As kids, we think that grown-ups have all the answers. They're bigger, stronger, and smarter. If a grown-up doesn't know what to do or say, it is officially time to panic.
As parents we often hold onto that belief. Only this time we're the adults. It didn't take me long to realize I didn't have all the answers, but it has taken me years to understand I didn't even have to act like I did. It took a bicycle to convince me what our kids most need from us is authenticity.
My son was five years old when we took him to a field near our house to learn to ride a big-boy bike. His younger twin brothers squeaked along with us on their tricycles and cheered him on. I watched, amazed, as he took turn after wobbly turn across the field. At the end of each trip, he would fall gently to the ground, but there were none of the dramatic falls and tears I expected.
Until the last time. My husband and I watched from across the field as he peddled slower and slower, finally tipping over.
"Ahhhh!" came the scream, and as my normally relaxed husband broke into a full run, I got a full view of my son's arm dangling in a way that arms aren't made to dangle.
"Why did this have to happen, Mommy?" he whispered later, so only I could hear. He lay in a hospital bed, waiting for the orthopedic doctors to come and do their thing.
I was speechless. Tears rolled down my cheeks as I watched my tender little boy meet real life. This wasn't the first hard thing this child has endured, but it was the first time he asked why.
As he sees more of the world, I know he'll ask it again.
"Why doesn't that little boy have enough to eat, Mommy?"
"Why did that tornado/hurricane/tsunami kill so many people, Mommy?"
"Why does that lady have bruises on her face, Mommy?"
"Why is that little girl a slave, Mommy?"
"Why doesn't God help, Mommy?"
Of course we adults know the theological answers: It's a broken world, dominated by sin, which is why we need Jesus in the first place. God says, "I will show mercy to anyone I choose, and I will show compassion to anyone I choose" (Romans 9:15). God's thoughts and ways are higher than our thoughts and ways (Isaiah 55:8-9).
We have various platitudes to reassure ourselves and our kids.
"It may not seem like it now, but it will all work out."
"This hard time will grow our faith and character."
"God works all things for good for those who love him."
In her book She's Got Issues, author Nicole Unice talks about being in a room with women who had been abused. She says, "To say 'God is in control' to a woman who is wrestling with a true taste of evil in her life is like giving a Band-Aid to someone who just had a leg cut off." Or, as she points out in Jeremiah 6:14—"They dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious. 'Peace, peace' they say, when there is no peace" (NIV)
My son sat in an acclaimed children's hospital with a broken arm. Just a few floors up, my friend treated children dying of cardiac diseases. A few streets over, children with cancer fought for hope and life. All this happened in a city where gunshot wounds are a typical cause of death. In the grand scheme of injuries, we barely registered. Yet, as the child from my body shook with fear and pain, we were both crying out for God. All the things we want to say in those situations were true, but they weren't helpful.
We tend to believe that we need to shore up our faith so we can lead our children. Yet in that moment—and in other family difficulties—I found myself angry, wandering, and also feeling lost. How do we lead our children in faith when we are stumbling ourselves?
In those moments—I know we all have them—we can realize that we are merely fellow pilgrims with our kids. Perhaps we adults are a few steps ahead at times, but we're all just God's children, journeying toward him. God is bigger than our questions and doubts. He's bigger than the inadequacies we so desperately want to hide from our children. Often in the hardest, darkest times, it's best to put away the Bible verses and the platitudes. Our kids need us to speak from the heart, to assure them they aren't alone in their questions, and they don't have to be afraid of those questions.
In the end I said the only thing I could say truthfully.
"I don't know, sweetie. I don't understand either, and it makes me a little mad to see you hurt. But we can ask Jesus to be here with us and give us peace, even when we don't understand."