Inviting the Hard Questions
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Shelby AbbottShelby Abbott is an author, campus minister, and conference speaker on staff with the ministry of Cru. His passion for university students has led him to speak at college campuses all over the United States. Abbott is the author of Jacked and I Am a Tool (To Help with Your Dating Life), Pressure Points: A Guide to Navigating Student Stress and DoubtLess: Because Faith is Hard. He and his wife, Rachael, have two daughters and live in Downingtown, Pennsylvania.
Shelby Abbott coaches parents on how to respond when their own kids begin asking tough questions, and how we can discern the difference between sincere searching vs. a refusal to bend the knee to the Savior?
Inviting the Hard Questions
Bob: It’s easy, as parents raising the next generation, to watch teenagers or young adults, who move away from their faith, and wonder if that’s going to happen to our kids. Shelby Abbott says our responsibility, as parents, is to be faithful in what God’s called us to do.
Shelby: I need to trust that, regardless of what happens with my children in the future—and I pray daily that they will walk with Jesus for a lifetime—I have to believe that God knows exactly what He is doing with them and that He is in control. My responsibility is to be intentional with them, and shepherd them, care for them, teach them as much as I can; but ultimately, they are not in my hands; they are in God’s hands. I need to live that as an act of faith.
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Friday, August 21st. Our hosts are Dave and Ann Wilson; I’m Bob Lepine. You can find us online at FamilyLifeToday.com. What’s our assignment as parents? How do we help steer our kids in the right direction and help them deal with challenges to their faith as they grow? Shelby Abbott joins us today to talk about that. Stay with us.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us. I got a call recently from a friend, someone in our church, who said, “My niece is struggling with the difference between doubt and unbelief. She’s wrestling with doubts, and wondering if her doubt is unbelief, and how can you tell the difference between the two?” I said, “Well, would it help if you guys came over, and we sat down and just had a conversation about it?” She said, “Yes; that’d be great.” They came over; and we/Mary Ann and I spent the evening, and we talked about issues.
I remember thinking ahead of time: “It’s pretty important how you have these kinds of conversations because, for somebody who is in a fragile faith place, those conversations can either help ease them back toward the faith or can turn them off and have them run in the other direction.”
Ann: I think that shame piece can be really big if you shame someone in their doubt. Then they won’t talk about it anymore; then it can stay inside and fester.
It was interesting—we had a four-year-old son; we were talking about David and Goliath. I was telling him the story that night, and all of our boys were listening. I thought, “This is so good! I’m telling this—great; they are loving it.” We went to bed that night, and I turned off the light.
The four-year-old said, “Hey, so, David cut off Goliath’s head.” I’m like, “Yes.” He goes, “But we also have learned that we’re supposed to not kill. It says that in the Ten Commandments.” I’m like, “Oh, wow; he’s getting this! This is awesome!” He goes, “So why is it okay for David to kill and to celebrate—and everyone celebrates that?—but the Ten Commandments in the Bible tell us that we’re not supposed to kill. I don’t even get it. How can that happen?”
Dave: Tell them what you said.
Ann: I’m like—in my heart, I’m thinking, “Oh no! He’s like his dad!” [Laughter]
Dave: I remember what you said; she goes, “Go ask Dad.” She was like, “Go ask Dad.”
Ann: Yes; I said/I called you—I’m like, “Hey, Dave, come in; we’re having this great discussion.” In my heart, I’m in pure panic, like, “Oh no!”
I think that’s easy to do, as parents—to know like, “How should I respond? I want to talk about this.” I was freaking out, so I called Pastor Dave in. [Laughter]
Bob: Did you have an answer, Pastor Dave?
Dave: Oh, yes; of course, Bob. [Laughter] I had the exact right answer. No; I mean, I actually got excited. I mean, CJ was only four years old; and he has grown up to be a 34-year-old, married man now, and he still asks questions. I love that; I just encouraged it—like that’s—
Ann: First thing you said was, “Wow!
Ann: “You are smart, and what a great question.”
Dave: Yes; and Bob, what you said/started the program with—I think is so good—that those people sat in your living room—
Dave: —and talked to a human being. It’s so easy to go on the internet and never converse with a real, live human being. It’s so important to have presence in that moment and dialogue about these; because there are real good answers.
Bob: We’ve got a guest joining us this week, who is helping us with this issue, and has written a book called DoubtLess. Shelby Abbott joins us. Shelby, welcome back.
Shelby: Thank you for having me once again. It’s good to be with you.
Bob: In addition to be an author and a speaker, Shelby has been on staff with Cru® for 21 years now and has been on FamilyLife Today before, wrote a book called Pressure Points about how to deal with pressure as a college student/as a young adult.
Dave: He wrote another book called I Am a Tool—[Laughter]—you talk about a great book title.
Shelby: Yes; it’s fun to mention it to people and see if they actually have a sense of humor at all. [Laughter] If they chuckle, I’m willing to lean into the conversation a little bit more.
Bob: This new book, DoubtLess—I’m thinking of moms and dads I know who have got kids coming home from junior high or high school or college; and all of a sudden, the kids are coming and saying, “You know, my professor said…” and “My teacher said…” and the parents—inside of them—there is this freak-out moment that happens, where it’s like, “Am I at the beginning stages of my son or daughter starting to head out the door and leave the faith completely?”
Shelby: Yes; I’ve seen many examples of that over the years—both people that I went to college with, when I was a student, to first round of Bible studies that I led at James Madison University—people walking away from the faith—and seeing, because of social media and that kind of stuff, now, you actually know about it. You can see images of it; you could see stuff that people type out. It could be very difficult.
I’ve likened it a little bit to—my daughters, right now, are nine and six—so I don’t want them to learn about certain things of the world from riding the bus home; that’s not where I want them to learn about sex, or issues of sexuality, or what people think about different religions, or even curse words—I don’t want them to learn about that from completely unqualified fourth graders. [Laughter] I’d rather engage with them myself and talk with them about those things.
I want my daughters to feel welcome to ask those kinds of questions, from a very young age. I think what you said to your son, like—“This is great!”—celebrate him as a person and that he is inquisitive. Address the doubt, of course; go after that and come alongside them in the process; because the journey is as important as the destination, I think, with our kids especially.
Ann: Shelby, how would you open that conversation? How do you open the door with your kids to have a conversation about that in the first place?
Well, you know I found, with my kids, the Bible talks about having a childlike faith. I always took that to mean like a dumbed-down faith. Then I had kids, and my kids started asking questions about everything. Opportunity has not been lacking to talk about tons of things; I think we’ve got to be intentional.
We have, like, weekly family devotions on Sundays in our house. That usually brings up a lot of questions about stuff; but as uncomfortable as it can be, as a parent, you need to be the one to lean into it in order to shepherd your child’s heart in a direction that would be healthy for them; because it will help them in the future.
Bob: —which means you have to set an environment from the get-go: “Questions are okay,” “Questions are good,” “Questions are celebrated. We’re not afraid of questions.” Bring this stuff to the light rather than keep it hidden away/like, “If you have doubts, there is something wrong with you.” I think, too, moms and dads need to be verbal about their own wrestling with spiritual issues and just be open about that; don’t you think?
Shelby: Absolutely. I’ve noticed, even too, we’re constantly—as parents, we’re constantly correcting our children and tell them what they should and should not be doing. It’s important that, at least in our family, what my wife and I have done—we’ve had these moments, where—when we mess up and we sin against our kids, or we sin against one another, as spouses, in front of our kids—that we’re intentional to bring it up to them and say: “Hey, I’m sorry for what I did,” “I’m sorry for what I said. Daddy sins too. Will you please forgive me?”
I’ve noticed that kids don’t hold grudges like that; they’re just so quick to say, “Yes!”; and they hug you and want to forgive you. I think that that shows them that: “Hey, I’m not perfect. I’m messed up too, and I need Jesus just as much as you need Jesus.” So when it comes to doubts, being verbal about those things is a healthy thing; but underline knowing that we are going to lean into our relationship with God instead of slowly back away from Him. We’re going to trust that He is going to meet us as we pursue Him.
Dave: I love your perspective on having childlike faith. I’ve actually never read that or heard that perspective. You know, you always hear, “Childlike faith means just blind faith. They believe anything without any reason”; you know? And we think, “Oh, that’s what God is asking us: ‘Just believe. Just rub your feet together and believe, and it will happen.’” But no; it’s so good that kids ask questions. You’re encouraging, “It’s okay to ask questions.” In fact, you’re inviting questions.
But let me ask you this—so your child gets to be 13/14—they start to really develop doubts, and they ask you some really tough questions.
Dave: You, as a parent, don’t know the answer.
Dave: You don’t know; what do you say?
Shelby: “I don’t know.” [Laughter] I think that’s okay. I think, you know, as parents, we always constantly are tempted to say, “I do have all the answers.”
Shelby: There are times when we just don’t know. I think a great answer to a question you don’t know is: “I don’t know, but let me try to find out for you.” That’s when it’s our responsibility, as parents, to not just sweep it under the rug and move on; but actually go after those things so that, when they are adults, they will say, “You know, my dad didn’t have it all together,” “My mom didn’t have it all together, and they didn’t pretend like they did.” That kind of authenticity is attractive; it just is.
Bob: But the freak-out side, for parents, is: “If I don’t have an answer for this, you’re going to reject truth; because I couldn’t come up—I’m going to lose the sale; I’m going to watch you walk away, because I can’t give you an answer that makes sense to you.”
Shelby: Yes; that’s maybe where my theology comes into play in those moments. I just believe that God knows exactly what He’s doing. I mean, there are places in Scripture, too, where—like Habakkuk talks about—“Hey, You say that You’re good. You say that You know what You are doing, but look around; all evidence is to the contrary.”
Many people have discovered that in the West lately because of the coronavirus that shut everything down. It’s like, “How can God be in control of all of this?” It’s that you’re thimble-brain of understanding—would be like trying to pour the ocean into the thimble—it just/you just don’t get things in the way that God does.
I need to trust that, regardless of what happens with my children in the future—and I pray daily that they will walk with Jesus for a lifetime—I have to believe that God knows exactly what He is doing with them, and that He is in control. My responsibility is to be intentional with them, and shepherd them, care for them, teach them, as much as I can; but ultimately, they are not in my hands. They are in God’s hands. I need to live that as an act of faith.
Ann: That is good.
Dave: You know, Shelby, do you think we live in a time where questions and doubt are greater than before? I know that, as a preacher in the last, probably, ten years—maybe, Bob, you experience the same thing—is when I’m opening a text, I think more critically than I would have 20 years ago; because I think, “Okay; my listener is more aware now than they were, let’s say 30 years ago—I’m opening the Bible, and I’m thinking, ‘Most people here have never read the text; because they didn’t go buy a Bible, and they didn’t open it.’”
Today, I know it’s accessible on the internet. They might not only know what this text says, but they know what Richard Dawkins says about the existence of God. They have a little bit of a laymen’s atheist theology. If I come with an elementary pat answer—that would have worked 20 years ago—they’re [today’s listener] going to sort of snicker and go, “This dude really hasn’t done his homework.”
Shelby: Yes; my guess is that the culture ebbs and flows over hundreds of years. I do know that it is different than it was in the ‘90’s when I was in college. I will also say that people choose to trust in certain authorities that they just shouldn’t trust.
There is much evidence for the Bible; there is much evidence for the resurrection—there is much evidence—you’ve just got to be willing to go find it and from the proper sources as opposed to just believing what anyone else says.
If you’re going to believe a tweet or a meme that someone puts out there just because it’s pithy and kind of funny, then that’s on you; but I think, if anything, it forces us to be more—as parents, at least—it forces us to be more ready for the kind of questions that our kids are going to ask as they get older. I’ve found that college students are pretty astute when it comes to that kind of thing, but that’s why it’s important to be with them in the process and really care for them.
When you are a pastor, and you’re preaching these kinds of things, it also helps you to know that: “Hey, this is—the Bible says that we are going to be judged more harshly as teachers. I need to do my homework. I can’t look for silver bullet answers that are going to solve everyone’s problems. I need to put in the work, ask the right questions myself, and then pre-answer them before they are even asked.”
Ann: I think that’s a tricky place with, especially, teens. I think what we can do, as parents, is—we can get fearful of the places they are going for their research, so we could almost—this is probably what I would have done in the day—I would shut it down: “Well, that’s a terrible resource. Why are you going to those places to find those resources when there are much better places?”
So, as parents, if we don’t go out of relationship/an existing relationship, and have the talk very carefully of not shaming them of where they are going, but also asking, “Oh, have you checked this one out as well?—because this is a great place to go.”
Bob: Well, and Shelby comment on this, too; because my sense is if, as parents, we appear to be freaked out by your doubt—
Bob: —if you come and you say, “I’m reading this, and we start to go—
Bob: Yes; right. I think what the kid picks up, subconsciously, is, “Oh, Mom and Dad are fearful here.” Rather than “Mom and Dad are confident about what they believe”; “Mom and Dad are afraid that somebody is going to be able to put a—
Ann: —“sway me.”
Bob: That’s right!
So we have to have an approach to our faith that has a confidence that says: “Yes; there have been critics for a long time; there are critics today. You’ve run into one here; and in some cases, they can make a compelling-sounding argument. Let’s talk about that,”—rather than—“STOP reading this!” and “We’ve got to clean your room immediately!” [Laughter]
Ann: One of the things that we loved about teenagers and college students that came home for the summer was—we loved the conversations that we could have with them. Even when my sister died, our kids were middle school and elementary school; but I remember sharing with them, like: “This is really hard. I’ve been praying a certain way, and I haven’t seen those prayers answered the way that I wanted. I’ve really struggled with: ‘God, this is hard for me, and I don’t get it.’”
But to have those discussions openly—and even having them when our kids’ friends come in—to ask those hard questions, like, “This just happened, where this woman is really struggling,”—like the one I just talked about earlier—“who is singing this song about how we can trust God; He doesn’t let us down, but she doesn’t believe that.” To ask our teens, like, “Have you ever felt like that?” I think those late-night talks and those dinner conversations are some of the most beautiful times you can have with a teen.
Shelby: Yes; I found that with younger people, too, like they value authenticity in a way that, maybe, we—20 years ago, like to put on a good show; and that the show is what we thought we had to have correct—but this day and age, when it comes to people wrestling with identity as part of what they think of who they are—that kind of stuff—if you’re talking about those things, and you’re forthright about them, and then you’re admittedly saying, “This is where my flaws are,” and “I need to work at this more,” that’s just going to go a long, long way.
Bob, you mentioned something earlier, too, that made me think. There are questions they may be asking right now; they might think that those are new questions; but to help them to see that: “Your question has already been asked—
Shelby: —“thousands of times, and there have been really quality answers given to those questions. You’ve just got to be willing to go look for them instead of being completely derailed by something that they think, ‘Nobody has ever figured this out before!’”
Bob: I would just say, “I think that’s important.” When they come, even if you don’t have the answer, for you to be able to say, “You know, there are smart people, who have wrestled with this question before, and who have found answers. Let’s look at what they say.”
I was talking with somebody recently about a famous religion professor, Bart Ehrman, who is at the University of North Carolina, who went to Moody and went to Wheaton—and then went to Princeton and went off the rails there—and said, “I don’t believe the Bible anymore.” Now, he’s a distinguished chair in Religion at the University of North Carolina.
You can get intimidated by somebody, who is a Greek scholar, and knows more languages than you do, and has done more study on this, who can say: “Ah, but what about the Dead Sea scrolls and what they say over here?” “What about the archaeological evidence over here?” You don’t have an answer for that. What you need to know is there are guys, every bit as credentialed and every bit as dedicated to scholarship as Bart Ehrman, who have looked at that and said, “No; Bart, you’re wrong”; and they can make an argument. You can listen to both sides and, ultimately, decide what you want to believe.
But I have to say here, Shelby—we were teaching through John 5 recently. The Jewish leaders were coming; and Jesus said, “I’m equal with God.” They said, “You’re what?!” He, then, provides the evidence—He says: “John the Baptist said I was equal with God. My miracles say I’m equal with God. God says I’m equal with Him. The Old Testament was pointing to Me. Moses says I’m equal with God. So if you don’t believe, you’re going against all of those witnesses.”
But in the middle of it, Jesus says, “The reason you don’t believe is not because the evidence isn’t there, the reason you don’t believe is because you don’t want to believe. Ultimately, you don’t want to bow a knee; you don’t want to surrender.” Often, we have to recognize that, behind doubt, there is this desire to want to be in control of our own lives, and not to have to surrender to a Lord, and not to acknowledge our need for a Savior.
Shelby: Yes; I’ve found that so many young people don’t like the idea of bending the knee, because they don’t want anybody to tell them who they are.
Shelby: But it’s funny; they’re just one trial/one suffering session away from looking for the kind of authority that they need. The truth is that the Christian worldview is a better worldview than the one that they are clamoring for. They think it’s freedom, but it actually is enslavement. Everybody needs to bow to some sort of authority. Wrestling with doubt, and that process of figuring out what that authority should be, is a healthy thing; because it can create a more galvanized and strong faith for a young person. As parents, it’s really important that we allow them to take that journey, as scary as it is.
I don’t/I didn’t like the idea of letting go of the bicycle seat with my daughter and watching her wobble/pedal down the street, because I was afraid of what might happen; but if I never let go of the seat, she would never ride the bike on her own. Sometimes, we’ve just got to let our kids—even if they are in their teens, 20s, and 30s—we’ve got to let go of the seat, because they’ve got to make the faith their own. They will not adopt the faith just because that’s what we did as a kid—especially in this day and age. They need to make it their own, and we should want that for them.
Bob: Yes; for a mom or a dad to get with a teenager and say, “Let’s do a book club together. You and me—let’s read this a chapter at a time. We’ll get together for breakfast once a week and talk about the chapter we read,”—and I’m talking about your book, DoubtLess.
I’m grateful for the book and, Shelby, grateful for you and for your time with us this week. Thanks for being here.
Shelby: Yes; thank you so much for having me. It’s my pleasure.
Bob: You can go to FamilyLifeToday.com to get a copy of Shelby’s book, DoubtLess. Because Faith Is Hard is the subtitle. Again, the website is FamilyLifeToday.com. Order the book, DoubtLess, from us online; or call to order: 1-800-FL-TODAY is the number—1-800-358-6329—1-800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.”
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We hope you have a great weekend. Hope you and your family are able, in some way or other, to worship together with your local church this weekend. And I hope you can join us back on Monday when we’re going to talk about how we can get young kids excited about the Bible, about God, about Jesus, about biblical truth; and it all involves slugs, and bugs, and other creatures. Randall Goodgame is going to be here to share about a project he is involved with that has young kids in mind. I hope you can tune in for that.
I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, along with our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our hosts, Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Bob Lepine. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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