"I beg you … to be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and to try to love the questions like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer."
—Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet
On my 17-year-old's nightstand are the books she's reading (concurrently): the Bible, Mere Christianity, and the Qur'an.
She's made a daily practice of reading the Bible for years, often journaling her prayers in a notebook, or sometimes in dry-erase marker on her windows or mirror. For example, written on her window right now is this: "The riches of your love will always be enough" Below it is a list of things she's grateful for, from friends and family to "clean water to drink" and her bed.
She's a young woman of great faith and faithful action. She leads a small group of three-year-olds at our church and goes with a group of kids from church to serve the poor every week. Last spring, she went on a mission trip to Africa (hence the gratitude for clean water).
She's also strongly opinionated, unafraid to speak her mind. She often tests the boundaries and has since she was a toddler. I believe her first word was "Why?" and she hasn't stopped asking it.
She's never been one to blindly believe. At age three, she suffered great angst because she told me she wanted to believe in Jesus but couldn't see or feel him. I told her that when she felt my love and my hugs, that was how Jesus showed his love to her. But I did not shame her or tell her what to believe. After wrestling with those doubts for a while, and hearing every week at church and at home that Jesus adored her, she invited him into her heart at about age four.
She lives this truth: Faith and doubt coexist in every human heart. God is big enough to handle the questions, and faith is strengthened by our curiosity and inquiry. When she'd come to me with questions over the last nearly two decades, I'd often start with "Well, what do you think?" We have talked, without labeling them as such, about theology, hermeneutics, interpretation, doctrine.
When I asked how the Qur'an reading was going, she said she'd noticed how similar Yahweh and Allah were. "Are they the same person?" she wondered, then quickly asked, "Is that blasphemy to say that?"
"What do you think?" I responded. Then I reminded her about two key beliefs of the Christian faith. Our salvation is by grace, as described in Ephesians: "God saved you by his grace when you believed. And you can't take credit for this; it is a gift from God. Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it" (Ephesians 2:8-9) And we did nothing to earn it. "God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners" (Romans 5:8). Some religions teach that if you are good, God will love you. Christianity teaches that God loves you even if you are not. And that our good deeds are a response to his love, not something that makes him love us. "That's a subtle difference," I said.
"Subtle? No, it's not; it's huge!" she replied.
Now if I tell my daughter, "Here are the right beliefs, don't even look at what other faiths teach," she misses out on the discovery of the differences.
She also warmed my heart with this comment: "Well, that's how Christian families live, too—we love you, even when we don't love the things you do."
I said, "Well, healthy Christian families."
"Well, it's what our church teaches, too," she said.
I'm an imperfect parent, and we attend an imperfect church. But the fact that my teenager knows that I love her, even when I don't love her choices or actions—as she would say, that's huge.
At her public high school, she has lots of Christian friends, but also atheist, Jewish, Hindu, and Muslim friends. And friends who wear labels that don't match their hearts, or who refuse any label at all.
Her faith has been strengthened by her questions, her doubts. Sometimes it's been strengthened by the questions her friends ask, or even the questions her friends avoid. As her mother, I have never condemned the questions, but urged her to live them, to seek truth, to think critically. If she asked my opinion about politics or biblical interpretation (which she has), I offered it, but often by asking, "Well, what if …" and then "What do you think?"
I often talk with parents who wonder how to get their kids on track spiritually, get them to behave in a certain way. I often find that these parents are telling their kids not only what they should do, but what they should think. My advice is often to take a step back and trust. Keep the end in mind: You're not trying to raise people who can recite all the "right" answers; you're trying to equip your children to grapple with the questions and learn to think for themselves.
When your kids learn to ride a bike, eventually you have to stop running beside them, you have to let go of the back of the bike seat. You have to let them pedal on their own. Will they fall? Possibly. And you're there to pick them up and help them again. But you cannot run beside the bike forever.
When she was small, I used to pray with my daughter before she went to sleep. She'd pray aloud as I listened. Around junior high, she no longer wanted to do that. "I'll just pray by myself, Mom," she told me. And here's my crazy parenting strategy: I let her. And I didn't worry about it. In fact, I saw it as a step of spiritual maturity. I let go of the bike and let her pedal on.
When she asked about what the Qur'an teaches, I told her I'd never read it. She wondered if she could get a copy. My husband talked to a Muslim co-worker, who offered to loan her a copy to read. We've spent 17 years encouraging intellectual and spiritual curiosity, we're not going to stop now.
As parents, my husband and I have both lived and talked about our values. Not perfectly, of course. But we've always encouraged our kids to think, to question. We've consistently brought our kids to church so they can hear truth not just from us, but from others. Now we're at a stage where we have to trust that training will equip her with discernment and wisdom. I love that she's also reading (and loving) C. S. Lewis so she can compare Christian theology to the Scriptures of another faith.
We've had some interesting discussions about the similarities and differences between faith traditions. While I've never read the Muslim Scriptures, I do know that the Bible is unique in its claim that God is love. While the value of loving others is a part of many other faith traditions, the idea that God loved us before we were even aware of him is uniquely Christian.
Especially at this stage of the game, we are trusting our daughter's spiritual and intellectual maturity enough to allow her to read both C. S. Lewis and the Qur'an, to see what truth each contains. By allowing her to read the Qur'an, we said with our actions, "We trust you. And we think Christianity is compelling enough that honest inquiry into what other faiths believe will only strengthen your faith in Jesus."
Keri Wyatt Kent is the author of nine books and a sought-after retreat leader and speaker. She and her husband Scot have been married for 20 years and live with their two teenagers in the Chicago area. Learn more at www.keriwyattkent.com