“I don’t believe in anything anymore”: How to respond when young people doubt God
“I don’t believe in anything anymore. Christians are all such fakes.”
These were the words her 17-year-old son yelled just before she walked out the door for our meeting. Even for a mom who can handle a fair amount of conflict and pushback from her kids, this was a heavy blow. It was meant to be.
Teenagers can be like that. They know just how to press on our sensitive spots and trigger our reactive emotions. What they don’t know is how much fear and uncertainty these moments evoke in us. They aren’t yet sophisticated enough to realize that our first responses, like theirs, can unhelpfully shut down the conversations we really need to have.
Adolescents and emerging adults need parents and trusted adults in their lives who will receive these moments perceptively. To see what may be under the harsh words, sarcastic questions, or searing critique about faith, Scripture, or the church. Because often what’s underneath those outbursts are really important questions.
Is God real?
Why are Christians so messed up?
Can I trust the Bible?
Is it wrong to doubt God?
Through our research at the Fuller Youth Institute, we’ve learned in our Sticky Faith and Growing Youngstudies that it’s not doubt that’s toxic to faith—it’s silence. Young people who have safe relationships in which to share their questions and struggles tend to have stronger faith, to carry that faith into young adulthood, and to share their faith with others more often. When articulated, young people’s questions open up exploration of both doubt and faith.
The problem tends to be that as parents and leaders, we typically get caught off guard by these questions. Like my friend, we’re on our way out the door to a meeting. We’re wrapping up an already-over-time small group session. We’re exhausted and have very little capacity to give a “Jesus-answer” worthy of a decent Christian, let alone one who is supposed to be a spiritual leader to their children or to others’. We feel outmatched and underprepared.
In these moments, we want to remind you—and ourselves—of a few powerful phrases. Our team has created a set of wallpapers for your computer and phone this month to help you remember, share, and use these two responses:
1. Yes, you can ask that
2. I don’t know, but…
First, every young person needs to know that all of their questions, complaints, doubts, and struggles have a hearing. They need to know that you—and God—are going to hear and hold the questions without pushing the young person away. They need to know that God is big enough to receive these questions and is not afraid of them (just read the psalms or Job for examples!) They need to know that they are not somehow deficient, unfaithful, or unworthy, and that their questions won’t cause God to love them any less.
Young people need to know that we—and God—are going to hear and hold their questions without pushing away. (tweet that)
Second, young people need to know that we don’t have the answer to every question. It isn’t the goal of mature Christian adulthood to be “answer-people” or to have everything figured out. In fact, the more we lean into faith, the more we realize it is marked at every turn by mystery, unseeing, complexity, and paradox. As most of the biblical witness portrays, these features deepen our awe, wonder, and humility before God; not our certainty, arrogance, or pride.
It may push against everything we’ve been conditioned to say, but often a helpful first response to a tough question can start with the words, “I don’t know, but …”
This isn’t just a stall tactic, but a way to both affirm the question and create a holding space for it. We might say, “I don’t know, but that's an important question,” or “… I wonder that, too,” or “… let’s work on that together. Who could help us find out more?”
If you’re like me, you hear pithy, helpful phrases all the time but can never remember them at just the right time you need them. This month we are helping you out with these wallpaper reminders. Use them, and share them with parents, ministry leaders, and any adult who cares about young people.
Together we can become safe spaces—safe relationships—in which teenagers feel invited to bring their real selves, their hard questions, and their deep frustrations, and truly be heard.
Yes, it’s okay to ask that. Even if I don’t know the answer.