Children often grow up believing, on the basis of the cultural messages all around them—as well as the actions of their parents—that God owes them comfort and their “best life now.” But Scripture tells us otherwise. Jesus told us that “in this life you will have tribulation,” Peter said we should not “be surprised when the fiery trial comes upon us to test us, as though something strange were happening to us,” and James commands us to “count it all joy when we meet trials of various kinds” (John 16:33, 1 Peter 4:12, James 1:2).
How then should parents talk to their children about suffering? And what, if anything, should they do to prepare them for it? Steve Watters, communications director for Truth78, sat down with Bible teacher Nancy Guthrie to ask how parents can help their children process and prepare for suffering. Nancy and David Guthrie experienced the death of two of their children and now lead respite retreats for parents in similar seasons of suffering.
T78: How do children learn from parents how to face suffering?
Nancy Guthrie: Most of us as parents think that the primary way we teach our children about suffering, or anything else, is by what we say to them. David and I talk with lots of couples where someone in the family has a cancer diagnosis or something like that and they wonder, "how am I going to talk to the kids about this?" I don't think though, that it's primarily through what we say to our children that our children learn the most. I think the primary way they learn about suffering, how to think about it, how to feel about it, how to talk about it, is by what they observe in us.
If, when we're going through a season of suffering, they observe anger, they're probably going to absorb a sense of "this is not right; somebody out there has wronged us; God has wronged us"--they're going to absorb that angry response. Also, they're going to absorb an attitude about how things work in the world, that I deserve something different than to experience the brokenness of this world that is universal to everyone in the world. Kids can absorb a sense of presumption that somehow, I shouldn't have to experience this, and surprise about suffering.
One thing we do have to say as parents is that the word of God tells us, "don't be surprised at suffering. This is common to everyone in the world." The Bible's message about suffering is expect to suffer. Know that God will be with you in this suffering and your suffering is not meaningless, but purposeful. If you belong to Christ, your suffering is not meaningless, but purposeful. He can and will use it to accomplish in your life, and in the world around you, His good and glorious purposes. As you believe that, you can transmit that to your kids.
T78: What are the consequences when children don't hear that, when they aren't prepared for suffering?
NG: When they do experience suffering, they become hard and bitter toward God. They can see themselves as victims, rather than disciples who are living in a broken world, anticipating that part of living in this world that's under a curse is experiencing the suffering of this world. They need to have a sense that this life is not all there is. Isn't that something our kids need to understand more than anything else? They're not going to get that message from the world, television, their friends at school, the culture around us—those are always telling us: this is where life is; this is where you've got to make a mark on this world; this is where you've got to grab all the Gusto you can get, in the here and now; you can be anything you want to be. People think this is some kind of self-empowerment message for kids.
I think a far better message is, "you can trust that God will work in you, to call you to His purposes, and will equip you to do and be all that He's called you to do and be." That's a God-centered view that sets some expectations for your life in this world, rather than setting this expectation that you've got to accomplish your dream; you've got to become somebody. That sets kids up for bitterness when all of those things don't happen, instead of acceptance of the sovereignty of God in their life.
T78: When we face suffering, what does that suffering tend to reveal in our lives?
NG: My husband David and I host weekend retreats for couples who have lost children. We've done retreats the last two weekends, and last weekend, there were a number of couples who were verbalizing their anger toward God. One way I pushed back on that is to say, "Whether it's anger toward God or anger toward any person or situation, anger reveals an expectation—I expected this would be different. If I'm angry at you, it's because I expected you would do or say something different. You have done something I didn't want you to do, or you didn't do something I expected you to do. Our frustration when the car breaks down or when somebody damages something of ours, reveals we have an expectation that these things shouldn't happen to us.
Similarly, in terms of anger with God, a lot of times that's based on having expectations of who God is and what He ought to be doing in our lives. We think that if we have been so smart, so spiritual, to choose Him, that now He's got to do His job and His job should be to protect us from suffering in this life, and to bless us; to fulfill all these things we want to do and be in this world.
We sometimes have this expectation that God is our servant rather than we are His servants; expectations that God's role is to give us the life that we think will be best for us, that we think that will be more comfortable. When those are our expectations, and suffering comes into our life, it makes complete sense that we'd be angry with God. The anger reveals the assumption and the expectations.
What I challenged those couples to do at our retreat was to say, “Identify what your expectations were, and then ask the question, on what basis did you expect that?” What that reveals, first of all, it kind of forces us to say, “I thought God was going to take care of me so that I wouldn't have to suffer. I thought all my prayers for my kids were going to mean that I wouldn't have to bury one of my children.”
Then you go onto the next question, “On what basis was that your expectation?” Then you ask, where do you see this promise in the Scripture? What that actually gets at a lot of times is the errors we make in interpretation; the promises we read in the Scriptures that we misunderstand, or misapply. Once you get to that point, you can deal with it.
Children need the deep, unshakable foundation of God’s sovereignty that is clearly taught in God's Word. Truth78 has woven the topic of suffering, as well as God's sovereignty, throughout our scope and sequence. For more help on teaching children about suffering, see:
When Life is Hard God is ...
Helping Children Understand the Cost of Following Jesus
24 Things Your Children Should Know About God’s Providence
Read Part 2 of our interview with Nancy Guthrie: Helping Children Pray