Why didn’t God answer my prayers, about nightmares, and cancer? If God knows everything, why didn’t God do anything?
Is heaven real? Is hell?
What do you think about evolution, mom?
The above are just some of the many theology questions my kids have brought up over the years.
My past self would have been prepared with canned answers that smelled as fishy as tuna.
Something about how yes, there is a heaven and a hell; no, evolution is not real, it’s just not, and God hears our prayers but doesn’t always answer “yes” when we ask, even though, of course, God can do anything.
Once upon a time, I knew I had the soundest possible theology; I’d been taught the most literal interpretation of the Bible, after all.
And though I was certain “the world” wouldn’t comprehend that interpretation, well, “God said it, I believe it, and that settled it.”
How I got from that place of pat answers to where I am now is a story for another day.
But I will say that I no longer believe in a literal hell, I’m pretty sure the world evolved, and in my view, the Bible isn’t a perfect, easy book.
Even my thoughts about prayer have changed. For example, I think it’s incredibly self-righteous and privileged to say that the reason my son recovered from cancer was that people were praying.
Because, well, how many other kids in this world have prayed they would recover from cancer and then died?
And since I think it’s self-righteous to assume healing comes from prayer, I also think it’s self-righteous to pray prayers asking God to prevent bad things from happening.
There are too many assumptions that go into that sort of prayer; when you pray it, it really becomes a sort of litmus test to see how much God loves you, how good you are at praying or how much faith you have.
As you can see through this example, my faith has become more complex, with less simple simplistic answers.
So what do I say now when my kids come to me with faith questions? And how do I offer my children a glimpse of my faith, which has both evolved and is still precious to me?
And you, friend? I know you love your children, too, but perhaps your faith is also different from what it used to be. How do you talk to the little ones in your life about it?
Before I get into all that, let me back up a bit and chat about attitude.
You see, kids have amazing bullshit sensors.
If we talk to them about our faith in any way that’s not authentic, they will tune us out (though they may respectfully nod their heads).
Because of this fact, it is of paramount importance that we nourish our own spirituality. That will mean different things to different people.
For me, it means remaining open to the voice of the spirit through prayer and meditation, listening to podcasts, connecting regularly with my spiritual community and reading challenging books.
One last tidbit about our own attitudes: We can’t be tied to any spiritual outcomes when we talk shop with our kids.
They have their own spiritual journeys and we must acknowledge this.
Our job is to live authentically and be willing to engage with them; the rest is between them and Divine Love.
Okay. Now that we have our attitude sorted, let’s think about how to engage with our children when it comes to theology.
Be Open to Teachable Moments
When I was in teacher education training in college, I had a professor who went on and on about these opportunities called “teachable moments”.
Little did slightly-annoyed-college-me know that I was going to be lead to some of the deepest adult-to-child conversations of both my teaching and parenting careers by teachable moments.
A teachable moment is like the sun breaking through the clouds on a rainy day.
It occurs when thoughts, questions, ideas, actions and opportunity converge, opening the door to something profound.
Embracing teachable moments means being willing to set aside your plans and enter into the moment with the child.
Teachable moments can happen spontaneously at any time throughout the day; they happen at the child’s whim, not the parent’s or teacher’s.
These magical moments are organic; there is no “setting the stage” or “creating a lesson plan”.
So what is a "teachable moment" exactly? It is a moment when a child comes up with a question or insight that opens a pathway to more learning.
In our family, unironically, teachable moments often happen right at bedtime, when a child wants to know if heaven is real or how astronauts tell time in space or why people would actually believe the earth is flat?
You can imagine how deep and wide these conversations become.
I’d like to add that although I deem these moments “teachable”, I really don’t see myself as a teacher; I’m more of a guide.
I follow my child’s lead, offering to google something or offering up ideas and then letting the children explore and ask as many questions as they want to.
When my child is ready to move on, I move on too. No lecturing or forcing, only gentle encouragement and guidance.
Your Beliefs about God and Your Own Questions are Important
In order to embrace teachable moments, I’d suggest keeping what you DO believe in God in mind, and being willing to ask and explore questions on your own.
For me, the belief-list is short:
God is love.
God is mysterious but not unknowable.
The Bible tells stories about people trying to understand who God is.
God welcomes questions and “wrestling”; it’s okay to wonder.
If you’re not sure what you even believe about anything, be honest with yourself about that.
What is keeping you tethered to Christianity right now?
Perhaps that could be your starting point.
Having come from a place of certainty, it is so freeing for me to be able to tell my kids, “Well, I’m not sure. Some theologians say this and others say that. To me, it seems most logical that this could explain things. What do you think?”
Let your kids see you wrestling through theological questions.
Play the theology podcast in the room where they’re at, enjoy time with others who share your faith and don’t be afraid to talk deep when the little ones are hanging around.
If you can, find a church like mine, that embraces children and invites them to be participants in all things spiritual.
What About Science and the Bible?
One thing that tripped me up as I was questioning my faith was the evolution question.
For most of my life, I believed that the concept of evolution ran counter to scripture.
I came to see scientists and science as devoid of God and, in fact, at odds with God.
After all, if creation wasn’t literal, then the events in the garden didn't mean anything for our faith; like, Eve’s eating the fruit being the inception of all sin couldn’t be used as the basis of the problem of evil anymore.
A few years ago, I began to wonder, how could science be so at odds with God when nature was supposed to be one of the ways God reveals Godself to the world?
Was there a way to reconcile a belief in evolution with a belief in God?
Could the narrative in Genesis be a picture of God relating to humanity that didn’t have to be take literally?
Did the Genesis narrative make sense through other lenses of interpretation?
I listened to a podcast with Dr. Denis Lamoureux in which he shared that we could view science and theology as complementary, that both, in fact, are ways God has revealed Godself to us.
Dr. Lamoureux explained that we shouldn’t be using science and religion as weapons against each other; understanding science doesn’t have to take away our faith, because faith deals with the metaphysical and science deals with the natural world.
Instead, understanding science can enhance and inform our faith.
When I opened my eyes to the idea that evolution didn’t mean I couldn’t believe in God, I was astonished by the beauty and grace of a God who would be willing to allow evolution to happen.
I saw God as an inventor of change and growth. I saw God as a delighter in creation.
And there are so so many more rich theological insights stemming from this view.
So you have freedom, my friend, to tell your children you believe in God and evolution, God and science; that both sure show us a lot about God, and both are important.
Dr. Lamoureux has a free course on Coursera. I couldn't recommend it highly enough.
In the book Faithful Families, pastor Traci Smith reminds parents and caregivers that, “Faith is learned as it is woven seamlessly into the fabric of daily life.”
I did not grow up in a tradition that honored spiritual practices, but I see the value of incorporating them into your home life, as long as you are incorporating them from a place of authenticity.
I loved reading Pastor Smith’s book, if not simply for the comfort of knowing I wasn’t alone in trying to figure out how to invite my children to taste my faith.
One year, we practiced the Advent rhythm laid out in this book. It was a wonderful experience that prompted a lot of discussion.
It’s worth noting, however, that our oldest son was going through cancer at the time and wanted no part of it; we let him have his feelings and didn’t ask him to participate.
The book lists both “big” traditions you can practice around Advent and Easter, as well as daily rhythms you can easily incorporate, such as a bedtime blessing or using a star chart to track each day of our lives in a posture of gratitude.
Experience A New Kind of Bible Story Curriculum
Dr. Pete Enns is a biblical scholar and professor who has written a unique Bible study curriculum for kids.
His advice to parents?
“I don’t think a child can handle a lot of nuance and subtlety. Kids are concrete. But, parents can model for them a questioning attitude toward the Bible. It is so refreshing when parents do not fear the thought of not knowing something.”
Dr. Enns’s curriculum reflects this view. It is both concrete and open-ended. The curriculum begins with the gospels, which I have found to be refreshing.
It includes fun crafts and activities, as well as discussion questions and thoughts for parents.
If you are lost when it comes to your faith but want to share Bible stories with your children from a more open perspective, I’d highly recommend Dr. Enns’s curriculum.
Focus on What Matters Most
In conclusion, what matters most is how we love our children.
Do we respect them as human beings?
Do we grant them dignity and allow them to develop without placing unnecessary and harsh expectations on them?
Do we have fun with them and appreciate their playful spirits?
My favorite story about Jesus (and honestly one of the least confusing ones) is the one in which he tells his disciples not to send the loud, unruly, chaotic children away; instead, he invites them to sit on his lap and be loved.
So, fellow faith sojourners, love the children. Don’t push them away. Be their friends first. In doing so, you are inviting them to Jesus, and I really don’t think you will go wrong there.