instead of sure-fire, credible, and in-depth answers to such potentially faith destroying questions, you received another “look.” But this time the look was one of disappointment and contempt. The body language this time around, sadly grumbled, “how could you, a good Christian kid, ask such questions? How could you doubt?” Your pastor gives you a courtesy smile in disappointment and offers you nothing more than Christian self-help guidance. Instead of fact based historical and theological truth, you were told to pray and “just trust God.” Instead of answering your questions, the best advice you get is to stop letting Satan create doubt in your mind.
I know that this scenario is not the case for every student, in every youth group. Nor is it true of every youth pastor. There are, of course, many pastors, churches, and even parents that provide excellent resources and answers. But I think it is safe to say that every student has deeply important questions that stem from seasons of doubt. But sadly, many who have questions within the church are all too often glazed over with superficial answers and judgmental eyes. Consequently, students are left with one of two thoughts. Either something is wrong with them, or something is wrong with Christianity.
Thankfully students don’t have to feel like a seed of doubt is the end of the world. Doubt is only dangerous when we feed it and allow it to grow. So instead, we want to walk with students as they navigate many of these pivotal times in their walk with Christ.
Helping Students to Properly Navigate Doubt
I follow Jesus, not because I think he is a great moral philosopher with some solid principles on how to live a quality life; but because I believe that his claim to be the way, the truth, and the life, are in fact true. It is one thing to contemplate the abstract questioning of God, his existence, salvation, etc; but it is an entirely different thing to experience life in such a way significant doubts are raised and require an answer on some level. There are many, if not most, Christians who express some kind of doubt surrounding their faith in the course of their lives. Some of that doubt is based on circumstances, others are based on lack of knowledge; yet all can and should be confronted. Theologian and professor, Alister McGrath notes, “Doubt is probably a permanent feature of the Christian life. It’s like some kind of spiritual growing pain. Sometimes it recedes into the background; at other times it comes to the forefront, making its presence felt with a vengeance.”
So then, how should we walk with our students?
Encourage the tough question. Doubts may make its presence felt with a vengeance, but there is no need to fear them or fear asking tough questions as a result of them. If you can’t answer their question, be honest about it, but find someone that will. Questions are part of the academic exercise of faith, which is all too often left behind for a brand of faith that is entirely fueled by emotionalism. Emotions that are not grounded in the intellect creates a sort of schizophrenic faith. However, doubt is not the antithesis to faith, but rather, having doubts and asking tough questions about God is vital to Christian maturation.
However, you must also help students choose who they are asking to answer their questions wisely. They have more information at their hands than any other generation before. We can literally ask anyone anything. In fact, according to Eric Schmidt, the former CEO of Google, every two days we create as much information as we did from the dawn of civilization up until 2003. That’s something like five exabytes of data. The kid who once asked mom and dad every possible questions is now first turning to Google for answers. Students have no problem finding an answer that they can squeeze into a worldview they wish to have rather than a worldview that represents truth. Information provides us with incredible opportunity and resources, but can also be incredibly dangerous.
Be honest about the tough realities with truth and grace. The questions might be tough, but the answers might be tougher. Jesus says some things that I really hate. It is a lot easier to gossip about people, speak evil of them, shame them, etc. After all, it makes us feel better about ourselves. So it can be slightly annoying when I am reminded to pray for my enemies. With so much information at our disposal, it is easy to simply dismiss answers we don’t like or only hold ourselves responsible in ways that we choose. However, this does not always line up with reality. Two plus two is always four, whether you like it or not. Truth is true, whether you like it or not.
This makes truth sometimes difficult to swallow. Maybe even more so when it comes to our students. But consider Jesus for a moment. As was often the case, all kinds of people sought out Jesus and expressed their desire to follow him. Whether people thought he was the Messiah or not didn’t matter. People, even the Pharisees knew there was just something different about him. But despite their intense desire, the reality of following Jesus was often too much for some to handle.
“As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. “Good teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” “Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone. You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, you shall not defraud, honor your father and mother.’” “Teacher,” he declared, “all these I have kept since I was a boy.” Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth.” – Mark 10:17-22
This man’s status and wealth were not necessarily the problem, but his unwillingness to let it go was. He was certain that he had it all figured out, but when Jesus presented him with a challenge, it proved to be too much. Be patient with students as they consider some hard truths. Allow them the space to disagree, wrestle with it, be angry about it, etc. Love them through those moments, but do so without compromising truth. Truth in love is a powerful combination.
Some questions may have unclear or incomplete answers. Sometimes questions just simply cannot be answered. We might not know why God does something or allows something to happen to us or people we know. We might not be able to answer why some people respond to the gospel and others reject it. The Bible does not teach explicitly on every possible topic we might encounter now and in the future. It was not designed that way. For example, why doesn’t Jesus provide more detail about heaven? I am sure he could have, if he chose to. But I have little doubt that if he did, we would surely be more focused on getting to heaven rather than focused on God’s kingdom here on earth. Jesus purposed us with a mission and we must trust that he has provided us all the information we need to carry out that mission.
There are just some things that will remain a mystery until we are in glory sitting at the feet of the King. But that does not mean students should give up thinking and let their faith be guided by how they feel.
So do more than just let students have their doubts. Embrace them, use them, and walk alongside students so that their questions propel them into a deeper more meaningful relationship with Christ. Make their season of doubt a season of incredible spiritual growth.