Talking about the Hard Stuff Going on Around the World with Students
By Beth Guckenberger
I live and work in hard stories. As someone who has been immersed in the orphancare movement for almost 20 years, I am thrilled when a student catches a vision for how God can use him or her in those hard places. I wish all students had the opportunity to engage, but many are not exposed. In part, because the adults of their lives, the teachers, parents, youth ministers don’t know how to answer the impossible questions (How could God allow…? Where was God when…?) so they don’t entertain those conversations. The casualties are fierce, not only do the students miss out, but the lives of those they might impact are left wanting.
So if someone wanted to have these life-changing conversations, where does one start?
In my experience working with orphaned children, and as a mother to my own nine interrogators, I use the following steps to approach these tough subjects. It always feels easier to act like I didn’t hear a hard question, to redirect them to someone else or to give them a pat answer or worse yet, a false promise, but what an opportunity I miss when I take the easy way out. Here are some steps to the better way…
Follow this pattern, not as a rulebook, but as a guide to give you the confidence to wade into waters where you, too, might still have some lingering questions/doubts.
1. Always start with the thing you know to be true…
In my life, I have the same conversation starter whether I am talking to an orphan about the questions they have in their head (Am I loveable? Am I loving? Am I loved?) Or I am talking to a student eye witnessing or hearing hard things for the first time (How could God let that happen? Could that happen to me? What should I do about it?)
All conversations start with the truth. It’s how you build the platform. So say, “What do we know to be true of God?”
He loves us. He doesn’t want one of us to be lost. He is coming for us. He defends his people. He knows us. Etc…
Start hard conversations with the construction material we know will make the house stand. Make a list of the truths you find in Scripture and have them on hand, build them with the student, or offer them the truths that have been meaningful to you. Remind them these truths in the conversations that follow. Help make ‘truth telling’ their default button.
2. Don’t shy away from the hard stuff
It’s our temptation to shield kids from hard things, to help them experience all the benefits of being one of God’s kids and none of the costs, but Jesus invites us into his sufferings and if we are growing up the next generation of disciples, we need to teach them what it means to participate with Christ in his sufferings. That means offering ourselves (friendship, acts of service, goods) to people who might not understand our intentions. It means knowing our teaching needs to reflect right theology. If we are, for example, teaching about God’s shelter in Psalms 91, we don’t equate shelter to our nice, American homes. Our teaching should reflect God’s truth and any one of his children around the world should be about to hear it and apply it. This kind of teaching, that tells the truth and not tickles our ears, will inoculate our students from the struggles some Christians experience when their ‘shelter’, as they understood it, falls.
3. When teaching about hard things, we should emphasize above all things, God’s sovereignty.
When things don’t go down as we wish they would, we can trust a God who never loses control. Hard news, hard images, hard realities make us doubt (Could that happen to me?) Teaching students upfront that above all things, God is good. Above all things, he is sovereign. Above all things, he loves us… creates the foundation that won’t crack.
We have the opportunity to teach hard circumstances aren’t to be avoided, or suffering ignored. So many adults don’t know what to do in the face of hard, so they do nothing. We not only can do something, we can be the hands and feet of a God looking to enter into the chaos of a lost world with good news!
4. We can talk to students about something in the mission community widely known as the Galatians 6 principle.
In Galatians 6:2 Paul says, “Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way, you will fulfill the law of Christ.” A little while later though, he says in 6:5, “each one should carry his own load.” So, you might ask, which one is it?
In the original language, a ‘load’ is referred as the weight of a soldier’s backpack, about 35 pounds. Paul is telling us to carry our own backpack, something manageable. We not only need to carry our own, but we need to allow other’s to carry their own. To take on someone’s backpack robs them of dignity and creates the victim mentality we see sometimes in social justice.
But someone’s burden is our privilege to share. It’s more than someone can do on their own, and helping students live out this biblical principle of carrying another’s burden is an opportunity to teach a lesson that will stick with them for a lifetime.
5. Make hard discussions a regular part of your routine.
As teens grow into adults, and the hard just gets harder, be the person they feel like they can come and ask questions of. Open the door. Share your own questions; this is what it means to work out our faith with fear and trembling.
Together, we can encourage this next generation of givers and goers and senders to embrace a world lost in chaos and hungry for the peace only He gives.
Beth Guckenberger is the mother of a bunch of biological, a bunch of adopted and a slew of foster children. She and her husband, Todd, direct Back2Back Ministries. Beth is the author of several books on the journey of their life abroad.