We sat in vinyl booths, eating from cheap plates at a nondescript diner. Swapping stories, we traded tales of ministry. And family. The restaurant’s food was C+. Its atmosphere B-. But the friendship was five stars. Over many years we had come to trust each other, walking through heartbreak and happy times.
Maybe that’s why they spilled the beans. Most often talk between parents is a stream of endless triumphs: our kids are reading two levels above their current grade; he leads the league in home runs; she was chosen for the lead in the school play their tutor has never met anyone smarter. So parenting conversation goes, each child an all-star living out her outstanding genetic inheritance.
My friends are wonderful, godly parents who have invested deeply in their children. They are thoughtful about educational options, careful about what television and movies they watch. They have gone on family camping trips, church youth retreats, and extended service trips with mission organizations. Soon after birth, each of their children was baptized, entering God’s covenant promises.
But that night at the diner, their daughter’s baptism seemed a faded memory. Midway through high school, she was having serious and repeated doubts about her faith. Nothing was more important to my friends. They would gladly trade any economic advantage or vocational triumph in exchange for her secure faith. They were literally wringing their hands; worry lines were etched deeply on their faces.
A brew of bottled-up emotions poured out. They were fearful and anxious. Was this the beginning of the end of her faith? Other earnest questions followed, rapid-fire: What can we do? How can we fix it? What people can we insert into her life? Should we send her to a youth group at another church? Should we force her (she’d already said no) to go on a mission trip with the rest of the family? Should we let her consider secular universities as college options?
How did I respond to their palpable sense of panic? What would you advise? Some veteran parents might empathize. Maybe your own child is deep into middle age and raising her own children, still living without apparent faith, at least in the external forms we find most comforting. Others might dismiss my friends’ concerns: “Kids will be kids; give them space to be themselves.” Still others, like Job’s friends in the Old Testament, might look for hidden parental fault lines: “You must have done something wrong. Let us help you find what it is.”
Each person, each child, is a deep mystery. To be a parent is to begin an adventure without an owner’s manual. There are no quick and easy instructions for parenting. Rebuilding a supercomputer, starting a business, even running a country seems easy by comparison. And each conversation about a much-loved child is precious. It’s an honor to talk with anyone about their inner hopes and fears, especially those at the core of their faith.
So I suggested they give their daughter space to experience a custom journey of faith. They’d like her to feel her faith deeply, to follow Jesus with joy and abandon. But she’s doesn’t. And that needs to be OK.
My friends needed to trust their child enough to write her own story. Because God is in control, we don’t need to panic or push or react with the volatile pressure of parental expectations. The road most biblical characters take to faith isn’t a straight highway, but a backcountry lane filled with potholes, blind curves, and extended stretches of disorienting fog. As parents, we need to trust the God who journeys with our children. Their faith needn’t look like ours to be authentic.
I also encouraged them to pray the psalms. Psalms help us pray our fear and anxiety, echoing words of Christians (and Christian parents) of every generation and language and culture who have gone before us. In fact, any parent might ask that church leaders model psalm-shaped prayer in worship and youth ministry. Maybe we can help our congregations move past the common but unhelpful practice of giving adolescents a spiritual formation diet of high-caffeine events and “fun Christianity” in the hope that it will insulate the next generation from doubts and wandering. Praying the psalms may help you see that your child’s doubt is more psalm-like honest than some of your congregation’s songs and worship patterns.
Wise Christian parents and youth leaders teach and model doubt as a normal part of faith. Abraham doubted. Jacob doubted. Peter doubted. David's doubts fill the psalms. All God’s children doubt. If we doubt, it means we’re paying attention. If your child doubts, it might mean she is taking her faith very seriously. Maybe she can teach us all to be more honest about our doubts and less judgmental to those who express them.
I also encouraged my friends to trust God’s baptismal promises. Dying and rising with Christ in baptism doesn’t promise doubt-free living. It isn’t a tonic the church offers for extended and robust faith. But baptism does promise that our children belong to God and his church, not just to us.
As the Heidelberg Catechism says, “Infants as well as adults belong to God’s covenant and congregation. Through Christ's blood, the redemption from sin and the Holy Spirit, who works faith, are promised to them no less than to adults. . . .” To trust our child’s baptism is to trust the God of baptism.
God makes promises. He makes them to the church, and to us, and to our children.
One of my friends was for many years a college chaplain who inspired and deepened the faith of many young adults. Occasionally parents, much like my friends in the diner, would call him overflowing with concern for their children. After extended listening and empathizing he would ask, “Are they baptized?” Most often they would say yes. He would say, “Then my best advice is to trust their baptism.”
I’d like to say my friends found my comments in the diner that evening both reassuring and wise. They were lost in worry, on the edge of panic. In that moment they wanted to do something. They wanted certainty. They wanted something concrete and guaranteed.
I found myself leaving a little sad. But as their friend, I’ll trust them with enough space to write their own faith story, pray a psalm for them, and trust their baptism.