Don’t Shy Away from the Big Question (part 1)


by Ross Carper

It’s going to come up. Or at least it should—every once in a while. When you’re doing the 30 Hour Famine or some other justice-oriented ministry experience with students, there’s going to be a time when what I call the Big Question arises.

The BQ: “Wait… if God is so loving and so powerful, why does he allow horrors like extreme hunger in the first place?”

It might come from a quizzical student, just beginning to look outside herself for the first time. It might come from a volunteer leader, heartbroken in a new way as your team engages in a fight against tragic circumstances. It might come from a voice in the back of your own head. Wait… I’m the leader here. Should I be dealing with that question, and the big ol’ lump of doubt that comes with it?

Here’s what I’m not going to do: provide a neat’n’tidy blog-post answer to a question that people of faith have wrestled with for thousands of years. But, as youth workers, we do need to be thoughtfully prepared for it… so this post will be kind of long. I’m passionate about this because dealing with the BQ for myself, and by default preparing for such conversations, has been a big part of my own story.

Gnome-dialog-question.svgA decade ago, I finished a degree in philosophy at a secular university. My emphasis was in philosophy of religion, with a year-long thesis project on the problem of evil—specifically studying the ways thinkers use the horrors of our world as evidence against God’s existence, and whether there are any good responses to these arguments (basically, I studied the BQ). We had a small but excellent department, and those of us who were philosophy majors (including the woman who has since become my wife) developed great friendships with our professors—half of whom were atheists, and half of whom were Christian theists. As a fairly new disciple myself, this was a challenging and stimulating environment. On Tuesday nights at Rudy’s downtown, this vibrant community would meet for philosophical discourse over the best pizza in Bellingham. Good times.

Of course: none of this makes me an expert, but dealing with the BQ directly was important to my faith as a young adult. So I devoted a year of my life to the topic. Did it result in a perfect response—that nice, comforting answer to deliver smoothly whenever the BQ comes up? Nope. In fact, what I learned most deeply is how NOT to respond to the BQ. Here are some basic “don’ts”, with a few “do’s” mixed in:

  1. Don’t sweep the BQ under the rug. You’re in the midst of your biggest event or trip of the year, and suddenly a student is deeply struggling with doubt—seriously, it’s good we’re doing this project, but why are kids needlessly dying in the first place? As leaders, our minds are in a thousand places: we’re modifying the schedule on the fly, managing volunteers, and grabbing the next set of guitar chord sheets. But as busy as things are, do not ignore this question or brush it off. You probably don’t have time for a real conversation in the moment, so schedule it on the spot. You’ll need a full 1-on-1 coffee sesh (and probably some refills) to explore this stuff together. But don’t let that student out of your sight without scheduling a meetup. One major thing we’re learning in youth ministry is this: if we don’t provide supportive communities where it’s okay to face doubts and questions as a part of one’s faith, we’re dropping the ball. Our students will not be prepared for having a grown-up faith, and as young adults they’ll probably seek to air questions and doubts outside of faith communities rather than within them—because our ministries have implicitly told them there is no place for these questions within the church. Yikes. Schedule that meeting.
  2. Don’t give easy-cheesy answers to the BQ. I know this should go without saying, but hey, we all have our not-so-great moments in conversation with students. It’s better to be silent than to overconfidently roll out a couple lines from an old apologetics book, or say stuff like “God never gives anyone more than they can handle.” The amount of suffering in this world, especially the child suffering World Vision is trying to alleviate and prevent, is more than any of us can handle. Leave the slogans and platitudes for the greeting card store. Our students are increasingly allergic to oversimplified answers, which are never a source of good theology either.

(Tomorrow we’ll give you Ross’s remaining four suggestions for dealing with BQs)