on December 11, 2015

Beyond Pat Answers

Resisting the temptation to give easy answers to hard questions leads students towards a deeper faith.


Before You Read

Dear reader,

We’ll get right to it: Young people today are departing the faith in historic numbers as the church is either unwilling or unable to address their questions on science and faith. BioLogos is hosting those tough conversations. Not with anger, but with grace. Not with a simplistic position to earn credibility on the left or the right, but a message that is informed, faithful, and hopeful.

Although voices on both sides are loud and extreme, we are breaking through. But as a nonprofit, we rely on the generosity of donors like you to continue this challenging work. Your tax deductible gift today will help us continue to counter the polarizing narratives of today with a message that is informed, hopeful, and faithful.

INTRO BY CHRIS: Today I’m pleased to host a piece from our friends at Youth Specialties. Those of us who work with youth, whether in churches or in schools, know that we can be thrown into situations that require us to wade into some deep waters because young people can often bring deep questions. We want to help them through, but too often what we end up offering can seem superficial and dismissive. This post offers some great insight into ways to respond that can really make a difference at times like these, and they resonated with me because they have significant overlap with advice we give when dealing with challenging science and faith topics. When teenagers have pressing concerns about science and their faith, they really don’t need us to become science textbooks. They need us to love, and this article helps us to see what that looks like.

The youth pastor patted me on top of the head—not with tenderness, but with a dismissive, condescending motion. Tap-tap-tap. Tap-tap-tap. “Just remember,” he said, “God causes all things to work together for good. God won’t give you anything you can’t handle.”

I wiped away the tears that had started to form and forced a smile. Walking away, I thought, “Dude, you have no idea what I’m going through. I don’t even know if there is a God anymore.”

We live in a world of instant gratification. We can have almost anything we want on demand: fast food, fast Bible lessons, fast relationships—everything comes with a money-back, feel-good, thirty-minutes-or-less guarantee.

Today’s Christianity has bought into that kind of mentality, as well. Got a broken heart? Jesus can fix it. Feel overwhelmed by sadness? Cast all your cares on him. Feeling stuck between two decisions? Just trust and obey.

What are we offering our students when we give them pat answers and tired clichés? Are we teaching them that we buy into the notion of instant pleasure and quick fixes? Are we setting them up for a life of disappointment and doubt?

The pat answers given to me throughout my lifetime—particularly those I heard during my adolescent years—almost did me in. They brought guilt and shame and a sense that I was never good enough or godly enough. I struggled constantly with these quick fixes that just didn’t work for me. I’d confess, repent, and accept Jesus into my heart—I really would. And nothing would feel different. So I’d do it again, repeatedly confessing and repenting in an attempt to feel the answers that were supposed to be there. I’d pray for hours, asking Jesus into my heart again and again. Why didn’t he fix me? Why didn’t God give me strength? What was I doing wrong?

In the end, swamped with frustration and sadness, I didn’t blame God or suddenly decide it was Jesus’ fault. I blamed myself.

One of the problems with pat answers is that they’re usually taken straight from Scripture and therefore contain some element of truth—enough truth to distort and enough truth that the pat answer seems real.

We don’t offer lies to our students—we offer half-truths. We offer the resurrection without the agony of the cross. We offer the ascension without the garden of Gethsemane. And we end up with students with half-true lives—students who won’t know how to survive the difficulties they face—students with weak faith easily uprooted by winds of disappointment and doubt.

What can you do to help ground your students? How do you get beyond pat answers? Do you even want to?


You must recognize the reality of hurting people. You must acknowledge some wounds that are so big they may make you ask, “Why, God?” and even, “God, are you there?”

One of the problems with Christians is that we feel we must constantly defend our faith so zealously that we don’t know how to let God handle the huge issues. We try to minimize our situations and lives so we don’t need a big God. Big pain requires a big God.


A million years of theology doesn’t speak to the heart like a genuine “I don’t know.” And let’s be truthful—there are some things we don’t know.

We can guess. We can come up with alliterative phrases that describe the atonement, the purpose of sin, and the meaning of redemption—but when it comes to this student in this moment in this situation, often we just don’t know. Pretending that we do leads to pat answers and dishonesty.


There’s a lot of pressure in the church for everyone to be okay. It’s subliminal, from upraised hands during the worship chorus to kneeled moments during the altar call, but it exists.

Many people will expect you to fix the hurting students in your ministry. After all, you’re the youth pastor. But it’s important not to rush the process. We don’t serve a God who expects us to be put together—we serve a God who suffers with us in our sufferings and weeps with us in our sorrow.


Sometimes the best words are no words at all. A lot is unsaid in those quiet, intimate moments. Much is conveyed in quiet breathing and simple sharing of space. And in that silence, you won’t damage someone’s heart. You won’t minimize that student’s pain or tell him what you think he needs to hear or what you want to say.

Just be with your student. Be with her without feeling a need to fix her. Listen to the cries of her heart. Offer them up to God.

Pat answers are dangerous: they minimize our God, and they minimize us. They turn our religion into something God never intended. And they diminish our light in the world.

About the author