Journeying alongside the questions of hurting children

The reflections below were prepared before the outbreak of the current conflict in Ukraine. Amongst all the sadness and suffering that we see happening in that country, there will be both now and into the future many children with many questions about events happening around them and to them. So while these words were not written with them in mind, we might join in praying that God will give wisdom to parents and others who have care of the children of Ukraine.

There’s an age, around 3-years-old, when a child’s questions become endless. It’s understandable: children need to ask questions to gather information, in order to make sense of their lives. Yet a child’s understanding is more than just knowledge. Children’s questions are opportunities that enable active, shaping and life-giving transformation of beliefs about themselves, others and the world. All children, from a young age, are actively building their personal beliefs and feelings about God. Fuelling this is a child’s natural inbuilt sense of awe and wonder. They are looking for things – sometimes desperately – that will give them pleasure, hope or a purpose bigger than themselves.

These questions, however, are asked in the context of a fallen world. Many biblical stories show that children are frequently marginalised and vulnerable. Joseph, Moses, Samuel, and the Israelite servant girl in 2 Kings 5, were all separated from their families because of wider circumstances, including war and conflict. And reports in the UK highlight that over 50% of people have had at least one adverse childhood experience (ACE). Such experiences include abuse, neglect, parental separation or divorce, a parent with a mental health condition, or growing up in a household where parents are drug or alcohol dependent or in prison. Over 10% report three or more ACEs. Churches must recognise that ACEs are common and that hurting children are not unusual in our congregations.

This vulnerability of children requires not only protection but an ability to respond to their questions in ways that make sense of their hurt and pain. Here are three observations to consider as we navigate their questions, whether asked aloud or held within.

Understand the depth rather than simply give ‘correct’ answers
Early experiences of trauma, neglect or ruptured attachments often result in children having distorted views of themselves, others, and God. These ‘spiritual lies’ go deep and require space for children to ask questions that help them understand the gravity of their experiences. Can God be trusted? Is he good and in sovereign control? Is he a safe refuge? Will I grow up to be like my violent parent? Their stories require rewriting and redeeming within the greater redemptive story of Scripture. They need more than simply transmission of Bible knowledge and basic comprehension questions. Such reframing requires conversations that move beyond ‘right answers’ to meaningful and personal connections with Scripture. It will invite children to share their own ideas, and to re/shape them with scriptural truths. This requires teachers or caregivers who will listen, support and guide, rather than simply give correct answers.

Use stories and allow children to be moved by them
In this meaning-making and reframing, Bible stories are more influential than isolated Bible facts. Sharing biblical stories helps children to weave their own stories through God’s bigger story. This enables children to write (or sometimes rewrite) their own stories according to God’s unfolding story for them. The stories of Scripture explore the full range of emotions: love, joy, happiness, contentment as well as anger, anxiety, sadness, bitterness, jealousy and fear. (Biblical poetry, like the Psalms, can help in this as well). These stories will help us engage with often unwanted, but necessary, emotions and help children make meaning out of the hard parts of their lives. For some children, the very emotions of sadness and anger feel dangerous, having been hurt as a result of someone else’s anger, or having had their tears of fear or sadness literally beaten out of them. Using Scripture to give voice to some of these emotions in safe, calm and slow ways can provide space for a child to express those emotions. This also connects Scripture to the realities of their lives in ways that make sense of hurt and pain and how these experiences have an impact on them. Joseph’s story is full of emotion and resonates with those who have suffered familial abuse or trauma. Through these stories, children can see that God is relevant, loves them and promises to be with them. He knows and understands their suffering. In the context of its larger story, scriptures become profound truths about how God is at work in the details of a child’s story.

Enter their stories with them
When we value a child’s questions, we are valuing the child. Being able to enter into biblical stories with children and consider how they look from their point of view enables a child to see and experience the presence of God in the midst of their own story. There is great meaning-making, purpose, and beauty in the fullness of God’s story. Nevertheless, don’t just stay in the individual story. Children can miss God’s redemptive story when it is taught as a collection of disconnected and sometimes irrelevant individual stories.

We want to help children desire God. Children need to be captivated by God’s glory, power, goodness and grace, his beauty, steadfast love, awe, and wonder. Otherwise, God can end up being a distant God, who is seen as powerless to deal with evil.  Or a judge with unreachable standards, who they regularly disappoint, and his Word a rule book, that is easily broken – to name just one of the many distorted outcomes that can ensue. Why would a child want to live for God if they do not know him as a powerful Saviour and a loving Father who longs to show his grace to them?

In the middle of their questions, it is responses like this – combined with seeing us live this way ourselves – that will encourage children to shape their identity around God, have courage and stand firm in those moments that would tempt them to do otherwise. Questions are so much more than opportunities to inform – let’s make the most of them this week.