How do you talk to your kids about sex and sexuality? It can be an uncomfortable subject.
Here is a phrase I often use when I teach young people about sex: God creates; the world corrupts. God creates food; the world corrupts the use of food. God creates relationships; the world corrupts and uses relationships in ways that were never intended. God creates sex and sexuality; the world corrupts it and turns it into something it was never meant to be.
Unfortunately, too often we address the corruption of such things before building a positive perspective of what God created them to be. By the time we engage youth on a topic like sex, it is often packed full of warnings—”why you shouldn’t”—and do’s and don’ts. Sadly then, what comes across is that God is against sex because it is immoral or unhealthy, and a young person might draw the conclusion that it is sinful and wrong to desire it.
But God is not against sex, he is for it. After all, he is the author of it, and all that God creates is good and worthy of desiring. In a pleasure-saturated society, we have a distinct message that is more than “that’s bad; don’t do it.” We need to be willing to convey this message to our young people sooner and do so in a way that is clear, positive, and bold.
And we need to also speak more clearly about how the world corrupts sex and then wonders why it doesn’t deliver as expected. Sometimes I use an example like this to make my point.
There is a context in which anything that it is created is meant to function well. Take for example, the iphone. It is an amazing piece of technology that can do more things than I can name. Now imagine dropping the iphone off a highway bridge only to be surprised to find when you retrieve it from the pavement below that it no longer works. Then imagine blaming Apple for your phone’s corrupted state and filing a complaint that you have been given a defective phone! Do you see how foolish it would be to blame the creator when, clearly, you were provided the boundaries in which the phone was to work and it was you who chose to misuse it?
The creator of something knows how it is intended to work best. And anytime you go outside of the creator’s parameters, it is inclined to malfunction. God is not a kill joy. He made sexuality and set the context in which it is meant to thrive. We must inspire kids to have confidence that the context in which God calls us to enjoy sex is for our good.
When I convey this message, I hope to surprise young people with these positive truths about sex. Many will never have heard them before. Subsequently, we will also talk about what happens when you corrupt sex and use it in ways that God never intended. Though the world tells us that it is pleasurable and should come without archaic rules, this use of sex will not deliver what it promises. Instead, it will deliver painful consequences, brokenness, shattered dreams, and relational injury. It becomes warped and unrecognizable, a degraded picture of what it was created to be. It may deliver temporary pleasure, but it cannot provide lasting satisfaction and relational harmony.
We live in a culture that promotes a self-absorbed, sensuality-centered lifestyle. If our children are going to learn about sexuality prematurely (and they will), be the one to proactively shape a godly vision of sex. Find winsome ways to talk about it. Make it a vision that inspires confidence in the Creator, and refuses to corrupt that which he created.
We have a common crisis in our home; it is the calamity of boredom. Our children might even consider it a catastrophe. “I’m bored” is repeated so often it would not be an overstatement to say that these words echo continuously throughout our home especially during any break from school. These are children with limited media time but still children with a Wii and Xbox system, a pool outside our door, multiple games, toys, and other planned activities. Yet “I’m bored” rolls off our children’s tongues with great frequency and displeasure.
As a result, we came up with a clever solution. We told our children that every time we hear the words, “I’m bored” (and all versions of boredom: “I’m tired”, “Nothing to do”, etc.), we would assign a chore to do. It didn’t take long before the words slipped out and thereafter, my kids appeared to find ways to occupy their time. Though it is a clever solution (and a great way to get the house cleaned), doing chores does not address their more fundamental struggles.
First, young people struggle with being over-entertained. When left to their own devices, they will often turn first to technology which allows them to be passively entertained rather than actively engaged in a hobby or activity. By spending time on social media, video games, TV or movies, they are, quite literally, entertaining themselves to mindlessness. When there is a moment of silence or inactivity, the adversity of boredom descends upon them and they feel incapable of overcoming it. Assigning a few chores makes them aware of their plight, but it is only an external impetus for behavioral change. They need to learn to engage free time more productively.
Second, we need to help our children foster the neglected gift of stillness. There is something lost when we do not learn to just sit, to be quiet, swing on a hammock or take a walk without something bellowing in our ear. We all need to stop and smell the roses, experience creation, to cease striving and know that He is God. We need to learn to enjoy such moments as a delight, not a period of boredom. Like us, children need to learn to reflect, contemplate, and meditate on the things of God. How will that happen if we do not endeavor to instill this in our children?
Third, kids need to be less self-consumed by their personal comforts and desires and learn to think outside of themselves. There is a world of need, service, job opportunities, education and life to be lived and they need to be nudged (or sometimes dragged) in the right direction. Teens are not going to wake up one day and feel charitable and ask to go serve in the local food pantry. It requires cultivating generosity and a desire to serve. It means instilling in them a willingness to give of both time and resources. As parents, we have to be willing to do the hard work of steering our kids towards service and imparting within them a desire to be other-centered.
So, if your kids are bored at home, you might try the chore response. It does have a certain appeal. But recognize its limitations. It will not instill in them the godly character you really desire for your children. That only comes through careful examination of what captures their affections, and equipping them to thoughtfully steward their free time.
“Have we talked with our children this week about the delights of living more
than the disciplines of living? Have we inspired and guided them more
than we have corrected them?”
– V. Gilbert Beers
Many of you are familiar with a Netflix series that is capturing the attention of middle and high schoolers alike. 13 Reasons Why is based on a novel written by Jay Asher. After classmate and love interest, Hannah Baker, commits suicide, Clay Jensen is left reeling to understand why. He returns home from school to find a package with his name on it lying on his porch. Inside, he discovers several cassette tapes recorded by Hannah. She tells him that there are thirteen reasons why she decided to end her life. Clay is one of them. If he listens, he’ll find out why.
Clay becomes a firsthand witness to Hannah’s pain, and as he follows along with her taped words, he uncovers the people that impacted her decision—and their secrets. Clay is conflicted with guilt, confusion, and a desire to right the wrongs that have been committed.
The haunting question left for the living is this: “Did I kill Hannah Baker?” Guilt and shame quickly wreak havoc on a group of students whose lives are thrown together by the secrets they are each trying to hide. It ends with a heart break, some secrets being revealed, and some not. If there is anything positive in the message, it is that choices have consequences (at times, very serious ones) and that we all must take responsibility for our own actions.
However, this valid message is greatly overshadowed by the graphic brutality, sexuality and corruption that is displayed as fairly “normal” for kids this age. The program reflects the underlying themes present in many other teen dramas: licentiousness, do what feels good, look out for number one, recreational sex and drug use—all with little redemptive guidance in the drama that unfolds. Parents and other adults are depicted as incompetent, ill-informed people who interfere with what teenage reason knows to be the better way. And though these activities and beliefs may be normal for some adolescents, these programs create a distorted sense of what is typical for American teen culture and set a bad precedent for the average teen/preteen who is watching.
I could rail on the reasons this series should not be targeted to young people and the risks it creates for other youths to take steps similar to Hannah Baker. However, there is something valuable I took away from this story. It is this: Kids need reasons why they should live. They need to find meaning and identity in things that genuinely fulfill. They need hope. And they need to learn how to live.
Have we given our kids 13 reasons why life is worth living? Have we fostered conversations about hard topics? Have we convinced them that no subject is too hard for us to hear, no issue is off limits, and that we can handle even the most intimate details of their lives with genuine love and concern? We must be proactive and foster connections with our young people. When they are tempted to believe what we have to say is inconsequential or inadequate, we must work tirelessly to engage them, proving our value in their lives.
Let teens know they are not alone. Be proactive in addressing hard topics when they are young, before the issues even enter their world. Be a redemptive guide speaking into the corruption they will be forced to wade through. Let them know there is One who fights on their behalf.
Here are 13 reasons you can give your children for why life is worth living:
1. You are not alone. “Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for you are with me. Your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” (Psalm 23:4)
2. You have value. “You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.” “Don’t be afraid. You are worth more than many sparrows.” (1 Peter 2:9; Matthew 10:31)
3. God cares about your tears. “God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away.” (Revelation 21:4)
4. You can find help. “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.” “We do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” (Psalm 46:1; Hebrews 4:15-16)
5. Your life has purpose. “I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.” (Jeremiah 29:11)
6. What you are going through is temporary. “Do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.” (2 Corinthians 4:16-18)
7. There is a good way forward, even when life is hard. “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.” (1 Corinthians 10:13)
8. You are more than your outward appearance. “The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” (1 Samuel 16:7)
9. You cannot imagine what good lies in store for you. “No eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor have entered into the heart of man—the things which God has prepared for those who love him.” (1 Corinthians 2:9)
10. You will not always feel this way. “We are hard-pressed on every side, yet not crushed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed.” “For his anger lasts only a moment, but his favor lasts a lifetime; weeping may stay for the night, but rejoicing comes in the morning.” (2 Corinthians 4:8-9; Psalm 30:5)
11. You are greatly loved. “I have loved you with an everlasting love; I have drawn you with unfailing kindness.” “How wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ.” (Jeremiah 31:3; Ephesians 3:18)
12. You will not be put to shame. “Do not be afraid; you will not be put to shame. Do not fear disgrace; you will not be humiliated. You will forget the shame of your youth and remember no more the reproach of your widowhood.” “Let your conduct be without covetousness; be content with such things as you have. For he himself has said, ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you.’ So we may boldly say: ‘The LORD is my helper; I will not fear. What can man do to me?’” (Isaiah 54:4; Hebrews 13:5-6)
13. God is up to good in your life. “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.” “We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” (Genesis 50:20; Romans 8:28)
As parents, live out these 13 reasons yourself! When you talk with your kids, put these reasons into your own words, adorned with your life experience and theirs. And, as appropriate, point them to Scripture where God gives these reasons. Help them to connect the dots from God’s promises to their struggles. The goal is not to quote Scripture at our kids, but to bring truth to life in relevant words and actions. We want to help them see that the Bible speaks of far more than correction and rules. It speaks of life and freedom and personal relationship with a God who knows what is going on in their lives. The challenge is to winsomely and convincingly speak such truths into their experiences. And, when God is present, you will find that there are far more than 13 reasons life is worth living. So keep looking and listening to our living, loving God!
Children, in all their uncensored glory, are mirrors for our souls.
My three-year-old grandson was just out-of-sorts. This particular day was harder than usual. He cried for no apparent reason. He was peevish with his siblings. Nothing brought comfort. We had seen this a couple times before and knew that there was no benefit in talking about it. His turbulent emotions left him seemingly unable to reason. Insight was useless. But his mother tried all the same.
“Jackie, what is it that you want?” The question was largely rhetorical. But for some reason, the question settled into his overtaxed mind. He stopped crying. He actually thought and then answered.
“Mommy, I want…I want…EVERYTHING.”
By our standards, his everything was minimalist. He wanted his misplaced toy ambulance, the police car his brother seemed to be hoarding, and a doughnut. Maybe a few minutes on an iPhone. Nothing more. The adult list is much longer. He is certainly a mirror of our humanity. If you were to summarize us in a word, it would be “desire.” We are people of desire, of wanting, of longing.
The common word for desire in the New Testament is epithumia. Along with agape it might be the one other Greek word worth knowing. Its range extends from natural desires such as for food and good things such as the desire to be with Jesus, to selfish or evil desires that ultimately reveal a temporary sympathy with the Devil. The challenge is to have “desire under control,” be increasingly consonant with the heart of God, and desire him more than anything on earth.¹
Our challenge today is that we want EVERYTHING. Our aim is for souls that are tamed because of God’s grace in Christ. Through that grace we learn contentment and joy.
¹Luke 15:16, Philippians 1:23, 1 Corinthians 10:6, 1 Corinthians 7:37, Psalm 73:25
Jack, our two-year-old grandson, was over the moon. His “Gogo”—my wife—was coming to the house that morning after having been away with me for a week. Jack was standing watch at the window. He loves his Gogo. When she finally arrived, his pent-up love could no longer be restrained. He took his mother by the hand, ran over to be picked up by his grandmother, and gave them both a maximum embrace.
Now came the more challenging part. He had expressed his effusive love in a physical way, but that wasn’t enough. He wanted to speak his love. For Jack, when something important is on his mind, it typically comes out haltingly. But there was no halting when he said, “I will never go out into the street without an adult ever again.”
These words, he determined, were the perfect compliment to his physical affection. And, indeed, they were.
This is love for God: to obey his commands. And his commands are not burdensome. (1 John 5:3)
Love and obedience, for Jack, were coterminous. “I love you so much” and “I will never go out into the street without an adult” were different words for the same desire; his delight in obedience was the most profound expression of love that he could imagine. He was not trying to avoid punishment—that kind of obedience cannot be found within love. He was not trying to garner privileges—that too would have been selfishness, not love. Both are versions of legalism.
If only we grown-ups could rehabilitate our understanding of obedience so it squares with God’s intent. For example, a married man could say to his wife, “I love you.” Better, he could say, “Today, I will run from pornography or flirtatious imaginations, and I will remember how important this relationship is to me.” This is an adult version of not going unaccompanied into the street.
Some of the most burdensome moments for a parent are when it is clear to those around you that your child is defiant or difficult. What are other people thinking? What does this say about me as a parent? They might assume your child’s behavior is a result of inadequate parenting or something else amiss in your home. People may even be bold enough to share their views, without any sense of the shame they are heaping upon you. Those of you with a difficult child understand. You feel marked, and even judged, by your child’s personal struggles. You hang your head around people who “know” about the problem. You assume they see you as a failure. If you were a good parent, surely your children would be well-behaved, love God, and have good manners. After all, their children are not so insubordinate.
If this is how you feel, you may have bought into the belief that good parents produce good children and bad parents produce bad children. At times, this seems downright biblical. If you raise a child in the way he should go, he won’t depart from it, right? So it follows that if you were godly enough, wise enough and patient enough, your child would not be so rebellious. It seems that the right formula is: love plus discipline plus godly instruction = “good” kids. And because, at times, the formula does seem to work, you determine the error must be in your parenting.
I’ve heard many a parent say, “We’ve exhausted all options, all approaches, all forms of consequences… and nothing worked. I tried being calm; I tried consistent discipline; I tried appealing to their conscience and praying with them and for them. Nothing helped. Nothing changed.” What the parent means is that it did not produce the desired behavior change or a visible heart change. The assumption is that, once again, the formula was applied, and it proved useless.
But this is a faulty, unbiblical approach. Good kids come out of horrific family backgrounds, and rebellious, willful kids come out of good, Christian homes. Children do not come to us as blank slates, but with their own personalities, strengths, weakness, desires, and temptations towards particular sin. They are born with hearts that are wooed by their own desires, and they exercise volition to choose for themselves the type of person they will become. There is an active moral responder on the other end of your parenting—one who chooses whom they will serve. And there is no way a parent can ensure the outcome.
Of course, a parent does play a significant role in a child’s life, but don’t buy into the belief that assumes good parenting will produce well-behaved children. It incorrectly places all the ownership and blame on you. And the burden of it might tempt you to want to give up or resort to poor or ungodly parenting (anger, yelling, harshness, despair, backing down, or backing away completely) because it might appear to work in the short run.
What then are you to do? Let me suggest two things that might help.
First, evaluate your motivation. Though you are not responsible for your child’s bad choices, could it be that, without realizing it, you are adding to the problem? If you are frustrated, despairing, or angry because your child is difficult, you need to ask yourself: What standard do you judge yourself by? Whose agenda is dictating your parenting? Is it a worldly, self-centered agenda, or a Christ-centered one? You can desire good things that become driven by very bad motives. Do you care too much about your own comfort or reputation? Do you desire a well-behaved child with few problems, or struggles? Children that make you look good, that are productive, smart, and kind? Are you embittered because you have invested yourself in this child and see no results? If you can answer yes to any of these questions, consider confessing the desires that grip your heart. Ask God to give you the grace, fortitude, and wisdom to parent your challenging child. Ask him to show you how to respond to your child out of love and concern for his or her wellbeing, not your own.
Second, remind yourself of what God calls you to as a parent—no more, no less. He calls you to love your children, to model a Christ-like character and lifestyle, and to respond wisely and thoughtfully to their struggles. You are to foster a personal relationship with the living God, and, to the best of your ability, shape your child’s strengths and weaknesses in his image. Though God expects you to parent with consistent love and wisdom, he does not hold you responsible for results that are driven by the child’s sin or rebellion.
Stop “trying” to make things turn out a particular way and just do the hard work of godly parenting. Do not judge its effectiveness by your child’s response. Simply wrestle with this:
Is my parenting loving?
Is it consistent?
Is it wise?
That will be challenging enough. You will fail, be convicted, and need forgiveness on those fronts alone. The rest must be left to the work of the Spirit in a child’s life. You will find much freedom from judgement, less care for the opinions of others, more hope and less despair when you commit your parenting to the Lord. Let him do the rest. As Galatians 6:9 says, “Let us not grow weary of doing good.”
The book of Proverbs reminds us that we are to disciple our children (Prov. 1:8). But to do that—to be good disciplers—we need relationships with our kids that are honest and open. We need to know what is really going on with them so we can help encourage godly thinking. But kids don’t always cooperate. Sometimes they don’t want to talk with us and, at a surprisingly young age, children learn they can avoid engaging in thoughtful discussion by giving the notorious “I don’t know” response to our questions.
We see this at school. When a student is not paying attention, or doesn’t have an immediate answer and says “I don’t know,” the focus quickly moves to the next student and they’ve been let off the hook.
We see this at home. “Why did you cheat on that test? Why didn’t you clean your room when I asked? Why did you lie about that?” When given the “I don’t know” response, the parent often lapses into lecture mode during which the child checks out emotionally and does not have to call heart motivations to task.
We see this in counseling. Kids say “I don’t know” instinctively, almost without thought. It also comes with an expectation that I, as the counselor, will move on to another topic, or do as many other adults and answer the question myself. Possibly I will begin lecturing as well, which simply requires the child’s ability to endure my rant.
The problem with all these situations is that children learn that such a response keeps them from having to do the hard work of critical thinking or personal self-reflection. They don’t have to stop and put any deliberation into a subject. They may even be avoiding accountability or trying to prevent being vulnerable by admitting to particular thoughts, feelings or beliefs.
But letting children get away with such shallow responses is not good discipleship. We need to find ways to get past such responses and give them insight into their own hearts. Proverbs 20:5 says, “The purposes of a person’s heart are deep waters, but one who has insight draws them out.” The question is how can we draw them out?
Years ago I attended a training session where I heard the results of some research done with youth on the “I don’t know” response. When asked the follow-up question, “Well, if you did know, what would your answer be?” kids will give a more responsive answer 50% of the time. Brilliant, isn’t it? It confirmed what I already suspected. By demonstrating genuine care, slowing the moment down, and giving kids an opportunity to really consider the question, they will often respond more thoughtfully.
Here are some specific methods I use to handle the “I don’t know” response.
Brainstorm with the child
Keep in mind that sometimes a child may not know how to answer your question. At these times, it is helpful to brainstorm with the child about what might be going on. By offering them possibilities, I’m encouraging thoughtful interaction. I’m also not letting the child off the hook. Loving well sometimes means coming alongside someone to aide in greater self-awareness. After hearing several options, a child will often say, “Yeah, I think that is it.” When this happens, it is often because I was able to put into words what they were thinking or feeling but were unable to articulate. At other times, they won’t initially voice what they think for fear of admitting what they know to be true or shameful. By offering a possibility and modeling it as an option that does not shock me, it frees them up to acknowledge it openly.
Wait them out
For those who are simply unwilling, defiant or lazy in their response, I have multiple goals. I want the youth to know that I care too much to accept “I don’t know.” What a child thinks matters to me and I genuinely want to understand, so “I don’t know” can’t be accepted as a final answer. I respond with, “Take a minute and think about it. I am willing to wait.” Then I wait silently. The pressure is on. They stare at me; I stare at them. I am open and encouraging but allow for the potential of uncomfortable silence. Silence can be a powerful motivator for those who are uncomfortable with it. I use it to my advantage—a type of positive pressure for kids to engage. More than that, I hope it truly demonstrates that they are worth waiting on. I will often encourage them by saying, “What you think and feel is important and I care. I’m in no hurry.”
By showing them that they can’t get out of the conversation until they engage, I hope they see me as a person who genuinely cares to know them more deeply. I don’t need to move on to the next topic, nor will I be put off. It may be one of the few times someone in their world slows down enough to really wait and listen. It will not be lost on them.
Gently encourage self-awareness
Then, like in my first example, I work to teach the skill of self-reflection. Once they start to talk, I urge them to consider their motives for what they said or did, and I gently challenge their responses to stimulate critical thinking and greater self-awareness. If we want to raise godly children, these skills are essential.
As adults, parents, teachers, leaders and counselors, we can become much more winsome and patient when asking kids questions, especially in response to “I don’t know.” Do the hard work of drawing kids out. There may be times when you allow them to walk away from the conversation to consider things, but give a time frame to show the discussion is not over and then follow up with them. They may challenge you, reject you, or be angered by your attempts, but you will model care by your persistence. We do not always get the privilege of seeing the ways in which it speaks of our love for them but Galatians 6:9 encourages us. “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.”
I am a mother of five and a counselor. I interact with children all the time. Sadly, many of the children I meet with at CCEF experience tough and heart-breaking life circumstances, and some have suffered abuse and mistreatment. Through my work, God has given me a passion to help protect the vulnerable. I am committed to growing in wisdom on this issue and to see the larger Christian community become knowledgeable, competent, and biblically wise when it comes to handling allegations of abuse.
When instances of abuse first become known by a community of people there are intense reactions and a range of emotional responses—from outrage and a demand for justice, to fear, shame, disbelief and distrust. All of these emotions are understandable, but we must work hard not to respond based on intense emotion or personal bias. Instead, we are to act wisely, justly and deliberately. One of the primary ways we can do this is to report the suspected abuse to the authorities. Reporting abuse is not simply a legal mandate—it is a moral and biblical one. Laws are meant to protect the innocent, reveal the guilty, and to define what abuse is and what it is not. In order to live under legal authority, we must realize it is not appropriate for anyone, except the proper agencies, to investigate or dismiss an allegation.
To our shame though, many in the Christian community have been known to not report abuse. Why is that?
Why some don’t report
Every state has mandated reporting laws that outline what must be done when you believe abuse has occurred in your community. Despite these clear mandates, I find that churches and other organizations are sometimes afraid to report abuse when it is brought to their attention. They look for ways to avoid complying with the law for a number of reasons—fear of legal consequences, repercussions within the organization, or harsh reactions from the public may be a few. Looking at all these negative outcomes, some begin to evaluate for themselves whether reporting abuse is “worth the risk,” and some go on to justify not reporting because it “will only make things worse.” But Scripture challenges these fears.
Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God. Therefore whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves. (Romans 13: 1-2 NKJV)
Sometimes an organization believes they can provide a better outcome than the state would provide. It is easy for church leaders to convince themselves that they will be more thoughtful, careful, and certainly more biblically-sound in their evaluation and response to a report of abuse. In addition to breaking the law, such a decision is unwise. It is not a church or organization’s job to investigate and “figure out the truth,” and they are inadequately prepared to do so. Churches do not possess the deftness, judiciousness, and discretion to interview well. Investigators know what signs to look for and which techniques will wisely and carefully draw out the victim. They are knowledgeable and skilled individuals who are professionally trained to handle these situations. Churches and other ministries are not prepared to do this type of work and should not attempt it.
What churches can do, however, is wisely respond. Here are two crucial components that make up a wise response:
Consider this complex scenario
A teenager at a church molests a child at a small group gathering. The families of both children are members of the church. These two families are deeply impacted by the actions and sin of one person. The church is required and mandated to report. The church is also biblically called to minister and walk alongside all those involved.
Unfortunately, I have seen this situation mishandled. Perhaps the family of the teenager is shunned and pushed out of the church. Or maybe the pastor reaches out to the offender but fails to minister to and protect the child (and family) who was victimized. Another tragic response might be that the pastor reports the alleged crime to the local authorities, but then withdraws from shepherding those involved. In any of these instances, all parties are left hurt, fractured, and unsure of who to turn to for support and direction.
So how should you handle this scenario? How do you report suspected abuse and wisely walk alongside those who have been impacted? There is much biblical wisdom needed to discern what that looks like. Wisdom is evaluating the situation at hand and what ministry looks like in any given scenario. Here are just a few considerations:
I am sure you can feel the weight of this responsibility and can imagine the difficulty of navigating it all. As trying as it will be, consider the impact of not responding at all—leaving the families reeling, hurting, and left to figure it out on their own—navigating a legal system and attempting to worship together as if nothing ever happened.
The need for ongoing pastoral care
Mandated reporting and pastoral care are not at odds with one another. When an accusation is reported to the authorities, pastoral care doesn’t stop there, it has just begun! A ministry should have a continuing role in the situation. A church or organization can’t “wash their hands” of the matter. There will be a need for care and follow-up as the investigation unfolds, and for some time afterwards.
Pastoral care will walk alongside the abused with care and compassion. For families, it is a gift to have people in the church who understand the devastating effects of what has happened. For an adult or child to feel valued, cared for, and defended against any type of abuse should be the norm from a congregation.
Care also requires engaging with trained professionals and the legal system. It is a commitment to persevere regardless of the amount of time and difficulty you encounter. Good pastoral leadership can provide guidance, support, nurture and hope. People need to see and experience the comfort of a loving God at a time when some will think he has somehow left them in their suffering.
The legal mandate to report abuse—whether it is on behalf of children, the elderly, the disabled, or anyone abused by an authority—is a call we as believers have to protect the vulnerable. Mandated reporting is pastoral care. It allows the authorities to do the hard work of investigation. It complies with the laws of the land. It means walking alongside those who have been impacted with a sage affection.
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You’ve heard the old adage, “practice makes perfect.” Recently my son came home from school and said, “Mom, do you know practice really makes permanent?” He then proceeded to explain to me what his teacher had taught him: if you learn to do something the wrong way (and repeatedly do it the wrong way) you will learn permanent bad habits, which will likely result in bad outcomes.
I mulled over his statement for a while and realized this rang true in many areas of life. I decided to turn it into a teachable moment to talk to my kids about ways we do this in our spiritual lives, thought lives, and relationships.
What are we practicing at home?
My fear is that as we teach our children various behaviors and habits, our focus is often about external behavior only. Our instruction centers on what to do, and when do it, without any real connection to why. Ultimately, everything our children do should stem from a love for God and others. (I love my sister so I allow her to choose the movie, or I love God so I pick up my room in gratitude for the belongings he has blessed me with.) We want to teach our children to do good things—for godly reasons. This informs the motives behind our behavior as well as the attitude with which we do such tasks.
What is becoming permanent?
My concern is that good habits, behaviors, and even spiritual disciplines can become permanent rituals done for duty’s sake only, rather than resulting from a relational choice to love. It is important to realize that life and faith can become a practiced obligation—“the right thing to do”—with permanent, loveless effects.
Consider these daily examples that appear mundane: making the bed, brushing your teeth, feeding the dog, cleaning the kitchen, filing papers, practicing the violin, and exercising good study skills. Or consider religious tasks: prayer, regular church attendance, and Bible reading. If we do these things only because we are “supposed to” they will become rote, obligatory, and eventually meaningless tasks because they are disconnected from a personal, loving relationship with God.
For example, what do you teach your children about prayer? I have worked with countless children who know that the right response to a difficult situation is to pray, but when pressed, they have little or no expectation that it will actually accomplish anything. For them it is merely a forced habit, void of relationship, with no expectation that God is really there at the other end. If we aren’t careful, these children will grow up believing that because prayer does not always produce a change in circumstances that it does not work at all.
Instead, we need to teach prayer relationally. With God as our Father and Jesus our older brother, prayer during hard times is asking them, as our godly family, to be with us and strengthen us. These kinds of prayers do accomplish something. They build up our relationship with God and this spills over into other relationships and situations.
What should we be practicing?
The solution is this. We must be committed to teaching our children (and reminding ourselves) that everything we do—whether great acts of service or mundane daily tasks—must be done out of a conscious decision to live our lives based on our love for God. It is from this personal conviction that we choose to serve our family, sacrifice personal desires out of love for our neighbor, and steward our life well before the Lord. In teaching this truth—that all life is lived before God—we are impressing on our children a different way of thinking, a different rationale for living that will serve them well when human motivation is waning.
My hope is this: that God would help us model and practice with our children the delight of living in relationship with him, a relationship that builds godly convictions and habits, and nurtures a godly view of life. What an excellent practice to become permanent in our homes.