“Just have faith.” I cringe when I reflect on the number of times I’ve answered students’ questions of doubt with that seemingly harmless phrase. When broken down, I recognize the ignorance, pride, and ultimately, fear, behind those words—“Just” as if it were a simple solution, and “have faith” as if doubt and faith cannot survive within the same person. I have since realized that faith cannot exist without doubt. It would be meaningless.
We have all experienced the moment of panic when a student comes to us with doubts. Our minds race as we try to deliver a coherent answer to his or her question, “Why does God allow suffering?” “How do I know that I’m saved?” “How do I know God is real?”
These questions are inevitable, largely due to the population that we have been called to minister to. Developmentally, adolescents (approximately ages 12 to 18) are discovering their personal identities. At this age, students are exploring abstract thinking, but still striving to order their world in a way that seems logical to them. Eventually, they will learn that there are some truths that cannot be proven.
But right now, these doubts can be terrifying—for them and for us. But fear not! Doubt doesn’t have to be a dead-end. It can be a tool. Questions of doubt indicate that a student is moving away from an “inherited” religion towards a deeper personal understanding of God and faith. Doubt can be the soil from which healthy faith grows, if it’s cared for properly. Here are a few things to remember when nurturing students through questions of doubt:
1. Remind them that they are not alone.
In counseling we call this “normalizing” the feelings of doubt. Everyone has them, and they are not fatal. Thank God for “doubting” Thomas! You can find his story in John 20:26–29. Thomas, one of Jesus’ disciples, refused to believe that Jesus had risen until he saw and touched the actual nail holes in Jesus’ hands and the wound in his side. Did Jesus discard Thomas because of his doubt? Of course not! In the midst of Thomas’s unbelief, Jesus appeared to him and allowed him to investigate the truth. In the end, Thomas proclaimed of Jesus, “My Lord and my God!” His unbelief enriched and strengthened his faith. So you see, doubt is nothing to be feared, nor should it be shut down or rejected.
2. Faith and doubt are not mutually exclusive.
Students’ doubts do not make them any less “champions of the faith.” God is aware of our humanity. He knows that we cannot fully comprehend the vastness of his glory. Mark 9:14–29 tells the story of a father who begs Jesus to heal his son afflicted by an evil spirit. In verse 23, Jesus replies, “Everything is possible to one who believes.” The man responds, “I do believe, help me overcome my disbelief.” Remind your students that doubt is a normal part of the journey of faith.
3. Doubt is as much an emotional struggle as an intellectual debate.
Regardless of how it may seem on the surface, doubt is often connected to a deeper emotional distress. Students litter emotions throughout every statement they make. If you recognize the underlying emotion, you will be about to find the source of that particular doubt crisis.
I vividly recall the moments surrounding the hardest question I was ever asked. It was Thanksgiving, and I was scrambling to prepare dinner for 12 teenage boys. An outgoing 14-year-old, former gang member from Detroit invaded my culinary space and blurted out, “Why does God give some people everything and leave other people with nothing? Doesn’t he love us all?” In reality, this young man—let’s call him Lawrence—was asking, “Doesn’t God love me? Prove it.” By the world’s standards, Lawrence had nothing. He was a ward of the state. His mother was in jail, and his father no one knew where his father was. He had been bumped from foster care to detention center and back again since he was a toddler. He felt abandoned by every human he’d known. Is it surprising that he felt abandoned by God, too?
4. Silence is not golden.
Strive to cultivate an environment of openness with the students you serve. At this stage in their faith, doubts rarely go away without being addressed. If they are left to confront their doubts along, students may end up feeling isolated and detached from a supportive faith community. Opportunities for discussion will also help normalize the struggle with doubts in their lives. I challenge youth workers to teach by example and examine, with their students, the doubts that they overcame in their own lives.
Also, remember that each question and student doesn’t fit into a prescribed box. What makes sense to one won’t make sense to another. So be creative investigating your faith together—it might even be fun.
5. Be prepared.
If there is one thing I know about teenagers, it is that they are exceptional at detecting whether or not you know what you are talking about. The best way to battle doubts is to know what is true, and you cannot know what is true unless you seek it out. God said to Jeremiah in Jeremiah 33:3, “Call to me and I will answer you and tell you great and unsearchable things you do not know.”
Above all, be honest. If you don’t have an answer, don’t make one up. Use it as an opportunity to search it out with them. Use doubt as a tool to strengthen and enrich your faith and the faith of the youth around you. In addition, this will help students realize that the proper answer to doubt is not despair—it is a hunger to learn. At times, even a clear answer will not relinquish all doubt. That is the perfect opportunity to show students that faith comes from God, not from rational answers to our doubts.