A moving and important and wise question from a mom. “Pastor John, my name is Malia and I’m a new mother to a baby boy. I’ve been thinking about the concept of suffering in relation to my son. It will be so hard to watch him suffer, but I know he will face it one day, and probably already does in his own baby way. My question is simple: How do I prepare him for, and raise him to handle, suffering? What are some practical ways for young parents to teach a child that suffering is part of life and that we can trust God in it?”
I would sum up my answer in three steps. 1) Teach your son a glorious, all-encompassing biblical worldview that puts suffering in its proper place. So, teaching. 2) Discipline him with appropriate firmness, and require of him self-denial. So, number one is teach, number two is discipline. 3) Model for him trust and joy in the midst of your own suffering and sorrow. So, let me take those one at a time and just give a little bit of fleshing out on some Bible.
“Teach your children a glorious, all-encompassing biblical worldview that puts suffering in its proper place.”
1) Teach your son a glorious, all-encompassing, biblical worldview that this suffering in its proper place. And when I think of what that worldview would include, let me just give six components.
a) The world God created, he created good — including our own hearts and bodies — but it was broken and made vulnerable and imperfect by the fall of humankind into sin. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). Things are not the way they should be. We teach our children that. The basic reason they are not perfect is sin. Death came into the world through sin (Romans 5:12). Suffering came with it (Romans 8:20). The whole creation is groaning and waiting for what God is going to do later (Romans 8:22–23). So, we teach the brokenness of the world.
b) We teach our children, therefore, that everyone suffers. And since those who trust and follow Jesus are at odds with the sinful system of the world, Christians often suffer most. Acts 14:22, “Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom.” Psalm 34:19, “Many are the afflictions of the righteous.” John 15:20, “If they persecuted [Jesus], they will also persecute you.” John 16:33, “In the world you will have tribulation.” We all are groaning, waiting for our bodies to be renewed (see Romans 8:23). So, we are all going to suffer — especially Christians.
c) God is sovereign, and nothing can stop him from doing what he wants to do most. “I am God, and there is none like me . . . saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose’” (Isaiah 46:9–10). He is stronger than the weather. He is stronger than storms and floods and lightning. He is stronger than animals: big ones that can attack you like lions and little teeny microscopic ones you can’t even see that can make you sick and even kill you. He is stronger than all the enemies that we have. He is stronger than everything. Children need to hear this. They get it. They will embrace it more quickly than we do, and they can handle the mysteries. Yes, they can. Don’t ever give the impression to your children that suffering exists because God is helpless.
“Don’t ever give the impression to your children that suffering exists because God is helpless.”
d) Make the gospel crystal-clear: God sent his Son into the world to suffer with us and for us. This means that, if we trust him, none of our suffering is punishment for sin. Christ bore all of our punishment for sin. That is the basis of our acceptance with God and our hope for heaven. And there will be no more suffering there. All the suffering, therefore, that comes into the life of a Christian is not because God is punishing him in his wrath — oh, let children understand this! — but, rather, it is God’s fatherly discipline for the sake of holiness as Hebrews 12:3–11 and 1 Peter 1:5 says.
e) Therefore, in all of our suffering, God is good. God is wise. God is loving, even though it’s painful, and he has purposes for us (Romans 8:28). We never explain suffering by saying God is helpless or that Satan got the upper hand or that there are mere accidents in the world. We always handle suffering, our suffering by saying, even though we don’t understand all the answers for why this particular suffering came or that particular suffering came at this particular time or this particular intensity — we don’t understand those particulars — nevertheless, we do understand what God has taught us; namely, that he is sovereign, that he is good, and that he always has purposes for our everlasting joy.
“Though we don’t know all the answers for our suffering, God is good and has purposes for our everlasting joy.”
f) And the last part of this overarching worldview is the day is coming when God will set everything right. If it looks like any evil person is getting away with something in this life, he will not get away with it, because God will bring him into judgment in the end. “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord” (Romans 12:19). And for every good deed that looks like it did not get repaid or got suffering instead of blessing, “You will be repaid at the resurrection of the just” (Luke 14:14).
So, week in and week out we teach these things to our children, speaking of them when we rise up and when we drive in the car and when we sit at the table and when we go to bed at night. Saturate your child with this worldview.
2) We discipline our children with appropriate firmness and we require self-denial. “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” — not only instruction, but also discipline (Ephesians 6:4). Proverbs 13:24, “Whoever spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is diligent to discipline him.” One of the reasons I think that is true that we hate our children if we don’t discipline them that way — even though it will get you arrested in some countries, or worse: get your children taken away from you — is that coddling children with no physical repercussions for their defiant behavior is preparing them to be unable to recognize the discipline of God in their lives when it comes in physical forms. And it will come in physical forms, and we are doing them a great disservice if we haven’t shown them how a loving parent can lovingly spank a disobedient child.
“Model for your children trust and joy in the midst of your own suffering and sorrows.”
In general, children should be taught self-denial. That this, they should not get everything they want. Self-control is a fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22–23 just like patience and sacrificial love. And no one can be a Christian without it, because our fallen nature must be denied or “put to death” as Paul says (Colossians 3:5). As long as we live, we must put to death our sinful desires. We need to habituate our children to lifelong patterns of saying no to selfish desires. The inability to do this is the reason thousands of kids are destroyed in life. So, don’t do that to your child. Teach them self-denial.
3) And the last thing I would say — and it is hard to rank these, but this may be the most important: We should model for our children trust and joy in the midst of our own suffering and sorrows. They are watching. Romans 5:3, “We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance.” And James 1:2, “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds.” Nothing will be more powerful in the life of your children than your example of trust and joy in the midst of your own disappointments and sufferings.
In fact, I would say that the greatest challenge of parenting — at least, I look back over, what did I parent? 42 years or something like that, so far — the greatest challenge of parenting is not primarily remembering all the things that should be taught in the catechism, but primarily being a parent growing in grace and humility and trust and joy in all the ups and downs of life. Few things will have a greater power in our children’s lives to help them suffer as Christians.