He sits next to me, untwisting the small, green cap of an applesauce snack. After each squeeze, he tells me something small about his day — how there’s a brand-new classmate, how he played soccer and fell in the mud at recess, how he’s learning about the American Revolution. And then he asks me, “Why is Russia attacking Ukraine? And why do people kill each other?”
I take a deep breath, noticing how small his hands are and that he has dirt on his jeans.
I think of the kids his age who are sheltering or fleeing as refugees right now and about how many have been doing this for as long as there have been nations. A few of his school classmates have had to leave their homes, and he knows them and calls them friends because of this reality. A few years ago, before COVID, I remember meeting one friend in particular when I visited my son for lunch. When I found out he’d recently moved, I asked him what he missed most. He shared about family members and all the foods he missed while the rest of the lunch table fell abnormally quiet to listen.
My own mom lived through war and loss, and however removed he is, I know my son feels it all when they are together. He asks me often why she’s had to go through so much.
His questions about war poke at so many hard realities I wish none of us had to face. I tell him, “That’s a really good question,” then whisper, “Help” to God as I realize I have the same questions.
I say a few things about power and greed and how little choices can grow into bigger and bigger choices like wildfire. But what he also needs to know is that I ask God the same questions he asks me. He wants a black-and-white answer that will appease him for a moment, or maybe even a few years, but I know how the questions will come back again, as persistent as the dusk of another day.
I want my kids to know that we can go to God when we doubt, when we’re afraid, and when we don’t understand why things are the way they are. I want them to know that yes, we can be part of the change we long to see, but I also want them to know how courageous it is to ask honest questions.
Honest questions can lead us to deeper intimacy with God. They aren’t a slippery slope or something to shut out of our system or defend against.
My natural tendency is to shield my kids from the harsher realities of the world and run from some of these questions. But while talking about things in age-appropriate ways is good, running from the realities of the world is impossible if we are honest and awake to the world in and around us.
The best response to a hard question is to ask ourselves another question:
What am I afraid of?
Then sit still long enough to face the answer.
Our fear of questions and doubt reveal our limited understanding of love. This isn’t something to be ashamed of; instead, it’s indicative of our own pain. The world is crying out in pain, and it seems like most of us have been trained to refuse to face our own.
James Baldwin wrote this in The Fire Next Time, “I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hate so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.”
John, a disciple of Jesus, wrote this in one of his letters, “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love” (1 John 4:18).
We can welcome the questions of our children, neighbors, enemies, and our own. Doing so will require us to dig beyond them and find the pain we’ve buried down deep, the fears we harbor and hide, and offer it all to God. Our fear is an invitation to step towards healing. Our questions are a doorway to humility and help. Our doubts can lead us to a deepened faith.
Later that night, at bedtime, the Holy Spirit reminded me of my after-school conversation with my son. I asked him if he wanted to pray and ask God anything. He shook his head and asked me to pray instead. I asked God the same question he’d asked me hours earlier, prayed for Ukraine, then gave room for a little bit of silence. I kissed him goodnight, then silently asked God to help him always feel more-than-permission to ask hard questions and for God to come near to him in the middle of each one.
A prayer for all of us:
God, who isn’t afraid of any question, we are so often afraid. We cover it up with statements of faith and stubborn platitudes. Reach past it all — reach us and wake us to your pursuit. Show us our real questions. Forgive us for being dishonest and defensive. Help us face the pain we bury so deep. Give us the courage to trust You. Be near to us in our doubts. Be near like our breath, flesh, and bone. And deliver us from our fears with Your perfect love. Amen.
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