As a part-time stay-at-home dad, I have talked to our children about suffering many times. There is no easy way to do it, but I have found that it can be less difficult if we are proactive about it. Here are four ways to start.
Editor’s note: Jim Otremba, M.Div, M.S., is a licensed independent clinical social worker and, with his wife, author of The Daily Dozen of Catholic Parenting. He will be contributing to Peanut Butter & Grace on an occasional basis. For more about Jim and his ministry, see the end of this article.
by Jim Otremba
There are many ways to discuss suffering with children, and as a part-time stay-at-home dad since 1999 I have talked to our children about this difficult topic numerous times. There is no easy way to do it, but I have found that it can be less difficult if we are proactive about it (like most things in life).
Here are four ways to talk to our children before they are actually going through any loss or suffering. This proactive approach helps to build a positive framework in which we can address the mystery of sin and suffering when it comes it. I will write another blog about ways to address suffering with our children while they are going through it – during a death of a loved one, an illness, a disability, a loss of a pet, etc.
1. Begin with the Goodness of Creation
Pull out your Bible and read Genesis 1:31 to your children. (Read it to yourself first and let this truth settle into your soul). “God looked at everything he made, and he found it very good.” In other words, we are very good because we have been created by a loving God.
You are very good! We must tell ourselves, and our children, this truth over and over again so lies do not take over. This is where we begin: it is called “original grace.” As Catholics we celebrate the goodness of creation based on this scriptural truth. Moreover, through our baptism, we have been adopted as sons and daughters of God, and we very good! Obviously, this doesn’t mean that all that I do is good. When I do sin, I sadly do not live in my identity as a son of God and need to repent. But, because I make a mistake doesn’t make me a mistake! I continue to be a son of God. This is critical to convey to accept in our lives as adults, and to convey over and over again to our children. Once we have internalized these truths, we can move on to the next one.
2. The Fall of Humanity is a Horrific Tragedy
In Genesis 3, we read that our first parents Adam and Eve disobeyed God and did not follow God’s holy order. This was the first human sin, and we call this original sin. We still have the horrible effects of this sin today, one of the biggest impacts of original sin is death and suffering.
There was no death nor suffering in Genesis 1 and 2 … go read them for yourself, no suffering! Death and suffering are from sin, not God. It was not our fault that Adam and Eve disobeyed God, but we live with the nasty consequences.
This can be difficult to explain to children (and adults), so in our retreats I use this example: If I burn tires publically, I will get in trouble because I am polluting everyone’s air — we are all connected on this earth. We tend to understand this truth with our physical environment. Spiritually, it is very similar.
Sin is social. There is no private sin, and the original sin committed by Adam and Eve was not “private” either. We read in Corinthians that “if one part of the body suffers, we all suffer!” Sin is the greatest form of suffering there is, and what I do in my house affects you (for good or ill), and what you do in your house affects me. When we understand that sin is social we can see that Adam and Eve’s original sin impacted all of humanity.
But that is not the end of the story, thank you Jesus! In the fullness of time, God sent his only son to reconcile us back to the father through the Holy Spirit. We cannot save ourselves, we need the Trinity and the Church!
3. God Did Not Create Suffering
God did not create death and therefore did not create suffering, nor does God like either one of these. Suffering came into this world through sin, not through God! We see this in Genesis 3.
We also read it point blank in the beautiful book of Wisdom. Once again, get your Catholic Bible out and read to your children from Wisdom 1:13. “Because God did not make death, nor does he rejoice in the destruction of the living. This is a critical point to understand as adults and to pass on to our children. God didn’t create death or suffering, but through Jesus and the work of Holy Spirit, God has redeemed all suffering and even death itself!
4. With God, New Life Wins
Let God “recycle” all our sin and suffering. Jesus brings good from all evil through his life, death and resurrection! With God, new life wins. We may not always see that on this earth, but it is true. If we humans can recycle our trash and turn that into something good, how much more can God do this through Jesus in the power of the Holy Spirit!
Jesus lived, died, and rose again and sent us His Holy Spirit so that through our baptism, we share in the very life of Jesus. In the Eucharist which he left us, we become what we receive: the very living body of Christ. Jesus sends us His Holy Spirit every moment of our lives so that the resurrection that he did for us can now be our victory.
The Holy Spirit continues to bring new life from all the death and sin as we confess our sins, and allow God to resurrect them. We read this in Romans 8:28 (my life verse). “We know that all things work for good for those who love God.” This is a divine promise from God that when we love him, he guarantees new life from all the suffering and death we go through. God will not waste any of the suffering and death we go through so long as we love him and give him these pains in our life.
May this God of new life bless you and your family as we teach our children the truth about suffering and the infinite power of the resurrection!
Jim Otremba, M.Div, M.S., is a licensed independent clinical social worker in Minnesota and owner of a state-certified clinic. He is working on his doctorate in psychology, is a part-time stay-at-home dad, and a regular guest on National Catholic Radio (Relevant Radio’s Morning Air). Along with his best friend and wife, he has appeared on EWTN, and loves facilitating Catholic marriage and parenting retreats around the nation. He and his wife are the authors of The Daily Dozen of Catholic Parenting: Improving Your Catholic Parenting in 20 Minutes a Day. Read more at www.catholicfamilyresources.com.