Answering big questions about God and suffering
As children grow and learn more about God and life, they will naturally ask some big questions about him.
- Is God in control?
- Why does God let bad things happen?
- Doesn’t God care?
- Where is God?
- Why isn’t God hearing our prayers to stop the war/famine/climate change?
At Parenting for Faith, our heart is to equip parents and carers to disciple their children – of any age – confidently, so we wanted to offer you some ideas and resources to help you help them answer those big questions well.
Of course, all children are different and will be asking questions for different reasons. A question like ‘why does God allow cancer?’ might be theoretical for one child, but personal and distressing for another. You are the expert in your children and will know why they are asking and be able to tailor how you help them according to their particular needs and make up.
You might want to start by viewing this short video How do I help my child respond when something evil happens? , which gives you four steps to help you parent for faith in challenging times. The following is a bunch of ideas and resources that you can pick and choose from as you unpack these ideas with your children.
Share the big story of God with your kids
Imagine you had never heard of the story of Cinderella, and just happened to catch the bit of the film where she’s dancing at the ball. Not a lot about the story would make sense. You wouldn’t know why she was so upset when she heard the bells chime midnight, you’d have missed her transformation from scullery maid to princess, and you would have no idea what happens to her in the end. It would all feel a bit random.
It can be like that with God. We pick up bits about him as we hear stories in the Bible, but sometimes we’ve missed the big story with its beginning, middle and end. The big story of God is how made a perfect world that was broken, so he set about rescuing it and invites us help him; and then one day, he will make the world back as he intended it to be. When we have that framework, it’s easier to make sense of what God is doing in the world and easier to understand why there’s suffering. There’s more about that big story here including how to talk about it with your children.
Help kids understand that it’s OK not to understand everything
As I’ve got older, I’ve become more comfortable with the idea that I can’t understand everything about God; in fact, not having to understand can be rather comforting in difficult times. The Bible is clear: we simply don’t have the capacity to fully understand or make sense of God, much like a young child can’t fully understand their parent.
These are some of the ways that I’ve used to explain that we only have a limited understanding of what God’s doing, but we can trust because God has the whole picture:
- If you are Narnia fans, the ending of ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’ might be helpful. At the beginning of the battle, the armies line up facing one another. The Narnian army is split, the foot-soldiers and cavalry on the ground with Peter and the archers on a high cliff with Edmund. In the heat of the battle, the foot-soldiers can’t tell what’s happening; however, Edmund and the archers can see the whole picture and understand exactly what’s going on. Christians can sometimes be like the foot-soldiers, in the middle of the battle; but God is like Edmund, seeing the whole picture and ready to act at the right time.
- You can use a jigsaw puzzle or a close up picture to help kids understand that only God has the full picture of what’s happening and what he’s doing. Offer your child just a few pieces of a puzzle: can they tell what the picture is? God has all the pieces. Similarly, if you are very close to an object it can be difficult to understand what it is; God has the full perspective and can see the whole thing.
- In 1 Corinthians 13:12 Paul says this: Now all we can see of God is like a cloudy picture in a mirror. Later we will see him face to face. We don’t know everything, but then we will, just as God completely understands us. (CEV). Paul reminds us that in this world our brains just aren’t able to make sense of all of God. To help you see why Paul said this, you can see a Roman mirror here. Looking in a saucepan lid might be a similar experience today.
- Corrie Ten Boom famously likened understanding God’s work in her life to the underside of a tapestry: a mess of tangled threads which don’t seem to make sense. You can read more about this here and see the original tapestry she talked about.
- It can be helpful when you are puzzled about God to recall what you do know about him. You see this in the Bible a lot. When people are in trouble, they remember what God has done in the past and this gives them hope for the future (for example, Habakkuk 3). Share stories of what God has done for you, your family and others you know.
For more ideas about on helping kids understand God and the Bible we have an article here to help our ‘intellectual wrestlers’ and a helpful episode of the Parenting for Faith podcast on Asking Questions, featuring Justin Brierley.
Help them see what God is doing and how they can join in
Children (and adults) may feel powerless in the face of suffering. However we know that God has purpose for each one of us, however young we are, and he invites us to join in with what he is doing. We are part of the answer to the question ‘What is God doing about suffering?’. Here are some ideas for helping children spot what they can see God doing and discover how he wants them to partner with him:
- Talk about Jesus’s greatest commandment. Where can you see people loving others this much in your community? When you see the news, can you spot God working through people like this?
- Pray for the news: read the paper together or scroll through your news app, and ask your kid to stop when they spot something that tugs at their heart. Chat with God about that. You might want to ask him ‘what are you doing God?’ or ‘How can I help?’ and see what answers you catch. There’s an explanation of how to chat and catch here.
- Brainstorm what your family could do to show God’s love to others, for example, send cards to people who are unwell, deliver groceries, call someone who’s alone for a chat, make some cakes and leave them on your neighbour’s doorstep, pray for those in government who are making hard decisions … again you might want to spend time chatting with God and catching his suggestions.
- Wonder together what God might be doing that you can’t see. What do you know about God that might give you a clue?
Explore what the Bible has to say
The Bible is full of stories about people who knew what suffering was. Here are some suggestions for exploring what the Bible has to say when life is hard.
- Job is someone who experiences a lot of unexpected and undeserved suffering, just like many today. For older children there’s a great video here from the Bible Project that explains the theology well.
- Jesus’s parables of the mustard seed and the yeast can help us understand how tiny things we do to help others can make a big difference in God’s kingdom.
- The good Samaritan was the last person people expected to look after the injured man. Where can you see God operating in unexpected ways?
- At the burning bush, God gave Moses a job to do, but Moses didn’t feel strong or clever enough to do it. Explore how God gave him the help and encouragement he needed and so how he might help us do things we don’t think we can.
- Solomon wrote in Ecclesiastes 3 that there is a time for everything. Which of these things do you see in this season of suffering?
- Jesus warned his followers that they would have trouble in this world (John 16:33) but he also told them about how the world will be different one day. How do these pictures of God’s new heaven and earth give you hope? The beatitudes ; Revelation 21:1-4; the Father’s house; Isaiah’s description of the new heaven and new earth.
Get stuck into their questions
Questions about God and suffering are not easy, and most of us will feel totally unqualified to give an answer. But it’s really valuable to explore kids’ questions well with them, not just so we find some answers, but so we can help them learn how to tackle big questions for themselves. You might also want to use the questions tool with your whole family to facilitate a great conversation.
For older kids, teens (and adults) who love delving into big questions, we have posted some general suggestions for websites and resources here, but here are some that relate more specifically to suffering:
- Justin Brierley’s seminar Why Doesn’t God Just End Coronavirus and Mend the World is a really accessible exploration of God, suffering and the coronavirus pandemic.
- Bethinking.org have a selection of posts from leading Christian thinkers on God and suffering