Conversations With a Nine-Year-Old: God
We were hiking the trails of a beautiful state park a couple weekends ago, on a day when the summer was everything you hope and expect it to be in Wyoming: a strikingly rich blue sky, warm-but-not-hot temperatures, and full of the wonder and awe of two boys seeing the adventure of the world with fresh eyes. We were on our way to a waterfall tucked a couple of miles back in the woods, when my nine-year-old posed an incredible question.
“What if the Bible is a fairy tale? Like, what if it’s just made up?”
Woah. It would be an understatement to say I wasn’t expecting that. Amidst the flood of thoughts that began filling my mind, one stood out: be careful how you respond. My goal as a parent has always been to paint a picture of God for my children with my life that invites them to discover God for themselves, not to push or force God on them, or tell them the “right” way to think or believe. I want to give them the freedom to explore and doubt and realize their faith on their terms. I just never thought we’d be doing this kind of wrestling at the age of nine.
I definitely wanted to avoid a simplistic rebuke: “The Bible isn’t a fairy tale, and it’s not made up. It’s true, and we need to believe it.” Not only would that have shut down the conversation and taught my son that he couldn’t come to me with these sorts of thoughts and questions, it would have been a statement that I don’t even fully believe all the time. Someday soon I’ll share with my son that sometimes, I wonder the same exact thing. But as we trekked through the woods that morning, this moment was about him, not about me. And so, my response was simple, intended to encourage further discussion:
“Yeah? What if it is? What do you think?”
He took the permission and ran with it, putting a clarifying point on his question.
“I mean, what if God didn’t really create everything like it says?”
“That’s a really good question, buddy. What if we think about it like this: all of this stuff around us right now — the trees, the sky, the ground — there was a time when none of it existed, right?”
“Before any of this stuff existed, someone had to exist who made all of it. That would be God.”
“Yeah, but what if it wasn’t God like in the Bible? What if it was a different God? What if it was, like, the Mexican God or something?”
(Here, I stop to marvel at my son’s amazing critical thinking skills intersecting with his limited world experience — instead of, say, the Buddhist God or the Hindu God or something along those lines, he uses the phrase “Mexican God”. Not in a racially insensitive way, and not to imply Mexicans can’t believe in the Christian God, but simply as a stand-in descriptor for some other deity outside his experience.)
“That’s another great question.” I want him to feel comfortable asking these sorts of questions as he grows up. And, honestly, it is a great question. “Let’s start here: whoever existed before everything else must have been some sort of God.”
“But how do you know that?”
“Well, since they had the power to create things, like this tree, it couldn’t have been a human, right? Can you make a tree?”
Here, there was giggling and jokes about making trees appear out of thin air. Eventually, I continued:
“So maybe the question is, ‘What kind of God created everything?’ Was he kind? Loving? Evil? Angry? And to me, the Bible says it was a loving God.”
“Yeah, but how do you know that’s true? How do you know for sure?”
“Well, I guess you can’t know for sure. That’s why they call it faith. You just choose to believe.”
“Dad, I still believe in the Christian God.”
“But what if it’s not?”
“One of the reasons I choose to believe that God is a loving and kind God is because of Jesus. He came as a real person and said, ‘If you want to know what God is like, look at me.’ He said he looked like exactly what God looked like. And when I read stories about Jesus, I see stories that are full of love and kindness. So, I choose to believe that.”
And with that, we found ourselves climbing the final set of rocks up to that little waterfall, our original destination. As I sat and watched our kids brave the icy cold mountain water, I couldn’t help but feel thankful that our journey had led us to even more beautiful places that morning. We didn’t talk about faith or God on the hike back to the car. Our nine-year-old probably won’t remember this conversation for much longer, if he still remembers it now. But I will. This impromptu, unexpected dialog with my son will remain profoundly meaningful to me, and I am grateful to God for allowing it to happen.