Audio length: 14:46 minutes
Transcript published: October 07, 2012
Elissa explains how to help children who struggle with doubt about the existence of God.
Lately, I’ve been thinking about a question that my daughter Helena used to ask me all the time. Every night, as I’d sit at the edge of her bed to tuck her in, she’d look at me with her enormous brown eyes and demand to know, “How do you know that there’s a God? How do you really know?”
Helena wrestled with God. She believed in the sincerity of the Church; the sincerity of her parents and her priest and her Sunday School teachers, but she was struggling to confirm our wisdom with her own experience. She didn’t merely want to take someone else’s word for it; to simply agree intellectually with the proposition of a Creator. She wanted to really know that He exists. She yearned to know Him herself.
That idea of a leap of faith, that blind faith that people talk about, isn’t really a big part of Orthodoxy. We have faith. That’s for certain. But we wouldn’t call it blind faith exactly. Our Orthodox path; our life in the Church is all about coming ever closer to God; getting to know Him in a real and profound way.
Perhaps we begin this journey with some kind of blind hope, but God willing, if it goes well, we should be experiencing faith in a God we know and trust and love. That’s not blind faith. It’s something more like mystical knowledge and love of a God that we can see and feel in so many different ways.
It can be unnerving when we see children struggle with doubt, because we’re so invested in raising them to be good Christians. The merest hint that they might wonder off toward atheism or toward some other religion can be scary and worrisome. But we need to respect that every human being is on their own journey.
We can give kids tools, and we must pray for them ardently, but in the end, they must forge their own relationships with God. We must allow the Holy Spirit to do its work, while we do what we can to create a good environment where the seeds of faith can grow.
Now, doubt itself is not necessarily a bad thing. Helena’s doubt led her to ask questions and to push for answers. She was demanding to know God. This is a good sight better than apathy; than the lukewarm indifference to God that permeates this fallen world. When doubt pushes us to look for God; to invest our time and effort in forging a real, personal relationship with Him, the doubt itself becomes a good and healthy part of the journey toward profound faith.
The doubt is not the problem, but our reaction to the doubt determines where we’ll go from there. “How do you know that God exists?” This is a tough question for everyone. It’s not just something that kids worry about. Everyone struggles with doubt about God and a lot of things, but parents and those who work with kids are not only faced with their own doubts, they’re often forced to answer this question.
How do we answer it? A question like this doesn’t benefit from a canned answer; from an easy cliche we’ve picked up somewhere. This question is really an invitation for some shared soul-searching; for an honest answer. “How do you know,” not “How does one know that there is a God,” but “How do you know that there is a God?”
How is it that you have found evidence of God? People can see God in this world in many ways. Some will look at the world around us, at the Grand Canyon; at waterfalls; at beautiful forests; and stunning sunsets. Some will gaze upon natural beauty and extrapolate that such art must have been created by the ultimate artist. They will find God in nature.
Others might see God when they ponder discoveries of modern science. The stars and the moons that inspired ancient poets turn out to be just the beginning of an enormous universe revealed by modern astronomers who have found multiverses and other infinities beyond our wildest dreams.
One might turn from this large scale glory to the tiniest scale; to the complexity of this world inside a microscope. Every tiny cell has its organs and structures, and there is a universe inside every tiny atom. Scientific understanding of quantum mechanics or the intricacies of DNA might be proof enough of Intelligent Design or an Intelligent Designer. For many of us, witnessing creation itself proves that there must be a God whose creativity and power knows no bounds.
And what about the magic of a newborn baby? When we are faced with the miracle of life itself, with the pure innocence and perfect potentialities of a beautiful new child, many of us just know that there is a God who made this possible; who created this life and all life and who will watch over this vulnerable and amazing new person. The miracle of creation, in this way, bears witness to its Creator.
There are many things in this world that make us feel like there is God, but is this the same thing as knowing there is a God? When Helena asks me, personally, how do I know that there is a God, I only have one really true answer. I know that there is a God, because I have felt His presence. What do we mean when we say that?
God is really not knowable for us, insofar as we are too limited, too finite, and too small to truly apprehend our infinite God. I love the word unfathomable for God. The fathom is a measure of depth – four fathoms deep, eight fathoms down in the ocean. God is an unfathomable ocean. His depth cannot be measured by our human understanding. We cannot truly know God’s essence, because it’s simply too much for us.
But there is a way in which we come to know God is there. I ask myself, “When did I first know that there was a God?” I remember it clearly, because that moment was a treasure to me that I carried, or maybe you could say that it carried me for years. I was a young preteen sitting on my bed late at night reading the Bible. I had been reading and reading, looking for God, and seeking Him out.
Sitting there, quite suddenly, I felt His presence. I knew He was real, and He was right there with me. Later in my reading, I would find John the Forerunner saying that Christ would baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire. From then on, that’s what I called my experience. I held onto that moment for many years. It didn’t repeat itself, and I didn’t expect it to. Feeling God’s presence once was a treasure I didn’t deserve. And I knew what I felt, and I held onto it like the precious gift it was.
Through my teen years and into my twenties, whenever I began to feel doubts creeping in; whenever I wondered if my faith was just a crutch, a fairy tale designed to make me feel better, I would stop and ask myself about that night in my room, and I knew with an intense certainty that God was real and that He had revealed Himself to me – not in His entirety; not in His full glory, but in a smaller way. He had allowed me to feel His presence for a moment, and that moment would nourish me for years.
What will our kids hold onto when doubt creeps in? Our children need to experience God for themselves so that they can hold tight to that personal, experiential knowledge of God. So how do we counsel them when, like my Helena, they wail that they have not yet encountered God? We must first assure them that God wants to be known by them. He revealed Himself to the Prophets and the Saints. He took on human form to be known to man. From the moment He created us, He has been endeavoring to bring us ever closer to Him.
And then, we must tell them how to find God. We must council them to look to the Scriptures. James 4:8 says, “Draw near to God, and He will draw near to you.” They need only begin to draw near to Him, and He will complete the movement that brings them together. In Jeremiah 29:13, God says, “You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.” God will reveal Himself to those who truly and deeply yearn to know Him. That’s all. You don’t have to be perfect. You don’t have to be smart or strong or beautiful. If you truly yearn for God with all of your heart, you’ll find Him. You must seek Him out though with all of your heart.
There is a line in Matthew’s Gospel that struck me as so bizarre and strange and beautiful, and now it’s one of my favorites. In Matthew 11:12, Christ says, “And from the days of John the Baptist until now, the Kingdom of Heaven suffers violence, and the violence take it by force.” St. John Chrysostom said that the violent are those such earnest desire for Christ that they let nothing stand between themselves and faith in Him. The violent take Heaven by force.
Seek God with all of your heart. Pound on the doors of Heaven, and take it by force. Any person, even a child, who will approach God with this intensity and yearning will not be disappointed. We would be wise to suggest that children who are looking for God put themselves in the right place to find Him. Be obedient. Be good. Pray in church. Pray at home. Open your understanding to God by reading the Bible. If you want to know Him, begin by learning about Him. And pray. Pray like you’re storming a fortress.
That’s good advice to give to the kids, but don’t forget this last important piece. Tell them to pray, and then go pray yourself. Ask God to reveal Himself to this earnest, yearning child’s heart. We must always be praying for our students and our children. When a child, or an adult for that matter, is blessed with this kind of visitation, this awareness of God Himself, he must hold onto that experience and treat it like the valuable treasure that it truly is.
When Helena was battling with this question, I gave her a “God journal.” It was a pretty, little book of blank pages, and I told her that I wanted her to put it in her sock drawer and save it. It should only be used to record precious experiences of God, moments when she knew that there was a God. She was to write it all down, and then later, some day in the future when she started wondering and doubting all over again, she could pull that out and read it and rely on her own joyful witness, her own experience of God.
We are so easily distracted. Sometimes we need to remind ourselves of what we know to be true. So if you have a doubter who comes to you with their search for God, perhaps you can give them a little notebook ready to serve as their “God journal,” to help them hold tight to those visitations that answered their earnest prayers.
Before I leave you today, the last question I want to ask here is, “Does it matter if our children experience God firsthand?” I’ll point you to another of the parts of Matthew that I find deeply terrifying. Matthew 7:21-23:
Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord,” shall enter the Kingdom of Heaven, but he who does the will of my Father in Heaven. Many will say to me in that day, “Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in your name, cast out demons in your name, and done many wonders in your name?” And then I will declared to them, “I never knew you. Depart from me you who practice lawlessness.”
There will be some who cry, “Lord, Lord;” who perform great things in the name of the Lord, and yet Christ will say to them, “I never knew you.” The thief on the cross said, “Lord, remember me when you come into your Kingdom.” When our loved ones die, we pray that their memory will be eternal – not our memory of them, but God’s memory. We pray that our Lord will remember them.
“Lord, remember me when you come into your Kingdom.” We must be known by God; to be a part of His Heavenly Kingdom, His holy communion. We must be known by Him. Let’s spend some time with Him so that He’ll remember us. Let’s take our children’s spiritual journeys as seriously as we take our own; more seriously, perhaps, because we’re responsible for them.
And we must answer for how we steward them through this life, whether they’re our own children or the children entrusted to us in our parish community. May we invite them to join us as we all storm the Kingdom together, young and old; taking it by the sheer force of our sincere love and earnest desire to know our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.