Rachel Turner explains why it’s not enougn to just know the truth.


I sat across the table from an agonised father. My heart squeezed as I listened to him talk about his son, shaking his head in frustration with a tinge of despair. I have had this same conversation with so many parents over the years. The same issue, with different details.

The dad summarised the situation for me. His twelve-year-old son was struggling at home, especially when he did something wrong. They, as parents, tried to be gentle with him when they disciplined the behaviour, and yet their son seemed to beat himself up over the issue repeatedly. He was angry at himself for messing up. He was embarrassed about the things he did wrong last month. He hated himself for what he did to his brother a week ago. The boy would get trapped almost daily in a spiral of thoughts that sweep him into an avalanche of shame, regret, grief and anger.

The dad assured me, “We tell him that we forgive him, and that Jesus forgives him. We pray for him. We tell him that he just needs to say sorry to Jesus, and then it’s all over. We tell him to let it go, and it’s okay to mess up, but he just can’t seem to get over it. It’s awful to see him trapped in this perfection anxiety.”

This situation can be quite common among children and young people. Many children suffer from anxiety, or perfectionism. We are quick to see this kind of behaviour as a personality quirk, or situational anxiety. I believe, though, that there is something deeper going on here. Something that is significant for all of us to learn about helping young people on their spiritual journeys. 

“Relationship with God is more than a transaction. It is a glorious life of freedom, joy and peace.”

It is not enough to tell young people the truth about life with God. We have to help them experience it.

This parent told the child all the right things: he is forgiven, he is loved, he doesn’t have to hold onto it because Jesus removed his sin from him. All the right words.

But his child had yet to experience it. His son didn’t know how to actually go to God with his sin and talk to God freely about the situation and his feelings about it. His son hadn’t experienced what it feels like to receive that freedom of forgiveness and encounter the peace of God that comes from that heart-to-heart connection in prayer. All this kid had experienced with his sin that obviously weighed on his conscience was that if you say “Sorry God”, then he transactionally clears your account. Relationship with God is more than a transaction. It is a glorious life of freedom, joy and peace. This boy was trapped in shame not because he was anxious, but because he hadn’t gotten to experience forgiveness yet.

As I explained this to the dad, he looked at me with a bit of fear as he said “I would have no idea how to help my child pray in that way”.

I talked him through how to coach a young person through an encounter with God, and he looked nervous but willing. Weeks later, he told me that his son’s anxious thought patterns about his own mistakes had drastically improved, and his self-talk of anger and hatred was almost non-existent. Not every child instantly improves like this, but when a young person gets equipped to handle the patterns of sin and forgiveness well, they are equipped for a lifetime.

Every time I help a family like this it reminds me of the importance for all of us to ensure that the truths we teach are always given to young people with how to experience it in everyday life. We cannot simply tell young people about God. We must give them the chance to meet with him face-to-face. We cannot simply encourage them to try something when they leave our groups, but we must coach them through trying it right there. In the room. Because they often need help in trying it for the first time. Whether we are teaching about fear, disappointment, joy, thankfulness, sin, we need to help young people to meet with God about it personally rather than assume they know how to do it on their own.

We need to learn how to coach young people through an encounter so they know how to do it in the future. For instance with sin, telling young people “Say sorry to God” leaves them with nothing but a phrase to say. Instead coach them through a conversation. “It doesn’t matter what words you say, just that you choose to meet with God heart to heart. You are going to chat with God, and God is going to communicate with you too. This isn’t leaving a message on God’s voicemail, this is a conversation, so expect him to meet with you. Get some space and I’ll coach you through it if you want. I don’t need to hear it, you can chat to God in your head if you want. He can hear you, always. Ready? Tell God about your choices and how you feel about them. (Then give loads of quiet space – at least 30 seconds). Tell God what you want from him. (Then give loads of time) Now just a wait a little bit for God to do what you asked and to chat with you. (Wait a bit – at least 30 seconds) If you want to, thank him for what you are grateful for. (Give time) How are you feeling?”

Whether it’s a big group, or just on the side of the room with one kid, coaching them through an experience means that they aren’t reliant on our fancy words, but rather discover the power of using their own to meet with God. This encounter isn’t about us as leaders or parents, but about them finding their way of meeting with God about what is on their heart. Whether you are facilitating them meeting with God about their fear, their worry, their happiness or their sin, our job is to help them bring it to God with their own words. We can provide a safe space for them to try, in the room, so when we aren’t in the room they are confident to do it again and again.