I’ve been helping out with the youth group at my church for the past six months or so, and recently a lot of the kids participated in a big week-long youth event called Flower City Work Camp. At youth group the week following the event, we had a chance for the kids to share things God taught them, experiences, favorite part of the week, etc. It was a great evening of sharing and then right at the end, with a courage that astounded me, one girl who hadn’t attended the camp but had been listening to her peers the whole night, stood up and point blank asked us all, “How do you believe this?” She had felt God in the past, but not for a while, and presently couldn’t claim any level of faith at all. I don’t know her or her story well, and I don’t know the journey her faith or life will take, but as we all gathered around and prayed for her that night, and as I came home and continued to reflect on that time of being surrounded once again with the faith of young people, with its highs and lows, beauties and stumbling blocks, my heart went out to her, and many others I’ve interacted with over the past few months.
I’m thankful, as I reflect back, that the Lord moves us beyond the emotive faith of youth. But I wouldn’t trade a second of it, and I wouldn’t wish the youth of today through it any faster. In my cynical moments I want to tell these kids that through every giddy high and angst-filled low, they’re really in the easy days of life. But though that may often be true, it seems a bit presumptuous to claim as a 27-year old, and what I don’t believe is true is that the measure of trial determines the validity of faith within it. (And who is qualified to be that measure, anyway?) Far too often, the wind-tossed faith of youth gives way not to the sound, strong, deeply anchored relationship with the Lord that time is capable of producing, but a weakness that cracks at the first real storm, or, even worse, the grown-up apathy that prefers comfort to setting sail in faith at all. The potential for the laying of foundations in the years of youth are just astounding, and the failure to see that done may be more ours than theirs, when we dismiss the teenage and college years as ones for faith to simply “make it through,” instead of to be formed by.
I love the young adult years. I love working with teenagers and college students, precisely because of the potential I see in this time. But don’t mis-understand me – I don’t believe valuing youth means everything must be “fun,” and “relevant,” and watered down and catered to what we perceive to be their indecision, weakness, and short attention spans. Sometimes the most relevant thing we can do is grab onto their faith in the midst of its wind-blown existence and show them that there is a Rock, and it matters that their feet be soundly planted on it. Show them that it matters, profoundly, how they live these years, and because of that, the journey of their faith matters to us. Youth care deeply and are capable of deep faith, and to not challenge them toward that, or say the difficult things, simply because we don’t think a young faith is capable to receive them, is to completely fail to prepare them for the incredibly difficult world they’re entering. I honestly believe that students preparing for and entering college today are entering an atmosphere that is vastly more hostile to faith (with increasingly subtle ways and terms) than it was even 10 years ago when I began. I long for them to be ready. I want to walk beside them through it and see them come out on the other side with an understanding of the all-encompassing nature of this faith they’ve entered into, and the profound significance of the decisions they make within it. We desperately need Christians who engage with the world, think critically, and take their faith seriously.
I’m about to begin a new college ministry job, and, needless to say, youth have been on my mind and heart. As I think about ministry with young adults, and why I find it both so challenging and so worthwhile – as I think about that girl at youth group, and why my heart broke for her – I realize that there is one overarching, compelling message I want them to hear. But as with so many aspects of faith, it can’t just be learned. It has to be lived. If I could somehow try to communicate it, though – if I could write a letter to that beautiful girl – it would be something like this…
As I prayed for you tonight, an image filled my mind. An image of you, limp as a rag doll, being pulled to all limits in all directions by the forces of this world. Stretched and ragged until the seams begin to pop and it threatens to destroy you, torn to pieces with nothing left of you or your faith. No unity and no strength, just pieces consumed by “the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life,” then tossed aside. I see you struggling, fighting against it, shaking yourself free from their grasp, only to be turned and tempted and drawn by another desire, another lie. You know that Christ said something about freedom, but right now faith seems like just another hand pulling at another part of you, and you’re tired. It doesn’t seem to be worth the fight.
But I wanted to cry out to you, over the noise of your pain and confusion, that faith is something entirely different from what you have perceived it to be. God is not just another thing to add to your life: He is life, and gives life, and nothing less. He has fought for you to the point of death and has already bought your freedom, but He will not fight in the world’s way. He will neither remove the grasps of the world from you or close you off from choosing to reach out to them. And it’s not because He’s mean, or tricky, or unfair. But He is jealous. As the author Sheldon Vanauken said it, ” The fact of Christianity must be overwhelmingly first or nothing.” It is not possible to just be a Christian like you are a student or a daughter or a soccer player or a friend. You must be a Christian in your studying and soccer playing, your coming out and going in. And that life is a truly difficult one, because it requires, at every turn and every question that asks, “Can I choose this with the Lord? Or must I choose the Lord without this?” for you to die, again and again, to desires apart from Him.
But oh, dear one, how I long for you to hear this – choosing this life, this hard life, is also good. And it doesn’t matter what any other life tries to tell you, life with Christ is the only one that can promise that. It is good because the Lord knows you. Intimately, perfectly, and better than you know yourself. He knows you and He loves you and He sees the life He has for you and the glory it will bring Him, and He is not content with anything less. If this is true, though, then why is it that life is so hard? Because you are holding on. Because the sin in us will always want to pull against God, for whatever reason it may be. We all have our reasons.
What you have to see, though, is that hard does not mean unworthy of effort, but the opposite. This life is infinitely worthy to be lived. This calling is worthy to be walked. But I can tell you that and it mean nothing at all. And I don’t know how to help you see, except that I think it lies somewhere in beginning to understand the tension of the eternal in the temporary. This life, and everything in it, is temporary. I know – some things seem to matter so much, but ultimately they don’t. They matter so incredibly little. (You’ll come to see that in life even without an eternal perspective.) Your life is temporary. Make it worthwhile. Live it for Christ. And as you begin to do that, you will start to see the eternal significance your life and its decisions hold. How when faith encompasses your life, all of a sudden it all matters. Wait…how is that possible? How is life both temporary and eternal? How can it both not matter and matter in the utmost? That is the tension. It matters not at all apart from Christ. It matters entirely in Him.
2 Corinthians 5:4 says this,
This life is hard because you have a covering, you have a life, but as you walk forward in Christ you realize more and more it is not permanent. You can’t hold onto it. But this life is good because Christ holds that permanent covering, is redeeming all things,and nothing good will be lost. Let your life now be absorbed into that life that is eternal. Not destroyed by, wiped away by, but to become a part of something much greater than yourself. Yes, it will require sacrifice. Something absorbed doesn’t cease to exist, but it ceases to exist independently. It exists only to add fullness to that into which it is absorbed. And because of that, it matters. It matters what you choose right now. Not after you’ve lived a bit more, not after you faith matures, not only if you pursue a certain career path, not only if you’re good at a certain thing – You. Now. Your life and its decisions will be a part of the fullness of the glory of God. And that makes these earthly wars infinitely worth fighting, and fighting well.
All He needs is a word of invitation, and He will show you what the reality is – that He surrounds the entirety of your life and every force that pulls upon it, as if they were children fighting with wooden swords within the towering walls of the king’s palace. They have no true power against you, and no good that is theirs to offer, only unnecessary pain. Do not let faith be just another thing to add to your life, always falling second to comfort, or popularity, or sex, or money, or power. That is not faith at all. Faith is all-absorbing. Be absorbed, and be transformed.
That is my prayer for you.