When my niece Allie was 5, she frequently asked me imaginative questions about God. One day Allie arranged a pastoral ministry session for me. I waited on the front steps of her house while she gathered several of her friends. A study group gathered, and Allie announced, "My uncle is a preacher, and he can tell you what kinds of ice cream there will be in heaven."
I forced back laughter as the little faces turned toward me. Their expressions seemed to say, "Tell us, grown-up, and we will receive your words! What kind of ice cream will we have in heaven?"
My heart just about melted, and my brain fumbled for an answer. I thought about what a privilege it was that, at least for a season, I was the go-to person whenever my niece had a question about God or theology.
The questions children ask often make us smile, but consider this: Becoming the Christian Wikipedia for your kids is a God-ordained privilege and an opportunity to build relationships with your kids. Remember that when you're presented with questions like these: "Did baby Jesus wear diapers?"; "In Sunday school we read, 'I will remember their sins no more.' How can that be if God knows everything?"
You can effectively respond to your child's questions about God. As you prepare to answer your child's inquiries, your understanding of God and biblical truth will also deepen. Rather than squirm when the questions arise, you'll begin to cherish the opportunities to have meaningful conversations about the Bible.
Find the question behind the question
When children ask questions about God, the Bible, Christianity or something that touches on a spiritual matter, our first reaction may be to blurt out an answer. Usually it's better to pause and think, Why are they asking this question? What information is influencing them? Was there a recent event that prompted this?
Suppose your child asks, "Why does God allow bad things to happen?" That would seem to be a straightforward theological question, right? But what if Grandma had been ill and has just passed away? The child really may be asking, "Why did God allow Grandma to die? I prayed for her. Why didn't He answer my prayer?"
One way to find the underlying inquiry is to say, "That's a great question. What do you think?" Then allow your child to articulate what he's thinking. After you have a better grasp on what a child is asking, restating the question helps make sure that you're not reading your own interpretation into the child's question.
Guide the conversation
When answering a spiritual question, having a dialogue with your children is more constructive than a monologue, something they may see as a lecture. Talk with your children, not at them. Children often process what they learn better when allowed to participate in a conversation rather than just listen.
Consider how Jesus, at times, answered questions with a question:
On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. "Teacher," he asked, "what must I do to inherit eternal life?"
"What is written in the Law?" he replied. "How do you read it?" (Luke 10:25-26)
In this particular incident, Jesus challenged the lawyer to consider what he already knew about God when seeking the answer to his question. When you apply this method to the spiritual questions posed by your children, you encourage them to draw on the knowledge they already have about God.
While you're talking with your children, consider peppering your conversations with questions like these:
"How do you know that is true?"
"Can you give me an example to help me understand what you're asking?"
"What do we already know about this?"
"Is this situation similar to any Bible stories you know?"
"What does God say about this?"
If your children come up with answers on their own, it may lead to the formation of a firm conviction rather than just the accumulation of facts and knowledge. And when it comes to matters of your children's faith, convictions are not easily abandoned.
Don't give too much
Eight-year-old Lewis came to his mother and asked, "Mom, what is sex?" After Mom went through a speech about the differences between men and women, dating, love, marriage and what comes after, Lewis looked utterly confused. She finally asked, "Do you have any questions?" He answered, "Yeah, we had to fill out this form at school, and it asked what our sex was. Am I an M or an F?" Be careful that you don't give too much information. A question about Jesus coming back may not call for a detailed discussion of eschatology, pre- or post-tribulation rapture, and the prophecies of Ezekiel and Daniel as compared to Revelation and 1 Thessalonians. A simple "We don't know exactly when, but here's how we can make sure we're ready when Jesus comes back" may be all they're looking for.
How much your children understand depends on their age. As they ask questions, give them just enough information to be accurate and to satisfy their curiosity. If they continue to ask further, go deeper until they are satisfied with your answers.
Find the answer
Believe it or not, "I don't know" is an acceptable answer as long as you follow that with, "Let's find the answer together." Too many Christians never talk about their faith because they're afraid that people, especially their children, are going to ask them a question they can't answer.
Unless you're a Bible scholar, your little ones will eventually stump you. That's OK! You can't be expected to know answers to every question, but you can and should show a willingness to find the answer. No matter your background or current Bible knowledge, your willingness to invest the time in finding the answers with your children speaks volumes about your personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Feed your own heart and mind with Scripture daily, and you'll also prep yourself for your kids' spiritual questions that will come. Don't be afraid! God promises to provide wisdom to those who ask for it (James 1:5). You can pray for understanding. When it comes to preparing for effective answers to challenging questions, I believe our Lord's invitation from Matthew 7:7 is applicable: "Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you."
Alex McFarland is a Christian apologist, speaker and writer. He has written several books on apologetics and is working on a new book about tough questions kids ask.
This article appeared in the December 2012 issue of Thriving Family magazine. Copyright © 2012 by Alex McFarland. ThrivingFamily.com.