How can I respond to my 16 year old son who is struggling with his faith and no longer convinced that God exist and says he has cried out to God to show himself but God hasn’t showed up?
Can I ask if you know what he is seeking God to do? Is he wanting God to reveal Himself in a way that your son can know He exists or is he asking God to show up and answer his prayer (for healing or deliverance or something like that)?
@Oomara I am sorry to hear about your son’s struggle, but I think we can see a great opportunity to help your son think at a deeper level about what it means to walk with God and who God is. Rather than trying to give your son a quick answer, offer to provide him resources and walk with him on a journey to a deeper understanding of how we know God and what it means to have a relationship with God. Also, share with him that doubt is part of faith - it is a sign that we have an opportunity to learn more about the God we love. This experience is an opportunity for him - not a setback. A few questions to start with might be:
What did you pray? What did you expect to happen? Let’s take a look at the purpose of Biblical prayer and what we should expect from a walk with God.
What do you think would happen if God suddenly revealed Himself to everyone in the whole world in a way they could not deny? Do you think that everyone would love God? (let him think and answer) Then discuss how God wants us to know and love Him - He does not want us to serve Him because we have no other choice or to get money or food or health. He wants us to seek Him - to pursue Him as One who is more valuable than anything else. Also, those who hated God might start a war with God and then God would be forced to destroy them, but God wants even His enemies to repent and know His love - so He is patient and does not make Himself so obvious that we must choose right this second what to do.
Then you might take a look at C. S. Lewis’ conversion story (youtube videos below) and discuss how knowing God is a journey - the greatest journey of our lives. It does not happen all in a moment - we all go through times of doubt and discouragement as we grow in our understanding of God. Reading ‘Mere Christianity’ or ‘Knowing God’ along with your son may be helpful.
A few thoughts of my own regarding the answer to this question are:
- God often does not answer prayers right away - even Abraham waited many years to have his beloved son Isaac - that is the nature of faith - it is the substance of things unseen. To have faith is to believe that God exists and is a rewarder of those who seek Him even when we cannot see. (Hebrews 11:1,6)
- The purpose of prayer is to express our trust in, love for and reliance on God - it is not a way to receive easy answers. The Biblical book of Proverbs says that we should seek knowledge of God and wisdom more than jewels or gold - it is something we work at and pursue.
- God reveals Himself most powerfully in the way our heart and mind are transformed as we walk with Him over the course of many years
Below is an answer from Ravi to this specific questions and then resources I have mentioned that may help in having this dialogue with your son. I am praying that your son may be encouraged and God may grant you wisdom to shepherd him through this time in his life. If he struggles with doubt do not be discouraged - guide him patiently and help him understand as best as you can. Hope these resources prove helpful.
Does Prayer Change Anything?
God Does Not Overwhelm Us
God gives us freedom to either reject or accept Him - He makes Himself known enough for us to seek and find Him. But does not make Himself so obvious that we are forced to obey. This can give the impression to those who want an immediate answer from God that He does not exist - but to know God requires that we walk with Him. Just like knowing another person - knowledge is something that is acquired over time.
Yancey says, “More amazing is his refusal to perform and to overwhelm. God’s terrible insistence on human freedom is so absolute that he granted us the power to live as though he did not exist, to spit in his face, to crucify him. I believe God insists on such restraint because no pyrotechnic displays of omnipotence will achieve the response he desires. Although power can force obedience, only love can summon a response of love, which is the one thing God wants from us and the reason he created us.”
C. S. Lewis’ Conversion
I think C. S. Lewis’ conversion shows how God can seek us over months or years. Knowing God is a process - it is something that we experience as we live out our faith - it is not something that happens all in a moment. I think meditating on Lewis’ conversion can help here. If he is a reader, ‘Mere Christianity’ by Lewis made a huge difference in my life at that point.
Packer’s Knowing God
A good book on understanding the character and nature of God.
Dear Kerryn @Oomara ,
Thank you for the courage to ask this question. I know this is a very personal and heart-breaking matter for you. So thank you again.
Thank you for this response! I think I’ll be reverting back to this often…
If I may share my experience on the matter. When I was still a young believer in my early twenties, I was on fire! People could see and I boldly announced my faith.
I remember as a child thinking my aunt (my mother’s younger sister) always loved her husband more than any person I’d ever seen. She would sing his praises and kiss and hug him every time we’d see them. They always looked so in love and I thought then that seemed like something I would want some day.
Jumping forward again to my twenties, while on fire for the Lord, we learned that he had been physically and verbally abusing her since the second year of their marriage. The abuse finally came to the surface when she arrived at our home one night with my three little cousins, with a broken cheekbone, a broken sternum and a pole driven through the windshield of her car. After he drove the pole through the windshield, he ran back in the house to get his gun and shot at them as the drove away with the pole still in the windshield…
I couldn’t understand this. How could she have loved him so much while he had been doing this for so many years and why didn’t she say anything?
One night I heard someone read a few passages from a book. Forgive me, but I can’t recall which book it was, because somewhere in the first paragraph he read something and I was so busy with the Lord that I didn’t hear anything around me in the physical. I still don’t know what the readers ultimate massage was, but the sentence that caught my attention was, “Forced love isn’t real love”.
I realised then that is the reason why God does not reveal Himself too clearly. He has the power to put all His glory on display and we would certainly obey… But God is love. And He wants our REAL love. Not because we’re scared for our lives, because we’re obedient out of fear, or because of what He can do for us—but because we know Him. We need to seek His face and not His hand.
And He does reveal himself gradually as Sean illustrated so beautifully. I pray that your son will persist in seeking Him and I think the practical tips that Sean gave are excellent ideas of things to do with him. Your son will know God personally and intimately in Jesus Name. Amen
Thank you for your interest in my post. Essentially he is going through doubts about God’s existence and searching for answers as a teen seeking to find who he is and what to believe about life. He wants to sense Gods real ness in his life like hearing him I suppose - or seeing or feeling something tangible - I have had some good conversations with him about how God interacts with us - the unique special times he may bless us with a real sense of his presence - but also the day to day relationship of hearing Him through the bible and prayer.
Thank you so much SeanO for all this information and advice - I have been at work all day but plan to consider all you have posted at depth tomorrow( I think we are in different time zones do there is a lag with that as well). I know of most of the books you recommend and will purchase ASAP. Thanks again.
Thank you Jean for your encouragement and prayer. I just shared with my son that I have some things to share with him ( we had a long conversation last night about some of these things) and he was positive. So I hope we will be able to look at some of the resources SeanO posted and discuss them together. I feel more positive after theses responses to look at this as an opportunity rather than as a negative thing.
@Oomara Sure thing. I am glad that you have a more positive outlook - I really do believe this is a great opportunity for him to grow in his faith. Will be praying for you guys!
One other thought he may find helpful is from Pascal’s Pensees. In “Christianity for Modern Pagans” Peter Kreeft examines Pascal’s work. One argument Pascal makes is that God gives exactly enough light for the righteous to find Him and for the wicked to reject Him.
"He gives exactly the right amount of light. If He gave less, even the righteous would be unable to find Him, and their will would be thwarted. If He gave more, even the wicked would find Him, against their will. Thus He respects and fulfills the will of all.
If He gave more light, the righteous would not learn humility, for they would know too much. If He gave less light, the wicked would not be responsible for their wickedness, for they would know too little."
I like this Sean! Thank you. Very helpful
@Jean Yes, Pascal has some great thoughts when it comes to the complex realities of the human heart as it relates to God and how we can reach others for Jesus. Glad it was helpful!
You are being guided in wisdom in your answers to your son. And exactly right in that response – God will at times reveal Himself in special ways to us, but daily, He reveals Himself as we seek Him through reading the Bible and prayer. I love this verse – “I did not speak in secret, in a land of darkness; I did not say to the offspring of Jacob, ‘Seek me in vain.’ I the Lord speak truth; I declare what is right.” (Isaiah 45:19) It’s a reminder of the heart of God. He isn’t asking us to seek Him in vain, but to seek Him and find Him. And the one in James that says, “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him”. This is an encouragement to me when my kids ask hard questions and I don’t know how to answer them-- God does not get tired of us coming to Him and asking for wisdom in our responses. He is clearly giving you wisdom and He will keep giving it as you keep coming to Him.
One passage that comes to mind in reading your post is Luke 16:19-31 – the story of the rich man and Lazarus after their deaths when the rich man begs that someone may come back and warn his family of the torment of hell. And the response at the end is, “If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.” Jesus is teaching that He has revealed what people need to hear and know of God through the Bible; and people have rejected the truth of the Bible. If people do not believe His word, then it does not matter what sign or wonder or miracle is done, they will reject that as well. I’m sure you are familiar with how many times the religious leaders asked Jesus for a sign so that they could believe. And Jesus said a sign would not be given to them because their hearts were hardened to the truth. So I share this not as a judgment against your son, but as a reminder of the state of the human heart, which God fully knows. We are blind, darkened in our understanding and we reject the truth of God. The earth is full of the glory of God and we are blind to it without God opening our eyes. So that is something I consistently pray for myself and my children – that God will open our eyes to see Who He is and to understand the Scriptures. I have a son, almost 16, and I have challenged him to pick a book in the Bible and consistently read though it – to start with a chapter a day and read through the whole book. God will often work in teaching us as we are consistent; sometimes my son would jump from book to book or read a little here and then read in another part of the Bible the next day, and I spoke with him about being able to see a better picture of Who God is as we read through an entire book of the Bible at a time.
My father used to say, we find out who we are in finding out Who God is. I know there is a lot of emphasis on our teens to “find themselves” and “know who they are” and again, we have to teach the truth to them that we are fallen creatures, rejecting God and blinded to His truth until God begins to work in us. And only by His grace and power can we seek Him. So our desire to seek Him is evidence that He is already drawing us. He is already at work in our lives. And His heart and desire is for us to know Him. The Spirit searches the depths of God and the depths of our own heart. He sees what we do not in our motives for wanting God to reveal Himself or act and we have to trust that as He exposes our hearts, we are able to come to Him humbly and learn that we really need His salvation. His biggest concern is saving us from our sin – and this so that we can fully see Him and experience His glory, and one day walk with Him face to face as it was in the beginning.
God will not despise the cries of the afflicted. Sometimes it feels like He is delaying in answering our children. With my own teenager, I have been reminding myself of David, Daniel and Joseph – they were about our sons’ ages when they were called into very hard battles and circumstances. David had to flee for his life, Daniel was taken into captivity, Joseph was sold into slavery and unjustly imprisoned – and I am sure at times each of them felt like God wasn’t answering them or responding to them as they sat day after day seeing no sign and no change in their circumstances. But all of them were brought into “a broad place” (as David describes) of God’s Presence. He first revealed Himself to them and at His right timing, He lifted all of them out of their doubt, despair or hardships. But not before showing them Who He is. Sometimes the most difficult circumstances, whether it is physical or emotional, allow us to see God in the greatest way. Trusting that His heart is to reveal Himself is encouraging to me as a parent when I watch my kids go through doubts.
I heard someone say that all we can really know or understand of God is revealed in Jesus. Jesus Himself said that there is so much more He wants to tell His followers but that they could not bear it now; and that we would have many questions that will be answered when we see Him in heaven. There is a lot that we cannot know, understand or bear as humans; but God is changing that. He will continue to guide us into the light and knowledge of Christ and one day, He will give us a new body that is able to bear the full glory of God.
Here is one last thing I read the other day that was helpful to me – (it is an excerpt from Hard Places in the Way of Faith):
"The marvelous story of Paul’s voyage to Rome, with its trials and triumphs, is a fine pattern of the lights and shades of the way of faith all through the story of human life. The remarkable feature of it is the hard and narrow places which we find intermingled with God’s most extraordinary interpositions and providences.
"It is the common idea that the pathway of faith is strewn with flowers, and that when God interposes in the life of His people, He does it on a scale so grand that He lifts us quite out of the plane of difficulties. The actual fact, however, is that the real experience is quite contrary. The story of the Bible is one of alternate trial and triumph in the case of everyone of the cloud of witnesses from Abel down to the last martyr.
"Paul, more than anyone else, was an example of how much a child of God can suffer without being crushed or broken in spirit. On account of his testifying in Damascus, he was hunted down by persecutors and obliged to flee for his life, but we behold no heavenly chariot transporting the holy apostle amid thunderbolts of flame from the reach of his foes, but ‘through a window in a basket’, was he let down over the walls of Damascus and so escaped their hands. In an old clothes basket, like a bundle of laundry, or groceries, the servant of Jesus Christ was dropped from the window and ignominiously fled from the hate of his foes.
"Again we find him left for months in the lonely dungeons; we find him telling of his watchings, his fastings, and his desertion by friends, of his brutal and shameful beatings, and here even after God has promised to deliver him, we see him for days left to toss upon a stormy sea, obliged to stand guard over the treacherous seamen, and at last when the deliverance comes, there is no heavenly galley sailing from the skies to take off the noble prisoner; there is no angel form walking along the waters and stilling the raging breakers; there is no supernatural sign of the transcendent miracle that is being wrought; but one is compelled to seize a spar, another a floating plank, another to climb on a fragment of the wreck, another to strike out and swim for his life (Acts 27:44).
"Here is God’s pattern for our own lives. Here is a gospel of help for people that have to live in this everyday world with real and ordinary surroundings, and a thousand practical conditions which have to be met in a thoroughly practical way.
“God’s promises and God’s providences do not lift us out of the plane of common sense and commonplace trial, but it is through these very things that faith is perfected, and that God loves to interweave the golden threads of His love along the warp and woof of our everyday experience.”
That excerpt is helpful to me because we are in good company to not have everyday signs, wonders and miracles or daily visions of God or heaven. God works through our everyday, ordinary lives and says blessed is the one who does not stumble over my ways. He is not withholding His glory, but He is bringing us, as His followers, into His glory. We don’t have the end result yet, but are little by little being made ready for it until He Himself restores, confirms, strengthens and establishes us (1 Peter 5.10) The signs and miracles Jesus did on earth were to testify to the truth of His word. God has chosen His word as the means to reveal Himself. I pray that your son and mine will have a desire to study and learn His word, and I know as they continue to seek Him, He will reveal Himself more and more. I pray that you do not grow discouraged in your son’s journey, but are able to see the hand of God directing his paths. God bless you, sister!
Thank you Abbey. I read this this morning and felt so encouraged. How amazing it is to feel loved and supported by people on the other side of the world who I don’t even know! I want to come back and read your considered response - there was much in it for thought. I especially liked the reminder of how Jesus reacted when asked for a sign - would you mind telling me more about your reference for Jesus saying he had so much more he wished to tell his followers but they could not bear it?
One story from my own life at a time when all was in chaos around me and my family was falling apart. I got up in the night and read Psalm 77 and God reminded me that although he seemed silent and far from me I can trust based on what he has done in the past. As Asaph did I started to recall the goodness of God in my life and was encouraged to trust Him. Looking back at this now it is still with me. I see that God has given me enough of His light to see him but not so much that I don’t need to seek him or exercise faith. I pray he will, in his perfect timing and ways give my son his own glimpses of His glory to respond and to hold onto in the desert times.
“I cried out to God for help; I cried out to God to hear me. When I was in distress, I sought the Lord; at night I stretched out untiring hands, and I would not be comforted. I remembered you, God, and I groaned; I meditated, and my spirit grew faint. You kept my eyes from closing; I was too troubled to speak. I thought about the former days, the years of long ago; I remembered my songs in the night. My heart meditated and my spirit asked: “Will the Lord reject forever? Will he never show his favor again? Has his unfailing love vanished forever? Has his promise failed for all time? Has God forgotten to be merciful? Has he in anger withheld his compassion?” Then I thought, “To this I will appeal: the years when the Most High stretched out his right hand. I will remember the deeds of the Lord; yes, I will remember your miracles of long ago. I will consider all your works and meditate on all your mighty deeds.””
Psalm 77:1-12 NIV
Thanks for sharing that! That psalm is a big encouragement to me right now in what my family is going through. Even tonight, I am having trouble sleeping and re-reading it. It’s a good reminder that as brothers and sisters we are facing similar testings and trials throughout the world, but we can see God’s faithfulness and salvation in each other’s lives. I’m thankful you have seen His trustworthiness throughout your life and you continue to build your trust on His unchanging character. That is a beautiful prayer for your son – to see glimpses of God’s glory and so hold on in the desert times. You are doing well with what God has entrusted to you.
The reference was from John 16 (John 16:12) And I guess I share that as an encouragement that our all-knowing God in His wisdom does at time withhold answers and understanding. Some of it may be because, as one believer described, if God were to pour out His knowledge to us it would be like trying to dump a water tower into a dixie cup. We are limited right now in what we can understand and know. But it also encouraging that He does not allow us to face hardships or testings in a way that will extinguish our faith. He knows what we can bear and when, and that includes knowledge of Himself and what He is doing. “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law” (deut 29:29) and “this commandment…is not too hard for you, neither is it far off…but the word is very near to you” (deut 30.11,14) God brings to light exactly what He wants us to know. And what He has not brought to light is not for us to bear right now.
I do see in reading the Bible examples of people having different encounters with God based on how much knowledge they had of Him. For example, in John 9, the Pharisees are rejecting the teaching of Jesus (that He is God) and essentially say that they are not blind to truth, to which Jesus replies, “If you were blind, you would have no guilt; but now that you say, ‘We see’, your guilt remains”. These are the leaders of whom Jesus said no sign would be given. They knew the Scriptures. Yet contrast that with Gideon, who asks for multiple signs and God grants them to him (Judges 6). Can I say why God gave the sign to Gideon and not to the Pharisees? Not completely; but it is revealed that the Pharisees had great knowledge of God’s word and consistently rejected the truth, and Gideon was fearful and unsure of what God spoke, and God confirmed His word, which Gideon did not reject.
The seeking heart will always find more of God. And even the doubting heart, like Thomas, is invited to come and see what will cause belief. If darkness or silence would destroy the faith of a person seeking God, then God would not allow those things to remain (although He is never absent; He dwells in the darkness, He holds all things together). His nature and His word bring light, revelation, belief and faith. As we walk in the light we have and obey what commandments have been given to us, we will find ourselves walking into His glory and Presence. A lot of my unanswered questions and longings to see God have to be answered right now with contentment of what He has revealed through Christ. And in our time, He has put His glory in the jars of clay of His people…the more we seek Him together, the more we see His glory. Like with Philip and the Ethiopian (Acts 8), His people are a main channel for God to reveal Himself, confirm His Presence, and bring understanding to those seeking God.