From time to time, we receive questions from the Connected Families community about what to do when your child doesn’t believe in God. This is such a big question, and there aren’t any easy answers or guarantees in the Bible. For many reading this, it might be an obvious goal to raise kids who love and follow God. When your child tells you they don’t believe in God, it throws that parenting goal into limbo.
So how can you respond to a child who doesn’t believe in God (or remains agnostic to the idea)?
How should we respond to our children who don’t believe in God or doubt our Christian faith?
My first impulse in responding to people who “insist there is no God” is to work immediately to convince them otherwise. I mean, look around, right? It takes a lot of faith to believe everything came from nothing.
But other people denying God’s existence is much different than my kids denying that God exists. When kids turn from their (our) faith, it creates sleepless nights, desperate pleas, and crying out to God. It also tends to lead to anxious lobbying for my point of view.
The truth is, there is probably very little new that parents can say that the kids haven’t heard.
Aside from the conventional wisdom about this (which we fully embrace) to pray, to speak truth, and to love them, here are some less common ideas that have been shown to have powerful influence with children over time.
1. Remember, your child’s belief in God is NOT your job. Managing your anxiety about it is.
When one of our kids first announced firm doubt about Jesus, it hurt. I wondered what I’d done wrong. It was scary. I projected a hard future. In short, the image I had for this child’s future was at risk.
And that was my problem. It was my shame. It was my anxiety. It was my image for the child’s future. My initial response was about me!
Yes, my child’s eternity is also to be considered, but my child’s eternity is not my job. Sadly, my responses during that time hurt our relationship and did nothing to demonstrate God’s unconditional love even for those struggling with their faith.
When we respond to our kids’ unbelief out of our anxiety, it adds undue pressure. It places a burden on them to either pretend to believe to take care of our emotions , or to actively resist us. Either way it tends to deepen their unbelief.
I suggest spending lots of time in Philippians 4 rehearsing, even memorizing the verses about joy, peace, and contentment in all circumstances. This prepares you for the next thought.
2. Show the love of Jesus to your unbelieving child!
It has been said that the “biggest cause of atheism in our world today is Christians who accept Jesus with their lips but deny him with their lifestyle.” This may be most evident within the context of parent-child relationships. For your logic to ever be heard and received by your child your love must flow from Jesus through you, pervasively, persistently, and with great perseverance.
3. Empathize with your child’s doubts and struggles.
Empathy is often a parent’s most powerful portal to influence. Even if you, as the parent, have not fully abandoned faith, almost everyone has had questions and doubts along the way. (You may even be questioning your faith as you read this.) Being authentic about your faith journey lowers any perceived barriers between you and your child. It can open the door to candid conversation and questioning when kids may otherwise be accustomed to sermonizing or lectures.
4. Ask truly curious questions about faith.
Develop a sense of curiosity about their current view of faith. Ask questions, but don’t be critical. Romans 2:4b says, “…God’s kindness leads you toward repentance.” God’s kindness – not God’s lecture.
Some questions to consider asking your child:
- What brought you to say you don’t believe in God?
- What about faith has repelled you?
- What is your idea of the “perfect” religion?
You may just find that you and your child have a lot in common regarding the answers. Give your energy to validating their answers and asking more questions, not to “setting them straight.”
5. Keep the posture of an ally not an adversary.
“I believe in you,” “I love you no matter what you believe,” or, “I’m for you,” are messages every human longs to experience. Research has shown that when parents give their kids room to spiritually “experiment,” those kids are far more inclined to embrace their parents’ faith someday than those kids whose parents become forceful about religious belief and behavior. So keep working to embody the biblical command, “be anxious in nothing…” (see Phil 4:6,7)
6. Invite them to grade you.
At the end of the day what matters at least as much as what you do is what your kids’ perception of it is. If you have an older child, ask them, “On a scale of 1 to 10 where 1 is not at all loving of you and 10 is fully loving you even though we disagree about some things, what number would you give me?”
Be prepared for an unexpected answer. Be prepared to keep your defenses down. If you can, ask this question in a manner that conveys you are truly interested in your child’s answer. Then, try to carry on a light conversation even in the face of disagreement. By doing this you will grow your child’s respect for both you and your faith. This may also make your faith more attractive to them.
7. Pray for your child when they doubt or stop believing in God.
Pray. I add this to assure you, even though it is common advice, to not minimize the power of prayer. Let it shape both you and your child in ways that bring God’s grace and truth to life. Some will even add some sort of fasting to their prayer strategy.
- Pray for your own “love, joy, peace, patience, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, kindness, and self-control.” (Gal 5:22)
- Pray for awareness of God’s every day “new mercies.” (Lamentations 3:22-23)
- Pray that God would reveal his love daily through you and that God’s spirit will work in your child to make his presence known.
In the end, your children’s faith is about God’s redemptive work. Not about anyone convincing or controlling them.
Remember: doubt isn’t the enemy here, even with really little kids
For some of you, this struggle with your child’s doubts may begin during the teen years. But, we also know through conversation and questions, that it’s not uncommon to have even younger kids with big doubts and questions. A mom in the Connected Families community shared about her 4 ½-year-old son.
If you’re wondering how to apply these principles with younger children, here’s one story.
“Is it okay if I don’t believe in God yet, because I can’t feel his hugs?”
Jasper (4.5 years old) asked me, “But, Mama, how do I know God is in REAL LIFE?”
We talked for a bit about faith and the difference between stories we read in the Bible versus fiction stories we read before bed. I also told him I have days when I’m not sure, when I question, when I doubt, but I see little ways that God always draws me back.
Finally, he asked me, “But is it okay if I don’t believe in God yet, because I can’t feel his hugs yet?”
I told him it was fine, and that God wasn’t scared of or mad about his uncertainty. And then he went to bed, and that was the end of the conversation.
Note: this is the same child that just two days before was heaving over the toilet with a stomach bug, unable to even stand, and started spontaneously thanking God. Who does that?! He has big contradictory feelings about most things, including big doubt and big belief.
Empathy: She recognized herself in her kids and their shared gift-gone-awry
I was praying more about this when I went to bed, knowing his twin brother, who is a little quieter and less likely to put everything into words, has also expressed the same struggle with believing. And all I could feel was they are so much like me! And I am so much like Thomas in the Bible.
With that came an awareness of the conversation I wish I’d had, and the story I shared with them the next night before bed.
You see, God made my boys (and me) with unusually inquisitive, analytical minds. God has also given them (and me) what I have sometimes referred to as an inner BS-detector.
My favorite phrase when I was in preschool was, “Get real.” I also told people, “Just because I’m small doesn’t mean I’ll believe you.”
Everyone still teases me for saying these things as a child. Though I don’t say them now (thankfully I’m a little more polite these days), that’s still me. I still feel that way and I don’t believe easily.
And… so far my twin boys have shown the same tendency.
But that’s how God made us! I want them to understand that this is good, a gift from God, and a calling to think and communicate truth to others. And… it makes faith always a little scarier and a little more challenging. Their “child-like” faith doesn’t look like other children’s child-like faith.
Retelling the story of Thomas in the Bible
Rereading the story of Thomas in the bible seemed a good place to start the next night. Jasper had said he needed a hug to believe, and Thomas said he needed to touch Jesus’ wounds.
However, I did not want to tell this story the way I heard it in children’s church. Though the church generally spurns Thomas for his doubt, Jesus didn’t. Jesus drew closer to Thomas, allowing one of the most intimate moments in the Bible. Not only did Jesus show himself to Thomas, but he allowed Thomas to touch His literal wounds, an intense act of intimacy and trust.
So, as we read this story together, I made sure to point out the deep intimacy of allowing someone to touch the places you’ve been hurt, that this was a privilege that Jesus gave to Thomas, even though Thomas did nothing to earn it. But neither was Thomas chastised for his struggle.
What I want my boys to understand is that, in my experience, speaking our doubts outright (not locking them away in shame) nearly always enables a closer, more intimate encounter with Jesus.
Setting herself up as her kids’ long-term ally in matters of faith
The last thing I want is for them to stop telling me their doubts or to become afraid of the lingering questions in their mind. That’s what I did as a child, and I’m determined not to pass that on. I want them to understand God’s not afraid of their doubt, and neither am I. We can talk about any faith question and be alright as a family.
So that’s what we chatted about. And we agreed, yes, it is a blessing to believe without seeing, but Jesus draws near to us when we’re struggling with belief anyway.
They both continue to come to me daily with a litany of thoughts and questions on God and faith. And, considering their age, I’m amazed by the conversations we get to have together. They still doubt, and so do I. But God is using even this to draw us together and (I believe) toward Jesus.
Your child’s new struggles with faith are not new to God
When a child seems to back away from faith it’s hard stuff for parents. But it’s hard stuff that is familiar to our heavenly Parent. Tapping into both the mother and father heart of God for all of us is the most important thing we can do to love our kids with God’s love. This will keep their hearts open to God’s relentless pursuit and redemption for them.
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