Trials and suffering in our lives can be anything from stretching to down right devastating. However, I think most people would probably agree that as painful as it is to endure suffering in our own lives, it can be even more painful to watch our children suffer.
But in this world, suffer they will. Whether it’s a bully at school, a friend who hurts their feelings, the loss of a loved one, a broken heart, or life-altering illness, all of our children will be faced with the realities of a broken world.
All four of my children have endured suffering since they took their first breath. They each suffer immensely from the physical, emotional, and neurological pain of Lyme disease. They have all watched our family go from being financially comfortable to financial strain. They frequently feel left out of parties and school activities because of special diets and chronic pain. Our oldest is tormented by thoughts and behaviors that have wreaked havoc in his life and our lives; and our younger three have had to grapple with the devastating effects of growing up with an older sibling whose neurological Lyme disease causes them so much pain.
What do we do when suffering strikes our kids? How do we prepare our children for a world that involves disappointment, pain, and loss?
Lead by Example
Do you view suffering as purely harmful and something to be avoided at all costs? Or do you have a biblical view of it?
While suffering is not a good thing in and of itself, if we view it as Christians who know the God who is Lord of all, then we are able to trust that he will use whatever he sends to draw us closer to him and mold us to be more like him.
So when pain enters your life, how do you respond? Does it drive you (with all of your confused emotions, and sometimes shaken faith) to Jesus, and to greater dependence on him?
Of course, you won’t do this perfectly because you are still in the process of being made more like Christ. But your children are watching, and they are learning from your responses to the irritations you face, the detours that leave you frazzled and frustrated, and the devastating circumstances that sometimes leave you fighting for any sense of hope.
Parents, you are the ones who will begin to shape your children’s view of suffering and the power of the gospel in light of it. Your suffering is an opportunity to show them how faith brings joy and perseverance when life hurts.
Pray for Wisdom
When is it a parent’s job to protect and seek to rescue them from the pain of the world?
When is it a parent’s job to support them through it and allow God to use their trials to draw them to him?
Of course, there may not always be—in fact, often will not be—black- and-white answers; and we will always have the tendency to want to rescue and protect our children. But ask yourself the questions. And seek wisdom through prayer and godly Christian counsel when faced with these circumstances.
Remember Who is in Control – and Who is Not
If we think that we have the ability to control our children’s lives, we will have a tendency to become hover parents, living in fear of what we can’t control and never allowing our kids to learn from anything, good or bad.
There is great freedom in realizing that God has entrusted us with children whom he created for his purposes under his sovereign plan. We can teach our children about the Lord, but only he has the power to save them. We can help protect our children, but only the Lord is truly sovereign over what happens in their lives. We can love our children, but only the Lord can love them with a love that is perfectly knowledgeable and perfectly untainted by mixed motives and ongoing sin.
The best thing that you can give your children is parents who seek to know and love Christ above all else. After that, pray for wisdom and guidance in raising them, and then entrust their lives into his hand.
How then do we help our children to endure suffering in light of the gospel?
I’d like to share five ways that I have seen God guide us in helping our children understand and learn to view suffering with a gospel lens.
1. Teach Kids that Suffering is Not Only a Bad Thing to be Avoided
Do you mainly pray for your trials to be taken away and for things that you want? Do you, in fact, pray with and in front of your children at all? Aim to pray with confidence, recognizing that God is Lord over you, that you are a sinner in desperate need of him, and that Christ has died and defeated death, so that your pain need not be wasted but can be used for your good.
And when your children suffer, help them to pray for faith and growth and endurance more than they pray for the circumstance to be changed. I’ve learned this the hard way. Years upon years of praying for my oldest to be free from all that torments him and causes so much pain in our home began to make him question why God wouldn’t answer our prayers to heal him. For a long time I struggled to answer him because I couldn’t understand why the Lord was continuing to allow so much pain in such a little child’s life.
But over the years, my prayers began to change. I found myself praying that Jesus would help me trust him more and give me the strength to keep going. I began to experience sweet blessings within the deep heartache that I never would have found if I had only viewed our trials as my enemy and something to get out of as quickly as possible.
Now when one of my children comes to me with the question, “Why do I have to be sick and all my friends aren’t?” Or, “Mommy, why did you give me this sickness?”, or “Why does my brother hurt me so much?” I have to quickly reflect on all that God has done through the pain he has allowed, and then respond with, “I don’t know why God has allowed all of this, but I do know that it’s not being wasted, and that he is allowing it to make us love him more, love the world less, and become more like him in the process.”
2. Teach Kids that Suffering is Not a Surprise
Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned…(Romans 5 v 12)
It’s important that we help our children understand that when sin entered the world, death entered the world. Therefore, we shouldn’t be surprised when we experience the inevitable sadness, brokenness, and pain of living in a world under the curse of sin. We do need to be clear, however, that our suffering is not always (and often not) a direct result of a specific sin in our lives, but rather, a result of the overarching curse of sin on the world. But if our children do not understand that we are all sinners and deserve to die for our sins, then they will expect to be happy and comfortable in this life, and wil be angry at God when they aren’t.
Share with your children ways that you have struggled with sin and suffering in your own life (in an age–appropriate way), and how you have needed forgiveness and the power of the Holy Spirit to help you. Tell them about the great men and women of the Bible who made some pretty huge mistakes and endured perplexing circumstances, but de- sired to follow Jesus, and who found help to carry on, and to do great things even amid their difficulties.
3. Teach Kids to talk to Jesus about Their Feelings, Questions, and Fears
Many children will bottle up their feelings, especially if they think that they shouldn’t feel the way they do or they don’t know what to do with the feelings. Others will go to their parents (which is great)—but we need to lead them to go to Jesus. He can help more than we can, and can be there for them when we can’t be!
We have seen our own children struggle with anger, discouragement, weariness, and confusion because each day is such a struggle, and they can’t understand why God hasn’t answered prayers for heal- ing. So it’s important that we help them learn to talk about feelings that they may not understand, and then teach them to talk to Christ honestly about them.
Reading the psalms out loud with your children can be very helpful to show them that they aren’t alone in feeling this way. The psalms will teach them that it’s ok to bring their honest feelings to the Lord, as long as we don’t get stuck there, and are willing to learn from him and be reminded of what is true about him.
4. Teach Kids to Look for Ways God has been Faithful
While it’s important to help our kids learn to talk to Jesus about their feelings and struggles, it’s even more important to teach them to praise God and look for ways that he has been faithful, even when it isn’t easy. We are not only to “continue steadfastly in prayer”—we are to be “watchful in it with thanksgiving” (Colossians 4 v 2).
Recently, in a really, really hard time for us as a family, I created a faithfulness tree. It’s made of nothing more than construction paper, and it’s not even close to Pinterest-worthy—but it’s served its purpose. It’s simply a tree trunk and branches of paper taped on our wall with little green leaves that display ways we see God’s faithfulness to us and care of us. What has been so neat to see is how this has encouraged us all, including the kids, to look for God’s faithfulness within the trials.
5. Teach Kids to Wait for Eternity
Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him. (James 1 v 12)
One of the hardest parts of watching our children suffer has been watching their little hearts grieve the loss of so much innocence at such a young age. But one of the blessings is seeing the Lord awaken them to the reality that this is a world that cannot satisfy them. It has caused them to want to hear more about heaven and what there is beyond this world.
While it’s hard to hear each one of them express a desire to go to heaven now instead of living on this earth, I am thankful that the pain that they are enduring is forcing them to search for a deeper meaning in their suffering and a purpose for their lives.
So when our children come to us, not understanding why something is happening and just wanting it to go away, let’s use this as an opportunity to lead them to Jesus and help them learn to wait on him and trust his promises.
Suffering will come to our children, sooner or later, when they are young or when they are grown. If we do not use the trials that they face when they’re young to guide them in these truths, then it will be much harder for them to face a life of following Christ as they grow up and are faced with the pain of living in a broken and hostile world.
And wonderfully, we can rest assured that our children’s souls are not relying on us. Yes, we bear responsibility in what we do with the time that we are given as their parents, but the Lord remains bigger than both our greatest failures and greatest successes. And he can use our trials and struggles—and our response to them—to teach our kids the life lesson they most need to grasp:
My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever. (Psalm 73 v 26)
Home is around the corner,
Article originally appeared as an extra chapter in Hope When It Hurts
If this has encouraged you, you can pre-order Sarah’s new book – Tears and Tossings: Hope in the Waves of Life, releasing May 1st.
To read more on the hope we have in suffering, you can purchase “Hope When It Hurts – 30 Biblical Reflections to Help You Grasp God’s Purpose in Your Suffering” authored by Sarah Walton and Kristen Wetherell here or here. Jeff and Sarah Walton’s marriage book, Together Through the Storms – Biblical Encouragements for Your Marriage When Life Hurts.