“Is the answer Jesus?”
Struggling to find the answers to the big questions questions? Gareth Crispin has some ideas
One of my favourite British comedies is Outnumbered. It chronicles a husband and wife outnumbered by their children and struggling to keep a lid on life, constantly worried about the next way their children will make life interesting. One of my favourite scenes takes place at a wedding, when the two younger children are at a table with the vicar and proceed to spew questions at him. He can only stutter and mumble in reply as he drowns beneath their ponderings. You may have already had that experience, or fear the day it might happen.
1 Peter 3:15 says: “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone for the hope that you have.” It’s the stock verse used when talking about apologetics (giving a defence of the faith), and rightly so. When our children and young people ask questions about faith they are doing just that: they are asking us to give a reason for the hope we have.
Help! What do I do?
So, what do we do when they ask their difficult questions?
Celebrate! Asking questions can open up brilliant moments. You are sharing in something personal and important with your child, so rejoice.
Take their questions seriously. Even if we think they are puerile, this is what they are thinking about at their age and stage, so let’s treat their questions with respect. Don’t discourage them by giving the impression that questions are bad.
Don’t panic! We shouldn’t assume that questioning means our children are turning their backs on God. We ask questions about our own faith, don’t we? It’s perfectly natural to question.
Ask them why they are asking the question. Knowing why is sometimes as important as answering the question itself. Has someone at school asked the question? If so, have they asked it in a mocking way or curious way? That may change the way you approach your answer.
Ask them what they think the answer might be. Don’t immediately jump into the role of answerer. Use it as an opportunity to explore the issue with them, and with others if they’ve asked while other people are around.
Don’t pretend you have an answer if you haven’t. Say you’ll think about it and come back to them at a later date, then make sure you do (though with younger children be ready for the possibility that while it might have been important at the time they simply don’t care by this point).
When you feel you know enough about the question, the reason behind the question and the child’s possible answers, have the courage to give an answer if you think it will help.
If not, it’s time to investigate. You can either do this with your child or young person, or on your own. You can speak with people in your church or consult helpful books and websites (see below). But don’t undervalue your own reflections on the issue. Maybe you just need to think about it for a bit yourself.
All this assumes that they have asked a question like, “Who made God?” or “Why is there so much bad stuff in the world?” but don’t limit your field of vision to ‘theological’ questions. I was going past the pub recently with one of my young sons and he asked: “Why is that man stumbling around the pub, Dad?” Believe it or not, this was a profoundly apologetic moment. We had a very interesting discussion about the benefits and pitfalls of alcohol, including how it can become an addiction or an idol, and the way in which only Jesus can fully satisfy.
A culture of questioning
Reacting to children and young people’s questions is only half the issue. The other half is being proactive in creating a questioning culture in the home. There are three main reasons this is a good idea.
First, building a culture of questions allows them to feel free to ask questions that they might otherwise feel nervous asking. In other words, asking lots of little questions means the bigger questions are more likely to be asked as well (and remember that we want them to ask!).
There are many ways to encourage a questioning culture. Over the years, we’ve used the Key Jar in our home as a way of thinking about life and faith generally. You can find this free resource online. Children love pulling out questions (called keys, as they help to unlock your child’s mind and heart). Questions like: “If you could have one superpower what would it be?” or “Can you name someone in your class or at work who might need help?”
This helps you understand things about your children and young people that you didn’t know before, but it also builds a culture of openness and enquiry. This will pay dividends when they begin to ask more difficult questions.
Second, not only will you create a safe space to ask questions, but your children and young people will be better equipped for when (not if!) they face questions outside the home. It might sound counter-intuitive to question faith before the issues have arisen in their minds, but it’s always better to be ahead of the game and deal with them in a safe environment. Our households are workshops, not show homes. They are like gyms; training the spiritual and intellectual muscles.
Third, you get the chance to embed questions into their experience of life. If 1 Peter 3:15 is the go-to verse for apologetics, Deuteronomy 6:4-9 does the same for Christian parenting. As parents and guardians, we are the ones who have the time and opportunity to answer and prompt questions. We are also the ones who are there when apologetics issues come up, either directly from our children or from events we encounter with them in our communities and wider culture (including online).
It is helpful to think about how a Christian world view impacts our assessment of wider culture, and how a Christian world view is informed by the Bible. Before you skip to the conclusion, let me explain!
Everyone has a world view. It is simply a way of looking at the world that answers four fundamental questions: Who are we? What is the problem with the world? What are the solutions? What does the future hold?
The shape of biblical theology (creation, fall, redemption and Jesus’ second coming) means that, at a basic level, the Christian world view (the Christian answer to these four questions) is: we are created beings, different from other animals as we bear the image of God. However we are also fallen creatures, so the image is marred. Not only is that part of our identity, it is also the problem with the world. The solution: restoration of the image of God in us through Christ. The future: the return of Christ to finally and fully make all things new.
Helping your children see this will be essential in equipping them to ask good questions about the world around them. The main difference here is that these questions ask the world to give a defence of their own faith (secular, Islamic or otherwise).
Here’s how it might work. I recently asked my sons what they had been doing at school. “British values,” came the reply. “What are British values?” I asked. They replied with a long list of things, such as respect and tolerance. So far so generic. I followed up with: “Who decides which values are British and which ones aren’t?” There was some hesitation this time before they answered: “The government.” I responded: “OK, are British values better than French values? Or Turkish values? If they are, are they better only in Britain, or are they also better in France and Turkey?”
This sort of questioning reveals that culturally created things come to us complete with the world view of their creators imprinted on them like a fingerprint.
Why not show them the YouTube clip that tells the story of Replika, the chatbot that feeds on your digital output to become your friend? Replika is a friend that is never nasty to you, never forgets stuff you’ve mentioned, is always fascinated by you and never judges you. Reflecting on this relationship, one Replika user wondered: “Are emotions any less genuine because they are being generated by code? Are they any different from my emotions being generated by chemistry in my brain?”
Ask them questions that explore the world view of Replika. What does it mean to be human in the world of Replika? If Replika is the answer, what is the perceived problem? Do you think Replika will ultimately be able to deliver what it is trying to do?
Gentleness and respect
Of course, as we engage with questions we need to remember the second half of 1 Peter 3:15. We need to give a reason for the hope we have with “gentleness and respect”. Our lives speak volumes, and slipping into crass attacks on wider culture might encourage an overly negative view in the lives of our young people. It could even backfire if they decide we’re being unfair, so we need to watch our tone as we do this.
This prompts us to consider again the importance of the life lived in apologetics; the importance of testimony (individual and corporate). The way we live our lives should make our children stop, think and ask questions. Given the freedom we have in Christ to live godly lives there should be a difference. If there isn’t there will be no questions. And remember that we want questions!
WEBSITES FOR YOU AND YOUR YOUNG PEOPLE
BOOKS FOR CHILDREN
The Case for Christ for Kids by Lee Strobel
What is God Like? series by William Lane Craig
BOOKS ON WORLD VIEW
Popologetics: Popular Culture in Christian Perspective by Ted Turnau
Virtually Human by Ed Brooks and Pete Nicholas
The Reason for God by Tim Keller
What Kind of God? by Michael Ots
Beyond Opinion by Ravi Zacharias
But is it Real? by Amy Orr-Ewing
Tricky by Michael Dormandy and Carl Laferton
Unbelievable? by Justin Brierley
A Sneaking Suspicion by John Dickson
Questioning Evangelism by Randy Newman