The role of suffering in your teen’s spiritual growth


Not one parent wants to see their teen suffer. Sometimes it does feel like your teen’s suffering is harder on you than it is for your child. It feels harder because you know more. You know how hard life is. Your teen isn’t even to the “hard part” of life yet and is still hurting so much.

But for your teen, he/she is experiencing this suffering which means these are emotions being felt very likely for the first time (part of adolescent development).

They are overwhelming emotions. Your teen is scared. Your teen doesn’t have the words to express how he/she feels. Your teen doesn’t know if the suffering will ever end. Your teen wonders— and is really scared — if they will never be normal again.

This hurts you so much. You want to speed through the process. You want to divert out of the process. You want to numb this pain for your teen. You mostly want to speak words and make it all go away.

Here is your hope, parent. It is in the suffering your teen will find their identity, especially their identity as loved personally by God. Pain is your teen beginning to finding out who they are. The Jesus your teen meets in the suffering is the type of faith your teen will take into adulthood.

Other identity-forming factors for teens are school; classes they excel at; sports they excel at; extracurricular groups they discover a passion for; friends they surround themselves with.

All of these are “liquid” and constantly changing, hence your teen’s identity is continually changing.

This has always been a part of adolescent development. And why these teen years cause parents so much fear. Why youth pastors grieve in prayer so much because the identity of who they see at youth group is more often not the identity of who goes to high school.

The internet creates a whole other possibility of identity formation. There are now filtered identities and faux identities. All swirling together inside your teen who is secretly fearing that they will never figure life out and never find their place in this world.

Suffering actually offers a rootedness to all of this swirling.

It is in the suffering that one can see the constancy of Jesus. This is even more true in these wonderful and vulnerable teen years.

Their adult minds haven’t rationalized Jesus away yet (like you did at one time?). Their new emotions of hope and possibility are drawn to the personal bigness of Jesus.

Teens are particularly drawn to the big truth that Jesus is with us in the suffering.

No other religion has that message.

The true God does not abandon us, ask us to strive more, or sends us on a quest. Jesus’ compelling story is one of love and self-sacrifice. Jesus promises, “No, I will not abandon you as orphans — I will come to you” (John 14:18). This speaks. So many of Jesus’ promises speak to that fear-filled-yet-won’t-talk-about-it soul of the teenager.

(Side note: The small Jesus of many youth ministry teachings — aka Jesus is your best friend or Jesus loves everyone always — is not the same as the big Jesus whose call to us involves commitment, self-sacrifice, and leaving something behind.)

Those teens who have been challenged to dig in and know Jesus because they have actually read the Gospels for themselves know that Jesus doesn’t abandon them.

The rah-rah-ness of a youth group does not provide this. Being segregated by age leaves them all together lost and not brave enough to ask their fear-sourced questions. They are all lost together while trying to figure out their peer relationships. Figuring out their peer relationships is emotionally consuming enough.

Those teens who have relationships with wise adults in their church also learn how Jesus doesn’t abandon them. In a church family, there are people who are safe for teens to ask their secret questions to.

Wise people who won’t think their questions are stupid, silly, faith-shocking, or frivolous.

Wise people who can put words to their fears. Fears which are often misunderstandings but teens don’t know that yet until they get adult wisdom to help them understand.

These are also adults from whom teens can see live real faith. Real live faith that has worked in real life and has stood the test of time. These wise adults are not afraid to enter into a teen’s suffering.

These wise adults already know how temporary suffering is.

How pain is the beginning of growth. Intentional intergenerational ministry plans provide a path.

The bonus for the wise adults is that even when your beloved teen moves in their early 20s and is questioning everything, they will remember these wise adults from your church.

And maybe reach out to them. (The youth pastor is probably temporary and already moved on.) You don’t forget the adults who gave you the words that quelled the anxiety that overwhelmed you in adolescence.

The truth is this suffering is temporary.

Pain is the beginning.

God has hard-wired us for pain.

Your teen doesn’t know this. Yet.

When they do understand this, faith becomes a part of their identity.

At the end of Job’s disaster, he said, “I had only heard about you before, but now I have seen you with my own eyes” (Job 42:5).

Pain does have a way of showing us God in all truth.

This is why pain is our beginning.

I have never been able to unsee God’s faithfulness to me in each painful season I’ve been in. And I’ve always made it through. I’ve always grown through it to find the beauty.

I wish as parents we could “kiss suffering and make it go away.” I wish God would just protect our innocents from suffering. But life.

So parents, trust the God who promises with the pain your teen feels. Follow the holy tension and something holy will happen, such as your teen grows into someone who blesses this world.

  • Brenda Seefeldt has served as a youth pastor for 39 years.
  • First published in The Christian Post. Republished with permission.
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