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The Catastrophization of our Children

‘We’re all going to die!'

Our children are growing up in a world where it seems like there is no good news for their future. There is war, crimes, epidemics that could wipe out a third of the world that edge ever closer to our homes and the threat of global warming making the human race extinct. In this article I don’t want to enter a debate on the validity of each of these threats, but I do want to reflect on the impact it is having on our children.

Of course, this sense of impending doom is not a new phenomena. Some children have faced war, famine and oppression. I grew up in an era when we were all going to be killed by a nuclear war (from a child’s perspective this is my memory anyway), and those younger than me were facing the uncertainty of Y2K bug (a computer glitch that at the turn of the century could have stopped all computers and life as we know it). However, it does seem that the children in this age are being more widely impacted by the worry these reports cause.

I am aware some reading this will be saying – these are very real dangers and we need to act now. These dangers will affect our children’s future so we, and they, should be doing all we can. Others will take a more sceptical view on different issues. For example, with the Y2K some will say it was a load of fuss about nothing, others will reply it is because it was foreseen that action could be taken to avert what could have been a disaster. I repeat, my purpose of writing is not to enter into this debate, but rather it is to get us to think about how exposure to this debate is affecting our children.

Then there is the local impact of a breakdown in society that children are facing. We were doing a survey of our 10-14 year olds to find out what kind of dangers they were being exposed to and experiencing, what things were helping their faith journey and how we could help and support them more effectively as a church.

One of the questions asked the children, ‘What is your greatest fear?’ I was surprised to see that one ten-year-old had written, ‘being stabbed at school.’ Admittedly we were in a city church, but this fear seemed a bit unrealistic for one so young, so I asked him about it. He said that a few weeks ago he had seen one of his friends stabbed at the school gates. This suddenly brought his fear into focus – it was not irrational, it was a genuine response to the trauma he had seen.

In the face of such apocalyptic disasters (both global and personal) how should our children respond. Should they run around shouting, ‘we are all going to die!’ Should they be shielded from every bit of news? Should they be encouraged to stand up and shout at the adults, rebelling against their seeming in ability to keep their world under control? Or should they shrug their shoulders and accept the inevitability of death and therefore that life is meaningless?

They are being dragged into the very centre of discussions on these issues. In one way this is good – it is an opportunity for them to develop their voice and engage with the world. It can also be a chance for them to dream big about the changes that they can bring to make their world a better place. However, as children are faced with philosophical questions beyond their ability to reason, the impact is not necessarily good.

What does it do to our children to grow up with this unsettling feeling? Many children are very sensitive to these issues. As children become aware of the wider world how do such stories affect them? While every child will be affected differently, I think we have reason to be concerned for the challenges that growing up in such an environment can do to their sense of security and mental health.

When personal and global catastrophes collide in one person’s life the two can feed off each other, as leaving a child feeling hopeless and even plunging into despair. Chronic stress and anxiety and even a sense of guilt about their involvement in the surrounding issues can fester, even though they may be out of their control (such as in family breakdown). When children do not have the capacity to manage their own emotions this can further exacerbate their coping mechanisms for each new trauma they face, impacting every area of their lives.

In an environment where panic is become pandemic, what can we do to help our children rise above the emotional turmoil?

1. Our confidence is in the Lord

God’s word bring hope to every situation. Our confidence is not found in knowing the future, but in knowing that God knows the future. Proverbs 3:21-26 says:

21 My son, let them not depart from your eyes—

Keep sound wisdom and discretion;

22 So they will be life to your soul

And grace to your neck.

23 Then you will walk safely in your way,

And your foot will not stumble.

24 When you lie down, you will not be afraid;

Yes, you will lie down and your sleep will be sweet.

25 Do not be afraid of sudden terror,

Nor of trouble from the wicked when it comes;

26 For the Lord will be your confidence,

And will keep your foot from being caught.

We are to fight to hold on to wisdom and discretion (that is reason or common sense). The starting point for wisdom is the fear of the Lord, indeed many would see Christ as the personification of wisdom found in Proverbs. So, to put it another way, fix your eyes on Jesus – keep your focus clear, then you will be able to sleep peacefully. When our children feel overwhelmed by fear that fear is not from God, but it can be removed by Him, who guards hearts and minds as we spend time with Him in worship and prayer. This gives our children a proactive response in the face of fear – that we can trust in the Lord.

God is in charge of this world and our surrounding circumstances. He is the one who has put his breath of life into each one of us. We should encourage our children to find their confidence in God. The more they understand of God’s sovereignty over the earth and their lives, the more they can grow to trust him.

For children who are really struggling with anxiety, we may need to help them to know how to take captive every thought (2 Corinthians 10:5). Their genuine concerns may be healthy if it leads them to action, but anxiety can consume every waking moment and even invade dreams to allow no rest. Worry is not a luxury that our children should feast on. Rather we should bring our concerns and requests to God. Philippians 4:6-7 says:

Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

God’s peace is there to act as a guard, to stop anxiety from consuming us. Concerns can be a part of their life but must not become all their life and they must have a healthy outlet to be able to bring their concerns to God. This is the privilege of speaking with God in prayer.

Ephesians 4:15-16 speaks of us being strengthened in our inner being and rooted and grounded in love. God is our foundation and His words will never pass away. We must point our children to God that their roots will be deep in Him and they will trust Him in the storm.

2. Be available

To have the right to support and speak into children and young people’s lives we have to be concerned for the things that concern them. Many are growing up feeling like there is no one who is available to listen to them and this all impounds their feeling of helplessness. As we listen to the next generation and model to them what fearless faith in the face of failure looks like, they can draw strength from our relationship with the Lord that sustains us.

Is there space in your family, church programmes and ministry to simply listen to what your children and young people are going through? Are you building a relationship with them where they know they are loved by you and can trust you to share some of their secret anxieties?

3. Do what you can do

We quoted earlier from Proverbs 3, it goes on to say in verses 27-29:

27 Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due,

When it is in the power of your hand to do so.

28 Do not say to your neighbour,

“Go, and come back,

And tomorrow I will give it,”

When you have it with you.

29 Do not devise evil against your neighbour,

For he dwells by you for safety’s sake.

In other words we should focus on living to the best of our ability and loving those around us. Keeping the same perspective that Jesus held to do what is right. The prophet Micah says in Micah 6:8

He has told you, O man, what is good;

and what does the Lord require of you

but to do justice, and to love kindness,

and to walk humbly with your God?

Do what you can do, but don’t stress about what you can’t do, instead trust God. It is possible to help our children both to take positive action in areas that concern them and to trust that God is bigger than it all and only expects us to play our part.

Let’s help our children to affect what they can change and to hand over to the Lord everything that they can’t. For some children they may feel paralyzed by fear (something we know is not from God) and we can help them to see small changes that they can make in their world. This kind of personal responsibility to make an impact in those around us is what God is expecting from us.

As the famous serenity prayer puts it:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,

Courage to change the things I can,

And wisdom to know the difference.

4. Our eternal hope

For us as Christians death is not the end. Death is just the beginning. Paul says in Philippians 1:21, For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.

Life can feel like we are tossing a coin against the darkness, that there is a 50/50 chance who will come out on top. But when we follow Christ it is a case of, ‘Heads I win, tails you lose!’ This win-win situation gives us great confidence for the future.

Our hope is eternal.

53 This body that can be destroyed must clothe itself with something that can never be destroyed. And this body that dies must clothe itself with something that can never die. 54 So this body that can be destroyed will clothe itself with that which can never be destroyed, and this body that dies will clothe itself with that which can never die. When this happens, this Scripture will be made true:

“Death is destroyed forever in victory.” Isaiah 25:8

55 “Death, where is your victory?

Death, where is your pain?” Hosea 13:14

56 Death’s power to hurt is sin, and the power of sin is the law. 57 But we thank God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

We can read the end of the story. We know how it ends. This world is finite, but we are called to an infinite life with God. This is the hope of the Gospel. This is the Good News. Romans 6:23 says: The wages that sin pays are death, but God’s gift is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.

John 3:16 says: God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him won’t perish but will have eternal life.

What greater hope is there than that!

Let’s help our children not to panic in the face of pandemonium around them but to follow the advice of Proverbs 3:5-6:

5 Trust in the Lord with all your heart;

don’t rely on your own intelligence.

6 Know him in all your paths,

and he will keep your ways straight.

This Biblical counsel is summed up in Revelation 21:1-5

1 Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the former heaven and the former earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. 2 I saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, made ready as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. 3 I heard a loud voice from the throne say, “Look! God’s dwelling is here with humankind. He will dwell with them, and they will be his peoples. God himself will be with them as their God. 4 He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more. There will be no mourning, crying, or pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” 5 Then the one seated on the throne said, “Look! I’m making all things new.” He also said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”

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