7 Things You Can Do
How should we respond to our children who don’t believe in God or doubt our Christian faith?
My first impulse in responding to people who insist there is no God is to work immediately to convince them otherwise. I mean, look around, right? It takes a lot of faith to believe everything came from nothing.
But other people denying God’s existence is much different than my kids denying that God exists. When kids turn from their (our) faith, it creates sleepless nights, desperate pleas, and crying out to God. It also tends to lead to anxious lobbying for my point of view.
But other people denying God’s existence is much different than my kids denying that God exists.
The truth is, there is probably very little new that parents can say that the kids haven’t already heard.
Aside from the conventional wisdom about this (which we fully embrace) – to pray, to speak the truth, and to love them – here are some less common ideas that have been shown to have a powerful influence on children over time.
1. Remember, your child’s belief in God is NOT your job. Managing your anxiety about it is.
When one of our kids first announced firm doubt about Jesus, it hurt. I wondered what I’d done wrong. It was scary. I projected a hard future. In short, the image I had for this child’s future was at risk.
And that was my problem. It was my shame. It was my anxiety. It was my image for the child’s future. My initial response was about me!
Yes, my child’s eternity is also to be considered, but my child’s eternity is not my job. Sadly, my responses during that time hurt our relationship and did nothing to demonstrate God’s unconditional love, even for those struggling with their faith.
Yes, my child’s eternity is also to be considered, but my child’s eternity is not my job.
When we respond to our kids’ unbelief out of our anxiety, it adds undue pressure. It places a burden on them to either pretend to believe, to take care of our emotions, or to actively resist us. Either way, it tends to deepen their unbelief.
I suggest spending lots of time in Philippians 4:1-23 rehearsing, even memorizing the verses about joy, peace, and contentment in all circumstances. This prepares you for the next thought.
2. Show the love of Jesus to your unbelieving child!
It has been said that the “biggest cause of atheism in our world today is Christians who accept Jesus with their lips but deny him with their lifestyle. ” This may be most evident within the context of parent-child relationships. For your logic to ever be heard and received by your child, your love must flow from Jesus through you – pervasively, persistently, and with great perseverance.
3. Empathize with your child’s doubts and struggles.
Empathy is often a parent’s most powerful portal to influence. Even if you, as the parent, have not fully abandoned faith, almost everyone has had questions and doubts along the way. (You may even be questioning your faith as you read this.) Being authentic about your faith journey lowers any perceived barriers between you and your child. It can open the door to candid conversation and questioning when kids may otherwise be accustomed to sermonizing or lectures.
4. Ask truly curious questions about faith.
Develop a sense of curiosity about their current view of faith. Ask questions, but don’t be critical. Romans 2:4b says, “…God’s kindness leads you toward repentance.” God’s kindness – not God’s lecture.
Some questions to consider asking your child:
- What brought you to say you don’t believe in God?
- What about faith has repelled you?
- What is your idea of the “perfect” religion?
You may just find that you and your child have a lot in common regarding the answers. Give your energy to validating their answers and asking more questions, not to “setting them straight.”
5. Keep the posture of an ally not an adversary.
“I believe in you,” “I love you no matter what you believe,” or “I’m for you” are messages every human longs to experience. Research has shown that when parents give their kids room to spiritually “experiment,” those kids are far more inclined to embrace their parents’ faith someday than those kids whose parents become forceful about religious belief and behavior. So keep working to embody the biblical command, “Be anxious in nothing…” (see Philippians 4:6-7)
6. Invite them to grade you.
At the end of the day, what matters at least as much as what you do is what your kids’ perception of it is. If you have an older child, ask them, “On a scale of 1 to 10 where 1 is not at all loving of you and 10 is fully loving you, even though we disagree about some things, what number would you give me?”
Be prepared for an unexpected answer. Be prepared to keep your defenses down. If you can, ask this question in a manner that conveys you are truly interested in your child’s answer. Then, try to carry on a light conversation even in the face of disagreement. By doing this, you will grow your child’s respect for both you and your faith. This may also make your faith more attractive to them.
7. Pray for your child when they doubt or stop believing in God.
Pray. I add this to assure you, even though it is common advice, to not minimize the power of prayer. Let it shape both you and your child in ways that bring God’s grace and truth to life. Some will even add some sort of fasting to their prayer strategy.
- Pray for your own “love, joy, peace, patience, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, kindness, and self-control.” (Galatians 5:22-23)
- Pray for awareness of God’s “new mercies” every day. (Lamentations 3:22-23)
- Pray that God would reveal his love daily through you and that God’s spirit will work in your child to make his presence known.
In the end, your children’s faith is about God’s redemptive work. Not about anyone convincing or controlling them.