I recently read an article about a couple who decided not to tell their three children the news that their mother had just been diagnosed with terminal cancer, and had little time left to live. The husband shared their reasoning: Their children would be so preoccupied with their mother’s death sentence that they “would not be able to enjoy school, friends, their teams, or birthday parties.”
Ultimately, they wanted their daughters “to stay children; unburdened, confident that tomorrow would look like yesterday.” This rationale for not telling their children the unthinkable news is—to a fellow parent of three young children such as myself—very attractive. After all, who wants to break the heart of their own child?
In God’s providence, I know this territory quite well. While our oldest son, Jacob, was not old enough to understand what was happening when our family lost everything in Hurricane Katrina, he was old enough to understand four years later, when his mother received a life-saving liver transplant. I’ll never forget him sitting on the edge of her hospital bed, the night before her early morning surgery.
He cried and cried as I told him it was time to go. Christi and I cried and cried, too. It would have been so much easier for him to have hugged her in the parking garage, and never see her in that hospital gown, in that bed, hooked up to an IV.
Today, ten years and two more children later, we’ve had to stare down the barrel of telling our kids lots of painful news. They’ve lost a Grandfather. Our family has made two international moves—meaning new schools and saying goodbye to friends and family. Most recently, we’ve had to navigate telling them the difficult news that I am now chronically ill, and in need of a multi-organ transplant.
It was through this most recent trial that the Spirit really impressed upon us to resist the temptation to withhold difficult news from our children, and to instead be intentional about what to share, and how to share it. And while I will admit that it has not been easy, we have seen the Lord do a marvellous work in our children as they have encountered the living God who himself draws near to the brokenhearted.
In light of this, and despite the difficulties, I’d like to propose a distinctly Christian argument in favour of telling our kids bad news. My proposal follows a biblical—though counter-intuitive—train of thought.
God’s goal for our children is to know him.
As parents, we are tempted to think that the greatest thing that could happen to our children is the prevention of life’s painful circumstances. In a nutshell, we might think, “It is better for our children to not suffer.” This, in fact, is the very rationale of the couple in the article.
But the Bible reveals a much loftier elevation for the souls of our children. God’s goal for our kids is to know him, and worship him. This is the greatest good for them (and for us!). Paul said this very thing to the Philippians: “Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (Phil 3:8). In fact, this was at the heart of Jesus’ High Priestly prayer for his people: “And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (Jn 17:3). Our children’s very life is that they know God, and Jesus Christ, his Son!
What this means for us as parents is that we must put off the world’s mindset of the avoidance of all unpleasantness and put on the priority of the ever-increasing knowledge of God in our children. Therefore, God would have us change our thinking to, “It is infinitely better for our children to know God, than to not know suffering.” This is paradigm-shifting!
They must know God fully, so they can worship God faithfully.
If they are to know him, though, they must know him fully; they must know all his attributes. Adam and Eve surely sang in worship to God in the Garden, prior to the Fall. But their song and their worship of God was not complete because they knew nothing yet of his redeeming grace. They couldn’t sing of the Lamb who was slain, because there was no sin to atone for; no blood shed.
This is the reason John refers to it as a “new song” in Revelation 5, when the heavenly host sings to the Lamb, “Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation” (v. 9). Likewise, our kids need to know God, not just as Redeemer, but as Sustainer. Not just as Deliverer, but as Comforter. Only then can they worship him for all he is!
They know God more fully through suffering and trials.
This is where it gets a little uncomfortable for us parents. If you think about it, how would our children come to know God as comforter if they were never in need of comfort? How could they possibly praise him as sustainer if they never encountered a difficult situation they needed to be sustained through?
The truth is, God has designed our lives so that we must encounter painful, unpleasant circumstances that cause us grief and sorrow so that we can fully know the compassionate, living God who not only saves sinners from sin, but also draws near to the brokenhearted and comforts the downcast.
We want our children to experience what it’s like to have God, himself, draw near to them; what it’s like to have the Holy Spirit of Jesus lovingly comfort them through life’s inevitable difficulties, and sustain them in persevering faith to the race’s end. We want them to be able to say, with Job, “I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you” (Job 42:5). After all, his suffering and subsequent encounter with God led his heart to repentance and faith. Surely this is what we all desire for our children!
So, while we must use discernment to determine how many details to share with them (Heb 5:14), if we shield them from all discomfort and unpleasantness, we will inadvertently rob them of the joy of experiencing and worshipping God for all he is. Instead, we should seek to become intentional in seizing upon the difficulties our children face, instructing them in how to respond in God-honoring ways, and clarifying for them how their suffering reveals God to them.
Practical ways to help our children know God through suffering.
1. Always be preparing them for a life of suffering. Peter tells us not to be surprised by fiery trials, as if something strange is happening (1 Pet 4:12). But oftentimes, our children are confused—and even appalled—by life’s disappointments. We should strive to teach them about the reality of life in a fallen world, and help convince them that grief, sorrow, and pain are signs of a “normal” life.
2. Always be reminding them of God’s sovereign ownership of their lives. There is real comfort in remembering that God is our Creator; that he alone owns us, and therefore, he can do with us as he pleases. After all, “has the potter no right over the clay” (Rom 9:21)? Because he is not only sovereign but good, we can trust that whatever lot he has chosen for us, his judgments are right and true and good. And it’s healthy to remember that, ultimately, we are already receiving so much better than we deserve to receive, given our numerous violations of his holy Law.
3. Always be drawing their affections toward Christ, who suffered in the place of sinners like them. Few situations provide open doors for the gospel like our children’s suffering. Helping them to put their own suffering in the context of Jesus’ will not only provide them with an example to follow (1 Pet 2:21), it will also serve as a reminder that suffering is not their greatest problem, but sin is—the very sin that was the cause of Jesus’ suffering on the Cross.
Dazzle them with the good news that Jesus lived a perfect life as a substitute for sinners, died on the cross as a substitute for sinners, and rose bodily on the third day as a substitute for sinners! Then call them to repent and believe. There’s nothing like new life to vindicate suffering.
May God strengthen us to pursue his goal of helping our children to know him through suffering!