Photos and news reports are everywhere these days. Children dying. Terrorists with weapons. Beheadings. ISIS. Jihad. Families fleeing. Persecution. While recent stories seem particularly gruesome, they won’t be the last time your children encounter a difficult truth about our world: Sometimes people are hurt or even killed because of their faith.
Your instinct may be to shield your children from these harsh realities. And, for younger children, this protection is prudent. However, there are times when your kids will be exposed to images or reports of religious persecution, and in those instances, your response as parents is key.
Daniel Huerta, a licensed clinical social worker and staff counselor at Focus on the Family, says, "It is difficult for young children to understand why people persecute others for their beliefs. As a result, parents need to be present and ready to have talks with their kids regarding this very real issue."
So how can you help your children understand the severity of Christian persecution in light of God's sovereignty and love?
Respond with developmental consideration
A discussion with your children about the persecuted church should not be candy-coated, but it does need to be age-appropriate. Below, Huerta gives guidelines by age group for responding when your child is exposed to images or stories of religious persecution. However, he also cautions, "Like with any potentially fear-producing news, kids need to be told what they are ready for. What tends to impact the readiness in a child for news, such as Christians being persecuted, is not only age, but also personality and overall life experiences."
Study your children and their frame of reference. Huerta says, "Some children are naturally more resilient, mature and 'news ready.' Some children have experienced some form of persecution and can relate through life experience. In general, however, children 8 and older tend to be able to have more cognitive and life-enhancing discussions about difficult and painful life events."
- 0 to 3: Children 3 and under cannot develop a conceptual framework to be able to process the information and will most likely only absorb the adult emotions or express their emotional response to an image they inadvertently saw or words overheard through play. If 2- to 3-year-olds create a violent interaction in their play, you can help them process their feelings by narrating their play. For example, children might have one figure hit another figure. You would say, "Bob (the first figure) just hit Billy (the second figure) really hard. That had to hurt Billy, and Billy probably feels sad or in pain. Let's help Billy with his boo-boo. How can we help Billy with his boo-boo?" Integrate a healing or resolution to the play by assisting in the completion of the story. In other words, help children come up with a safe resolution to the story, even though there was pain, sadness and violence. This is a developmental stage in which you provide names to feelings and resolutions to emotions and storylines.
- 4 to 7: At this age, exposure to news or images of Christians facing persecution can provide an opening to lead your children in prayer for Christians throughout the world. Broaden the discussion beyond sensational images and headlines to introduce your kids to stories about missionaries, other cultures and some of the challenges that are faced in other cultures. You don’t need to go into detail. Your children will ask for the information they need. Many times, they will move on from the topic fairly quickly, which is developmentally appropriate and normal. You may have some “thinkers”— kids that want to ask a lot of questions and process the information from their limited understanding of the world. Answer the questions with general information and little detail.
- 8 to 12: Kids in this age group can receive general stories and have discussions regarding their questions, worries and overall emotional response. Many times, children this age want to be the heroes and see themselves as ones that can take on “the bad guys.” This stage offers great opportunities for prayer, discussions about possible solutions and freedoms to be thankful for. It is also a great time to instill gratitude and personal beliefs regarding the issues. They can have lots of questions or move on quickly, depending on your children's personality or temperament. Follow their lead.
- Teens: Teens can have a more philosophical discussion regarding Christian persecution and what it means within their life, beliefs and perceptions. At this stage, do not be afraid to discuss either the overall philosophy surrounding religious persecution or some of the gruesome details seen in the news, but make sure you have an understanding of what is happening in the news story before discussing it with your teens.
Prevent fearful living
Hearing about kids being persecuted because of their faith may cause children to fear similar persecution, especially children younger than 8, who will tend to relate the stories of persecution to their own lives, personalizing them, says Huerta. Kids may become more anxious, fearful, and relate the news to what might happen at their home or church.
In addition, they may suddenly realize that neither they nor their parents are fully in control of their lives. By offering compassionate guidance, parents can prevent children from feeling overwhelmed and fearful of the world around them. After all, this may be their first introduction to the tension of injustice in a fallen world.
Dr. Jared Pingleton, clinical psychologist and director of Focus on the Family's Counseling Services, says, "It is very frightening and unsettling to a child to become aware that his world is not safe, secure, and stable." He continues, "We should not be alarmed when we experience uncertainties and threats. After all, as Jesus predicted: 'In this world you will have trouble. But take heart, I have overcome the world' (John 16:33, NIV)."
Persecution is never fair or right, Pingleton says, "Yet Scripture is filled with ways to be mature and proactive, not passive and reactive, in response to suffering.” He encourages parents to use biblical stories as teachable moments.
After all, stories of people hurting others because of religious beliefs are not new. This can be seen through the persecution of the early church and Old Testament Bible characters, such as Daniel, and Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. Daniel was thrown into a lions' den for praying in public. The other three men were thrown into a fiery furnace because they refused to bow down to a statue. Sometimes bad things happen to good people who are honoring God.
Acknowledge that God doesn't always intervene
In the cases of Daniel, Meshach, Shadrach and Abednego, God intervened, and they were saved. There is always that possibility, but your kids may wonder why God didn't intervene in the lives of people who were killed for their faith or had to flee their homes or were forced to worship in secret. Believers who are faithful to the point of prison, torture or death seem like people God might want to rescue, especially since what they are doing is being done for His glory.
It's OK to admit to your kids that you want God to intervene and then model how Christians pray for intervention, pleading with God for divine protection. Then talk about how the first-century church was persecuted; some believers were miraculously saved, and others died martyrs’ deaths.
God doesn't promise to deliver everyone from hardship and persecution. But He does promise to be there with us, no matter what we face. No child and no Christian are ever alone when faced with hardship because God does not abandon His people.
Pingleton says, "Children can see clearly that persecution isn't fair or right. But we can all be comforted with the powerful truth that 'God has said, "Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you" ' (Hebrews 13:5, NIV). The message of the Gospel is that God has come, has experienced suffering himself in order to identify with us (1 Peter 2:19-24) and has said that He is with us. Confidently assure your children that Jesus and His Spirit are always with us to comfort and sustain us (John 14:18). Nothing can help them feel more safe, secure and stable!”
To make this point more concrete, reassure your children that you will be there with them, no matter what troubles they face, whenever it is humanly possible. You will hurry home from work, lock doors, flee together . . . do whatever it takes to keep them safe. And if ever there is a time when you can't be there, God will be with them, no matter where they are and no matter what they face. Remind them that if God will do that for them, He will also do it for people in other countries who believe in Him. Then stop talking and listen to them; let them express their fears and their feelings.
Parent Lisa Hyland says, "The close relationship my family has with a family who fled persecution helps my children see how valuable the opportunity to worship in freedom is." Because of these friends, the Hylands have had ongoing discussions about Christians around the world who are being persecuted.
Parent Gretchen Battaglia used the following news story as a means to help her 13- and 14-year-old kids better understand the persecuted church: Meriam Yehya Ibrahim is a Sudanese woman who married a Christian man and refused to renounce her Christian faith before a Sudanese court. She was tried for adultery (because a Muslim isn't allowed to marry a Christian) and apostasy (for not denying her Christian faith). When her sentence of death by hanging received international attention, she eventually was freed.
Battaglia says, "We shared the story with our kids and asked for their thoughts. Then we used their thoughts and questions to continue the conversation."
When a parent decides that a child is ready for a discussion about religious persecution, Huerta says, "To avoid the issue is to miss great discussion opportunities with your child. As children grapple with their perceptions, fears and responses, they are given the opportunity to develop emotional resiliency and empathy for others."
Parent Meagan Schober also chose to be proactive. She found books published by The Voice of the Martyrs about St. Valentine, St. Nicholas and St. Patrick. Schober says, "We read the books during that particular holiday and used them as an open door to speak about the persecuted church [in general] and pray for believers in other countries." Hearing and talking about the courage of missionaries and others helps build a foundation in younger children for a later discussion.
Empower your kids
Most kids know that they would do everything possible to help their family through hard times. What they may not know is that other Christians, no matter how far away, are their brothers and sisters in Christ. They may compartmentalize what is taking place in the world, a way to desensitize the horror, as something that happens to those people over there.
Broaden their mindset by first suggesting that their prayers for persecuted people matter. Then encourage them to pray alone and with family members for those who are suffering. Huerta suggests that parents ask kids 8 and up these questions: What emotions might go through people faced with persecution or the possibility of persecution for their faith? What would it be like to have to die or suffer for your belief in God? What would you do differently if you faced the possibility of being hurt or killed for your faith? "Parents should also reflect and respond to the questions," says Huerta.
Children's emotional reaction to Christian persecution — their wanting to do something about injustice — is a God-inspired response. Huerta says, "If there is a discussion regarding what teens can do (e.g., missionary trip, fight, sermon, international policy, etc.), talk about how they would handle persecution if they were in the same situation." Then let them research about relief aid and what your family can do, making your response real and not an over there thing.
Finally, encourage your tweens and teens to look for opportunities to express their own faith, as long as that expression isn't detrimental to others. That means that when other kids joke about someone else's faith, your children should stand up for those being ridiculed — a first step toward being courageous in their own faith. Also, they can take responsibility for what they believe and not be swayed by derision.
Parent Joy Gayle's daughter entered her first day of high school. In her geography class, the teacher asked about the top three current events in today's world. Only this ninth-grader knew about ISIS, Ebola and the Hamas attacks on Jewish communities. How? Joy and her daughter had talked about the Arabic "N" that people were using on social media to show support for the Christians in Iraq — the letter painted on the homes of Iraqi Christians. That discussion of the persecuted church led to talking about other world events, and because of a parent-child discussion of the persecuted church, one high school student went to class well-informed.
God's Word on Suffering and Persecution
Parents can trust God's Word. Jared Pingleton, psychologist and the director of Focus on the Family's Counseling Services, offers these Scriptures that families can read together and study as a means for better understanding the active Christian response to suffering and persecution:
Resources to help you talk about the persecuted church:
Stories are a great way to introduce a difficult discussion with kids. Parents may want to use some of the following resources to help spark a discussion:
Bible Kidventures New Testament Stories
Escape Underground by Clint Kelly
Kids in the early church must flee to stay alive.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Legacy of Courage & Integrity
Eric Metaxas talks about Dietrich Bonhoeffer's sacrifice.
The Hiding Place
Focus on the Family Radio Theatre
"The Imagination Station" Challenge on the Hill of Fire by Marianne Hering and Nancy Sanders
Beth and Patrick travel back in time for an adventure that includes St. Patrick.
Life Behind the Wall by Robert Elmer
Children live behind the Berlin wall where families are persecuted for their faith in this historical novel.