As a young boy, Steve Jobs attended a Lutheran church with his parents. At age 13, he asked the pastor, "If I raise my finger, will God know which one I'm going to raise even before I do it?"
The pastor answered, "Yes, God knows everything."
Jobs then pulled out a Life magazine cover depicting starving children in Biafra and asked his pastor, "Does God know about this and what's going to happen to those children?"
The well-intentioned pastor answered, "Steve, I know you don't understand, but yes, God knows about that."
Jobs declared that he didn't want to worship such a God, walked out of the church, and never went back.
As we at the Fuller Youth Institute (FYI) learned from studying 500 youth-group graduates during their first three years in college, Jobs's story is far from unique. In our Sticky Faith research, geared to help young people develop a Christian faith that lasts, a common narrative emerged: When young people asked tough questions about God at church, often during elementary or middle school, they were told by well-meaning church leaders and teachers, "We don't ask those sorts of questions about God here." While they rarely storm out of the church like Jobs did, they end up believing that the church is not big enough to handle their tough questions, and thus neither is God.
According to our research at FYI, this suppression of doubt can sabotage a young person's faith. Contrary to what many of us might believe, students who feel the most free to express doubt and discuss their personal problems actually exhibit more internal and external faith indicators in high school and college. Doubt in and of itself isn't toxic. It's unexpressed doubt that becomes toxic.
Giving young people of all ages the chance to share their deepest thoughts is important as we approach fall. Elementary and middle school students returning to school inevitably face new questions, ranging from why would God put me in classes where I have no friends to why God would make me this way (for young adolescents, "this way" covers the gamut of learning disabilities to acne).
For high school and college students, the questions become more provocative and challenging. The doubts of the students in our Sticky Faith research tended to cluster into four types of concerns (listed in no particular order):
- … Does God exist?
- … Is Christianity true/the only way to God?
- … Am I living the life God wants?
- … Does God love me?
Interestingly, the first two types of responses focus on classic questions of apologetics. The second two questions are much more personal and individual. The polarity in these four responses has convicted me, as a mom and church leader, that as students head to school, I need to create space for both types of questions.
Part of why I believe doubt is a powerful tool in spiritual formation (both others' and my own) is because there's an entire book of the Bible centered on one devout believer's rollercoaster-like exploration of doubt. The pilgrimage of Job and his friends (who are at their best during the week that they sit in silence with Job after he has lost his children, health, and wealth) illuminates important principles we can share and embody in our own spiritual journeys as well as in our relationships with young people.
God can handle our doubts. In fact, God wants us to bring our doubts to him. While Job wondered why God would allow him to be tormented, Job's friends shared platitudes about
God and sin. In the final chapter of Job, God pronounces his judgment on Job's friends: "I am angry with you … because you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has" (Job 42:7). God praises Job for his authenticity in plunging into the deep end of his doubt instead of splashing around in the shallow waters of superficiality.
There's a lot we don't know. My Fuller Seminary Old Testament colleague, John Goldingay, points out that Job did not personally observe the dialogue between God and Satan in Job chapters 1 and 2. Job doesn't know there's a purpose behind what he's experiencing. Goldingay, who walked through his wife Ann's painful diagnosis and eventual death because of multiple sclerosis, writes, "We do not know what might explain our suffering, what purpose God might have in it … After all, Job could never have dreamt of the explanation of what happened to him. I cannot imagine the story that makes it okay for God to have made Ann go through what she has been through. But I can imagine that there is such a story."
We do know what we do know. The corollary is that while there's much we don't know about our life and hardship, there's much we do know about God. That's why Job can eventually get to the place of admitting to God, "I know that you can do all things; no plan of yours can be thwarted" (Job 42:2).
I often wonder what would have happened if Steve Jobs's pastor had walked through his doubts with him. What would have happened if the pastor had answered, "Steve, that's a great question. I don't know the answer, but I'd love to meet again to study Scripture and see if we can figure it out together"? Is it possible that our world would be a better place if Jobs's entrepreneurial energy had been channeled not just toward technology but also gospel-minded purposes?
As the young people in your life wonder why God would allow their personal hardship—"Why doesn't anybody want to go out with me?"—as well as more global hardships—"Why would God allow the Aurora movie shooting to happen?"—they long to know that you can handle their toughest questions. Even more important, God can too.