4 ways we try to help our children understand suffering

May 26, 2020

The coronavirus pandemic has brought up many conversations in our home about suffering. The children are hearing about sick people, job loss, and isolation. They know the disruption and disappointment in their own lives. Try as we might, we can’t shelter the children from the reality of this present suffering. Nor should we want to. 

Children ask questions about everything, turning to their parents as experts. If we are unwilling to answer their questions about the hard things in life, they’ll think we’re either unaware or unknowledgeable. They’ll still ask their questions, but they’ll turn to some other source for their answers. This is our chance to help them develop a theology of suffering. 

We need to help children understand the problem of suffering, God’s provision for suffering, and his purpose in our suffering. When talking about suffering, we can always start at the Garden of Eden. When sin entered the world, so did suffering. We can trace back every heartache and hardship to sin. Even the happiest and most comfortable of lives will end in death. 

The problem of suffering is because of the problem of sin. But the Father gave us a provision for that problem in the death, burial, and resurrection of his Son. Jesus conquered sin and death once and for all. Right now, we live knowing that his is the victory, but without seeing the full effects of it. But the provision of Jesus’ life is the cure for our sin and suffering problem. As we wait for the cure to be complete, we can also find comfort in God’s purpose for our suffering. Our suffering is the tool he uses to reveal our need for him, help us rest in his strength, and glorify him. 

As parents, the task of communicating this to children can be difficult. Here are some of the ways my husband and I are trying to help our children understand suffering. 

1. Give them the whole breadth of the Bible

Scripture is the most important thing we can give to our children to understand suffering. If we want our children to process the reality of this broken world, we have to give them the whole Bible, not just selected chapters or children’s versions. When we read to them from Genesis to Revelation, so many of the hard conversations we need to have with our children are started for us. God’s Word shows not only suffering but also God’s faithfulness and steadfastness. The Bible will help them understand the root of all pain, suffering, and evil in the world and show them the solution.

Give them the whole breadth of the Bible that they may see God’s purposes have always existed. Let them know that we have a sovereign God who is all-knowing, all-present, and all-powerful. Show them a God who is not surprised nor defeated by our brokenness. God’s Word shows not only suffering but also God’s faithfulness and steadfastness.

2. Pray through suffering 

Our children need to learn to pray through suffering. God hears our prayers and is glorified in them. Our faith is grown through prayer as we trust in the Lord to keep his promises. The psalms are a great place to turn because of the many examples of lament, showing how to pray during the pain of suffering while trusting in God.

As we teach them to pray for ourselves and others, children’s hearts will orient towards others’ pain. They’ll grow in compassion as they learn to trust God in the midst of hardships. 

3. Read good books

For the past year, my children and I have been reading through Ralph Moody’s autobiographical series Little Britches. When Moody was a young boy, his family moved from Massachusetts to Colorado in the early 20th century because of his father’s failing health. The family had to learn how to ranch to survive. Life was a struggle. Moody saw great loss throughout his life, but his tales of growing up are not marked by complaining nor quitting. Instead, Moody recounts a family that worked hard and loved deeply. They recognized challenges and suffering when they faced them but were never broken.

Scripture is the most important thing we can give to our children to understand suffering.

Good books that point us to the true, the good, and the beautiful will help our children develop perseverance and resilience as they grow in understanding what it means to be human. They are able to walk through painful times without having to actually bear the full weight of the suffering. Little Women, The Secret Garden, The Watson Go To Birmingham-1963, and Bridge to Terebithia are full of characters we can suffer alongside. As they become friends with characters who walk sad roads, children are also reminded of new mercies that come in the morning. 

4. Make new friends

A few years ago, a friend of ours lived with us for a month while we were trying to help him get back on his feet. His story of suffering was long and complicated. At almost 80 years old, life had brought him to a point where the best place for him to live was in our son’s bedroom. 

It wasn’t easy to host him—my son had to sleep on the floor of his sisters’ room while our friend stayed with us. We had another person to clean up after. I had to learn how to manage his medication. And we had to help him stay busy during the day. But hard doesn’t mean bad, and in this case, hosting him was good. Our whole family was aware of his suffering and was changed by his presence in our home. We grew in compassion and care for others. We recognized the effects of sin and injustice. And our faith grew as we learned to depend on God to care for us all.

Because many of our children spend most of their days in homogenous peer groups, parents may need to be intentional about finding friends whose lives don’t look the same as ours. Maybe there’s a refugee family down the road you can get to know, or an elderly couple in your neighborhood who would like to tell your family their stories. There are opportunities to volunteer at homeless shelters and food pantries. 

Having friends from different backgrounds teaches us that suffering is varied. But in that variety, we also see the humanity in sufferers. In our humanity, we have shared needs for shelter, food, and love. And more than anything else, our humanity means that we are all sinners in need of a Savior. 

Suffering has an end. Someday, he will make all things new. “He will wipe away every fear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, not pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Rev. 21:4). Until then, we need to remember the promises of God to never leave us nor abandon us. Our children need to know where to place their hope as they live in a world rife with troubles. 

Jessica Burke

Jessica Burke is married to her high school sweetheart, and they have four children. The Burkes lived in Skopje, Macedonia, as missionaries for three years before moving to North Carolina where Jessica’s husband is a chaplain at a local jail and a pastor. A former public school teacher, Jessica home educates her … Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24