Teaching our Kids about Pain, Suffering, and Hope

“God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.” It's a popular mantra we recite to children in our churches. And it's true. 

One of the greatest lessons we can teach our kids is that God is good and gracious—it's the heart of the gospel, the anchor of our faith, and what sets our beliefs apart from other world religions. 

But there's more to what we believe. And sometimes we miss it until we walk through pain and suffering and are forced to confront the fact that Christianity isn't easy. Walking with God, in the most complete sense, certainly involves struggles and even loss. 

I remember being faced with this reality as a young adult—wondering why the good and gracious God I had trusted for so long would let me suffer, and even endure a “dark night of the soul.” It shook me up, made me ask hard questions, and undid my overly simplistic view of God. 

All of us will face these moments of questioning. Even C.S. Lewis, the wise and pensive scholar, was forced to confront the problem of pain in midlife after losing his wife. It's a problem that confronts throughout all of life, making us answering hard questions again and again. 

But what if we taught our children to expect pain? Would it lessen the surprise and shock of it when it comes? 

As I read through Psalm 119 recently, I was struck by how often pain, suffering, death, injustice, violence, and slander are addressed. Given that these verses are arranged according to the Hebrew alphabet, presumably so that children could memorize God's Word as they learned their ABCs, it seems like an unlikely place to address such weight, often reserved-for-adults, topics. 

Take verse 105: "Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path." I can still remember singing these words in kindergarten chapel at the Christian school I attended as a child. In singing them, they imprinted themselves upon my heart from a young age. 

Yet somehow I've missed the verses that follow this familiar one until recently. Keep reading the Nun section (Psalm 119:105–112) and you'll discover that much of the section is about a man who fears for his life, facing the attacks of wicked men. The whole point of Psalm 119:105 is that God will be our light when facing the darkest of nights, even death itself. 

When was the last time we talked to our kids about such realities? It isn't easy and might make for awkward dinnertime conversation. 

But our kids need the truth. That way when life comes crashing down on them, they won't be so surprised, and it will be less likely to devastate their faith. 

So where do we start? Here are a few thoughts: 

Be honest about reality as it happens. The Psalmist lets us peer into his private journal, using his own pain as illustrations to teach us spiritual lessons. When we face a death in the family, a financial crisis, or even a tragic world event, we shouldn’t ignore it or hide it from our children. Instead we should use these times as opportunities to talk with our kids about pain and suffering in age-appropriate ways. 

Teach them the whole gospel. The grace of God is free—but it cost God dearly. The saints of the Old Testament were reminded of this every time they entered the temple. And as New Testament believers, Jesus assured us that if we walk like him, it would cost us too. Our kids need to know that walking with God is costly and yet worth every sacrifice.

Point out hope. Help your kids make the connection between life's brutal realities and God's unbelievable hope. As Lewis wrote, pain is God's "megaphone." His ultimate purpose for pain and suffering is to show us how desperately we need him. 

How do you teach your kids about pain, suffering, and hope? Leave a comment and share.

Amanda DeWitt is a freelance writer, coach's wife, and mom. She completed her bachelor’s at Dallas Baptist University and holds a M.A. in media and communication from Dallas Theological Seminary. When she's not typing away at her computer, she's chasing her two little boys or watching her husband coach high school football.