Advice for a Young (Un)Believer

I had a question from someone I know mostly via the blog and Facebook, and asked permission to share it. Here is their question, followed by my answer. How would you respond to them?

I wonder if I could pick your brain a bit? Perhaps you might have a helpful perspective. My daughter is 9. She is deeply analytical, but also very comfortable with her emotions. She has struggled for a number of years with believing in God, ie, she wants some proof. Today, she tearfully confessed that she is afraid that she will grow up to be someone who doesn’t believe in God. She isn’t afraid of God’s wrath, she isn’t afraid of consequences, but she really admires many people of faith and wants to be like the amazing people she finds at church and in the stories she hears. However, she was crying when she told me that she really wants to believe in God, but really doesn’t. She has had only positive experiences with church, loves church people, doesn’t judge or have low opinions of those of other/no faith, and tries to follow the teaching of Jesus. She is just so crushed that she hasn’t “experienced God” in any meaningful way (at least that she can take as significant to this issue). As a parent, how am I to handle this? So far, I have just assured her that even if she doesn’t believe in God, God believes in her, and no matter what, God and her parents will love, accept, forgive, and care about her. Any other thoughts? Thank you in advance.

MY RESPONSE:
I’m happy to let my brain be picked, but also hesitant to make any very concrete or specific suggestions simply because I am aware that what may be helpful for one person may not be for another, and what may be helpful at one stage in a person’s life may not be helpful at another. Your nine-year-old sounds like she is thinking about things at a level of detail and maturity not typical of people her age. But having one child who was only 9 once, I have very little basis for that statement.

Personally, I think that it is important to emphasize that doubt is not the opposite of faith. If God is the supreme being, then asking what God is like, and being willing to scrutinize and reject some of the problematic answers being offered, is far from exemplifying a lack of faith. Indeed, it is showing that you genuinely treat God as supremely important.

In the same vein, recognizing that there are a range of possibilities beyond two very simple ones of “I believe in God” vs. “I don’t believe in God.” There are people who believe that there is a God who made everything but doesn’t intervene, and those who believe that, if God is omnipresent, the reality we perceive cannot ultimately be separate from God. And so there is the possibility that God is real but we might not have direct experience of God, and there is the possibility that everything we perceive is putting us in contact with God, and the real question is not whether God exists but what God’s nature is. And I think the most important thing to emphasize is that, if your daughter at nine years old had a sense that this question was nicely wrapped up, she could be certain that what she had grasped was not an infinite God. Being uncertain, far from being a sin, is a humble recognition of our human limitations.

I ended by emphasizing once again that I do not have a one-size-fits-all answer to such a question, and asking permission to share the question here. What do blog readers have to say?

 

  • http://stephanhuller.blogspot.com Stephan Huller

    Eat peyote in the desert (or urban equivalent with proper companionship). There is an (relatively) old native American saying (loosely quoted) – white man talk about God, we talk to God. The only reason white man believes in God for the most part is living up to parents expectations. At the source of all belief in God is altered states of consciousness. Everything else is blah, blah, blah.

  • Krista Wisener Mournet

    I think that one of the greatest things about children is their curiosity. Perhaps it might be helpful to engage that curiosity in her (in this specific case). Maybe give her permission to NOT resolve the question of belief. To tuck it safely away on a shelf in her mind and then just try to get to KNOW God. Read the stories in the Bible, let her questions be articulated, appreciate the wonderful people in her life and just enjoy the process of learning. Learn about Jesus, learn about the worlds into which Scripture invites us, learn about other aspects of the cultures out of which God chooses to reveal Godself. At nine years old (and as obviously intelligent as this girl is), perhaps she would benefit from a gracious emphasis on the freedom she has to learn, trusting that God knows her better than she knows herself. It will be okay if she takes a little time, or a lot, with this. I was one of those children who couldn’t wait to grow up, couldn’t bear waiting for things to happen in their proper time. But perhaps a reminder that none of us (even grown-ups) ever understand it all would be helpful. The learning is part of the fun, and the frustration, of the process.

  • http://selfawarepatterns.com/ SelfAwarePatterns

    As a nonbeliever, I can assure everyone that coming to that conclusion isn’t a tragedy, at least unless her parents or community make it into one. Not believing in God doesn’t automatically turn you into an aggressive anti-theist.

  • http://stephanhuller.blogspot.com Stephan Huller

    My advice was for an adult. Did not read the post carefully enough

  • Heyzeus14

    Is she wants proof, let her know that some of the greatest minds in history were confident that we have solid proofs of God’s existence. She’s obviously not at a level yet to appreciate the writings of Anselm or Aquinas, but Melissa Cain Travis just published a book about the basic arguments for kids: http://www.amazon.com/How-Know-God-Really-There/dp/1935495968/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1387226550&sr=8-1&keywords=how+do+we+know+god+is+really+there

    • Erp

      And some of the greatest minds in history were not at all confident such as Bertrand Russell. There is a great range of belief; however, the important things are for her to have the ability to ask and explore the questions and to know her parents love her and support her in her search no matter where it leads.

      • newenglandsun

        Karl Marx’s “On Religion” followed up by Graham Oppy’s “The Best Argument Against God” are two classics that would be strongly recommended.

        Emile Durkheim and G.W.F. Hegel as well.

  • http://youcallthisculture.blogspot.com/ VinnyJH

    I would let here know that it’s not a decision that she has to make right away and that many people find themselves changing their minds several times about the existence of God during the course of their lives. I would also let here know that God (if there is one) gave her her mind and the power to reason and that He would want her to use it the best she can.

  • http://irrco.wordpress.com/ Ian

    Its totally fine not to believe, honey. It’s totally your choice. Your dad and I won’t love you any less. The people at church will still welcome you and love you [PS you are in a church like that, right?]. The God I believe in doesn’t think anything less of you for it. Don’t worry.

    • http://againstjebelallawz.wordpress.com/ Enopoletus Harding

      This is far more practical than my advice.

    • newenglandsun

      “I have just assured her that even if she doesn’t believe in God, God believes in her, and no matter what, God and her parents will love, accept, forgive, and care about her.”

      That’s kind of what her parent has already said. The difficulty is that she wants to have a belief in God.

      • http://irrco.wordpress.com/ Ian

        No kidding, Sherlock. The important issue is the subtext: why.

  • Peter Kirby

    This situation or its reverse, a secular parent with a child (perhaps older than 9) interested in spirituality or theism, happens all the time. It’s a reminder that parents do not get to pick beliefs and choose destinies for their kids — they just have to be there to answer questions their kids have as best as they are able and just get to provide a supportive environment to help their kids grow to be who they want to be.

  • beau_quilter

    What we believe isn’t nearly as important as how we treat each other. You have a lifetime to consider what you believe, and that journey can be filled with curiosity and the joy of discovery. In the meantime, the best lesson we can take from Jesus (whether or not we think he is the son of God) is to do unto others as we would have them to unto us. The joy of being in relationships with each other, and the joy of discovery, are there for everyone – believers and nonbelievers alike.

  • http://baldscientist.wordpress.com/ O.R. Pagan

    I am kind of experiencing a similar situation with our 12 year old son. He does not say it in words, but I can see it in his questions, the way he talks about church, etc. I also recognize it because I started struggling with that from a very early age too. I do not have any words of wisdom, but the post is pointing me in the right direction to help my boy. By the way, “Being uncertain, far from being a sin, is a humble recognition of our human limitations.” – Brilliant!

  • contantlysearching

    She is so brave to ask those questions out loud. By middle school, I was having a lot of doubts but I never felt comfortable enough to really express them. Probably because I know the decision wouldn’t have ended up being up to me. My parents would have just tried to pray/study the doubt away. It wouldn’t have been welcomed. It’s still not welcomed. I don’t know if I have any advice because I’m not really sure what I believe. But I think it’s amazing that her Dad is allowing the questions to be asked in a welcoming/loving environment.

  • http://againstjebelallawz.wordpress.com/ Enopoletus Harding

    As a parent, how am I to handle this?

    -My (admittedly impractical) advice: tell her there is no invisible omnipotent Santa above the clouds.

    • newenglandsun

      She, unlike you, actually wants to believe in God. Imagine that.

      • http://againstjebelallawz.wordpress.com/ Enopoletus Harding

        “If the sky is green, then you should want to believe that the sky is green, too!”
        -Arandur
        And its corollary: if the sky is not green, you should want to believe that the sky is not green.

  • Deharders

    Faith is not expressed through having feelings. It is not something you look to how you feel. Rather it is something you look at from what God has done for you. When someone asks me this I state look towards your baptism, that is how you know that God has chosen you as one of His own.
    Also the fact that you have doubts about your beliefs shows that you do have faith. If you did not you would not be concerned that you have doubts.

    So my advice is simple, look to what God has done for you and place your confidence in that and not on how you feel.

  • joriss

    I think the answer the mother has given to her daughter is very good, perhaps the best one she could give.
    She could add that faith is a gift of God and that God will surely hear when we pray for faith, and that in the lives of many people faith doesn’t come with a sudden proof of God’s existence, but just like a quietly upcoming flood, a growing awareness of God’s presence and fatherly love. She can trust Him for that and be at ease, even if she can’t grasp it at this time of her life.

  • Mark Kuntz

    When I read the post what seemed the obvious problem was one of expectation. “She is just so crushed that she hasn’t “experienced God” in any meaningful way.” This is a very tenuous expectation wrought with problems. How we interpret life and scripture combined with religious tradition define these expectations. All manner problems arise when we have such limited expectations for faith as what might be demonstrated in one small faith tradition. Additionally, far too much is made of the narcissistic focus of “personal experience”.

    The testimony contained in the question demonstrates to me that she possesses some level of vibrant “working” faith, i.e. “She isn’t afraid of God’s wrath”, showing the knows the true God; “loves church people, doesn’t judge or have low opinions of those of other/no faith, and tries to follow the teaching of Jesus.”

    All of this seems appropriate for a person of “faith”. The only problematic statement I see is one of imitation: “but she really admires many people of faith and wants to be like the amazing people she finds at church and in the stories she hears.” Even Paul qualified his admonition to “follow me… as I follow Christ.”

    Not meant as a judgement for or against anyone but it is possible that those she “admires” might do well to imitate HER example.

  • newenglandsun

    Think Mother Teresa.

    • http://irrco.wordpress.com/ Ian

      Someone who raised hundreds of millions of dollars for the catholic church off the back of the poor? Her self-promotion might have been as a role-model, but don’t look too closely.

      • newenglandsun

        I’m referring mostly to her doubts. Not her fundraising for the church.

        • http://irrco.wordpress.com/ Ian

          Sorry, my knee jerked so hard my brain was left behind.,

          • newenglandsun

            Apology accepted. I don’t think she was a self-promoter though. I’d like to read Hitchens’s book now and find out why he thought this.

  • Preston Garrison

    All these comments, and no one suggests the obvious. Tell her to ask, and keep asking for God to reveal Himself to her. Seek, knock, ask. If he made the universe, he’s quite capable of revealing himself in some way that you can’t foresee, and that will be, for you alone, quite convincing. Admit that this is a scary prospect – C.S. Lewis talked about the fear that it can produce when we casually throw a line in God’s direction and then, shockingly, comes the tug on the line. Jesus referred to the same fear, when He said, “If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to them that ask him?” Just as we wouldn’t give a child a snake or a scorpion to eat, you aren’t going to get something deceptive or evil by asking God for a bit of Himself.

  • guest

    I’d just tell her it’s possible to be a good person without God, and that if she works hard and treats other people right, God will love her anyway (if God exists).
    Tell her about Gandhi. Not a Christian, still a good man.


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