Trust God; Extend Dignity
Lately, I’ve been producing webinars. The process has taken me down Memory Lane and its many byroads. Most of the memories are sweet, but some constitute a cautionary tale. It’s about one of the latter ones that I feel impressed to write about today.
As I was producing the Socratic Discussion webinar that is due to go online on August 1, I got into the topic of how important it is to give students the dignity of allowing them to honestly question, disagree, and make mistakes aloud. It’s been my observation that many Christian homeschooling moms (and dads) seem unwilling to allow their older students to challenge, explore, and think their own thoughts. Their impulse is to rebuke, repress, correct quickly, or deny spoken thoughts or opinions that would challenge Christianity, or doubt God or the Bible. What I’ve observed, over the years, is that this squelching approach to the teen years can have sad consequences. Repressing our teens’ doubts and questions concerning Christianity during these crucial years, or feeding them too quickly with stock theological responses to what to them are deeply emotional issues, may silence teens’ mouths, but it won’t answer the cries of their hearts, or stop them from continuing to ponder. In fact, repressing teens’ verbal expressions is one of the quickest ways to lose their hearts entirely, and by extension, our ability to influence them.
For Scott and me, job #1 of the adolescent years was winning the hearts of our teens. We reasoned that, if they trusted us and loved us, they would bring to us their most treasured thoughts, and then (with God’s grace) we could help them navigate the turbulent waters of the teen years and on into young adulthood. If, on the other hand, even our most well-meaning actions drove them away from us, causing them to secret their hearts’ thoughts and seek others who might seem more accepting for wisdom and advice, we would become powerless to help and bless them during this crucial phase of life.My guess, from my experience with many moms at conventions and several good friends near to home, is first of all that this repression is largely unconscious. Moms who consistently and instantly correct, adjust, and challenge their teens’ comments think of themselves as continuing a process of teaching and training that began when their children were born. Moms are of course concerned that their teens embrace the truths of the Bible, which they know to be authoritative and true, as well as the source of blessing and wisdom for an entire lifetime. It’s easy to continue tried-and-true methods and approaches to our teens that worked well when they were young kids, even as they are outgrowing childhood. We can miss that a change is occurring. We can disrespect our teens because we are in the habit of treating them like children. “Do what I say, because I say it, and because I’m your mother, and children obey their parents in the Lord because this is right!” Our goals are good, our desires are fine, but when good desires turn to bad demands, we can actually end up working against the Spirit.
To gain our teens’ trust, I believe, a parent needs to focus on two crucial things: 1) trusting God–and thus not giving way to fears that will tempt us to err–and 2) giving our children the dignity of allowing them to form for themselves their own worldview.Let me hasten to add that I don’t believe in a total “hands off” approach. We need to walk with our teens closely every day of their lives, and daily set before them our example of a vibrant, growing, authentic (but not perfect!) Christian. What I’m getting at in this post is something deeper than mere biblical instruction: I’m addressing the change in your relationship with your son or daughter during this season from one of benign dictator to one of fellow pilgrim on the road to the Celestial City.
The first of the two that I list above is crucial: we simply must grow ever deeper in our trust of God. I believe that the primary reason that most of us moms lose our kids’ love and disrespect them during the teen years is because we fail to trust God moment by moment. We so easily slide from gospel-centered thinking (where we remember that God alone determines who is saved) to believing that our words/actions during parenting primarily determine whether or not our child will be saved.We homeschooling mothers easily slide into such legalism, pride, and self-sufficiency because we have taken on such a huge role in our kids’ lives. From birth, we’ve fed, clothed, and schooled them. We’ve minutely directed almost every aspect of their daily lives, for their good and for God’s glory, and have rejoiced in the flowering of little hearts that open wide to drink the delights of a Christian home. We’ve stayed up late and gotten up early to learn the ways of academic teaching, and have diligently sought to provide the best balance of educational opportunities that we can.How disheartening, after all the investment, to hear our young teens begin to question Christianity, or to see them begin to respond differently to family, to friends, and to us than they used to. How downright scary to think and believe that our teens are drifting from Christ, and destined for misery on earth and in the life hereafter. In these situations, we are so tempted to clutch, to cajole, to require, to demand, to plead, to whine, and to redouble all our efforts to that our precious sons and daughters do not slip away.
Yet, it is this very reaction, which has its basis in a lack of faith and trust in our good God, that can cause us to lose the young hearts for which we have labored so long. In my experience, this is a normal, common reaction, and the only effective response to it is to reaffirm to ourselves the truths of the gospel: God, the loving Father, alone saves sinners through the power of the Holy Spirit based on the atoning death of Jesus Christ. All our love and effort (even if we were perfect, and we know we’re not) cannot do it. During the teen years, we again come face to face with our powerlessness to move hearts. We must turn to our Savior, grow in trust in His finished work, and bring our requests to the Father, Who is always wise, good, and loving. The antidote to fear is to meditate on the character of God: His compassion, sovereignty, power, and love. God, who made your son or daughter, loves him or her far more than do you yourself. He alone has the power to save; in the final analysis, your only role is to trust Him. And, as Spurgeon so rightly said, “When we cannot trace God’s hand, we must learn to trust His heart.” Thus are we further sanctified through the teen years.Such trust of God then becomes a solid platform for an ability to allow our teens to choose God (or not) for themselves. It allows us to not freak out when our teens question, “How do I know that God is truly there?” or “Why do we pray if God already knows all that’s going to happen?” or “If God is loving, why did my childhood friend just die in a car accident?” The teen years are the ones during which the world begins to intrude on our safe home environments, and they encounter the world more and more as they venture into situations where we cannot be constantly on guard, or control behaviors. Logically, teens begin to ask real questions that take us out of the simple, childhood world of clear cut, black-and-white answers and into the realms of misty gray. God is still there in these moments, and we need to reach out for grace to become increasingly honest about what we don’t know about life, the universe, and Him. Our honesty about what we don’t know will touch our teens’ hearts far more than pompous posturing or overworn platitudes that we ourselves do not really believe. What we need to do when teens begin to struggle with life is to, first, trust God and second, enter the struggle with our teens. Thus do we respect their need to grapple and their right to decide for themselves what to believe.What we need to face is the bald truth that, in the end, we will have to let them go, and that they will, in that day, choose their own way. You did it; why should your sons and daughters be different? Though they may, in the process, choose different expressions of faith than we ourselves have adopted, if we give them room to question and to probe, it is far more likely that they’ll reach towards us for guidance than run away.
Below are simple ways that parents can show our teens that we respect them as people, and affirm their right to come to their own convictions about God and life issues.
- Begin to consciously treat your teens as you treat your peers: your best girlfriends. If you wouldn’t jump in with a correction or rebuke with a friend, don’t do so with your teen. Do more listening, wait for the right moment to bring an observation, and seek to be as gentle, kind, and respectful of their opinions as you would of a peer’s.
- School yourself to remain calm and kind when your teens say outlandish things, things disrespectful of the faith, or simply become theologically inaccurate. We attain this calm by working to remember, in such moments, that we, too, have questioned God’s wisdom and love, and that we, too, have needed space and time to process the bigger questions of life. We seek to understand that they are probably not really dissing us personally. Rather, they are flailing in misery, lost in a confusing fog, and grasping at anything that they can as they feel themselves going down for a third time their, swirling, stormy seas of new emotions, raging hormones, and fast-paced changes. We respect our teens by giving them the courtesy that we would want, were we they.
- Recognize that, in most cases, silence is golden: count to ten before you answer your teen’s disquieting utterances, and then work to answer them briefly and gently. In fact, the best way to respond is usually to give no answer at all, but to begin to your teen a series of leading questions that cause them to define their terms. But first…
- Seek to identify with your teen. Remembering that Jesus took on human flesh and thus identified with us for all eternity, seek a way to make yourself like your teen. When they struggle, tell them of a time when you felt the same way that they do now or acted in a similar manner before you attempt to instruct or impart wisdom to them. Such a response encourages humility on your part and helps teens to feel that you are a fellow pilgrim with them, rather than their judge and jury. It tends to engender sharing in us, rather than lecturing.
- Some teen questions are tough! Admitting the we, ourselves, are unsure of an answer, and offering to search out such questions with our teens by means of bible studies or questions of learned pastors is one way of giving our teens the dignity of a truthful answer.
- Are your teens developing troubling patters of life? We both model good behavior and access the power of the Holy Spirit by asking them to do independent Bible studies that speak to the questions and doubts that they voice. Give them a deadline–like a week–to do the study, and then gently ask them to share what they’ve learned. So often, the Spirit who speaks to us when we seek Him also speaks to them as they wrestle alone with Scripture!
- School yourself to regularly “take a walk” with your teen. Do these when things are not stressful. “Walks” are free flowing conversations about God and life that begin with no agenda and need not end with any set conclusion. They are verbal journeys of exploration and observation, just as one might take a real walk down garden paths to simply enjoy the flowers and vistas as they appear. Walks are “safe zones” where emotions, doubts, fears, and questions can be explored without condemnation, correction, or challenge. To do keep it a walk, you have to fight the tendency to instruct, share, and dominate an agenda-driven conversation. It’s hard at first; it takes the help of the Spirit and real humility, but the fruit is the beginning of a wonderful, lifelong friendship with your older kids that is set on the level ground at the foot of the cross.
Want me to put feet to this? I’ll try! Let’s say that you suggest that your teen pray for the evening meal, and he bursts out in frustration: “Why? God never answers my prayers!”Your best first response might be to allow a moment of silence while praying silently for the Spirit’s help and guidance for both you and your child. This will calm your spirit and also help you deal with the shock as you wonder, “Where did that come from? Oh, no! Is he losing his faith??!!” (These kinds of thoughts can race through out minds in a split second of reaction, but what we must do is to remember God in the moment and take hold of our trust in Him and invoke His help with our response!)
Then, take a moment to identify with your teen. “You know, Son, I’ve felt the same way. When Grandma died of cancer last year, I sure felt shaky concerning God answering prayer.” Or some such. Find a way to identify with your teen. Give him the dignity of being a fellow human creature who is much like you, the grown adult.
Next, begin to ask a series of leading questions, such as: “What did you mean by the word, ‘never’? I mean… do you not remember any times when God answered one of your prayers?” (Now, note, this needs to be an honest question. The teen should have room to say, “No. Not a one.”) Respond with either, “Do you remember that one time when you were hunting for your glasses and we prayed…” (gently, now!) or “Boy, I’d be pretty discouraged, too, if I truly felt that God never had answered one of my prayers. That’s tough.”
Then wait, to see where it goes. Eventually, you’ll be able to share biblical truth (God hears our prayers and answers them) and gospel hope (because of Jesus’ death, we have a loving Father who delights to meet our needs). Watch for the right time to do so, and don’t rush. At the right time, the fruit of these truths will be as sweet to your youth as they are to you, but it may take more time for him to struggle towards those truths than it now takes you as an adult. That’s OK… remember again how hard it was for you at his age, and be gentle.
As you draw out your teen with respect and with care, you’ll find that they open up to you slowly and share deeper doubts and fears than you ever imagined were there. “Well,” your teen might get around to saying, “I guess He has answered a few prayers… but not the ones that matter.” You might pause. Then ask gently, “Like which ones?” “Oh,” he might reply,”Like for Mikey (his childhood friend) to be healed of diabetes so he can be normal. Mom, his whole life is ahead of him and I’ve been praying and praying! It’s just not working!!?”
And so now you have the chance to encourage your child about God Himself: His sovereignty, His wisdom, His love–the very things that you have fresh-perked insights for because you’ve been holding on to God recently much more yourself, because of your teens! When you do get around to supplying what might be considered an “answer,” make it brief, make it sweet, and make it real. Little else will penetrate. Platitudes won’t help your struggling teen any more than they help you when life gets hard.The key words are: gentle, kind, patient, loving, and respectful. Teens need our care, and they need it in new and challenging new ways as they enter this crucial season. If your teen has been a submissive child, and suddenly changes his ways, think about the fact that he’s encountering a whole new world of possibilities! He needs time and space to process them biblically. Before he even gets to that point, though, he may need you to help him by just being a friend: listening, caring, identifying, and asking lots of questions. Though we never depart from the revealed truths of the Bible, and never tire of offering that truth to our youths, we must allow our teens grace and space to thrash their way through to faith by God’s enabling grace as we also hang on tight to our Father’s hand and trust in Him.