We seem to be witnessing a younger generation unprepared to cope with the difficulties of life. Many scholars have observed the “failure to launch” phenomenon, where 20-somethings back down from the challenges of the real world. They retreat to their parents’ house, defer pursuing a vocation, and avoid entering what our culture considers mature adulthood.
On college campuses, many students tend to live in constant crisis. When views and voices arise that challenge their worldview, they cry in outrage. They deem as “cataclysmic” events many would deem as “concerning.” Certainly, there is nothing wrong with disappointment and dissent, but we seem to be observing a generation of children who lack the ability to cope with some of the basic difficulties of life. Safe spaces on campuses seem to validate further this sentiment.
I contrast these young people with my friends’ late mother. While she battled breast cancer, her husband ran off with another woman and left her to fend for herself and her three teenage girls. With limited financial means, she survived cancer the first and second time, got her daughters through college, and scraped by while working as an art teacher at a Christian school.
This petite, lovely woman was as tough as nails. People were mystified by the way she not only survived, but also faithfully and joyfully trusted Christ. She glorified God with her toughness.
As parents and youth pastors committed to young people, we have to ask if there is a place for “Christian toughness.”
The world’s ideals of toughness are Chuck Norris and Jason Bourne, men of self-reliance, physical power, and emotional stoicism. These characters contrast sharply with Jesus, who was non-violent, emotionally vulnerable, and completely dependent on the Father. Yet who has ever been tougher than Christ on his march to Jerusalem and Golgatha?
The Bible’s terms for toughness are “perseverance,” “endurance,” and “character.” In Romans 5:4, Paul says believers “rejoice in sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character.” For a person to say he or she “rejoices in suffering” is the language of toughness. Serious toughness.
Notice how this verse is bracketed by explicit proclamations of the gospel (Rom. 5:1–2 and Rom. 5:6). Toughness emanates from the confidence that God can and will redeem you in moments of trial We have experienced redemption through Christ, which enables us to endure suffering and know final deliverance lies on the other side.
Walk with Them
Knowledge of the gospel, though, is only half the recipe for toughness in suffering. Waiting on God and trusting him to restore us in real-life circumstances is also necessary to build character.
I have given much thought to how God prepared me to endure the death of my oldest child in 2013. I began learning to trust God during pivotal experiences in childhood and adolescence. Being the goat who cost my team a basketball game, getting my heart broken in a breakup, and having to resign from my first “real” job all provided a foundation for endurance—however small those things may have been in the grand scheme of life.
Parents do not need to manufacture challenging circumstances for their children to learn; life produces plenty of them. However, parents do need God’s wisdom on when to let their children endure a difficult situation.
I’ve had several church parents wait until morning to bail their kids out of jail for some “mischief” they got into in the middle of the night. They allow their kids to get a taste of the consequences of criminal activity. I’ve also seen parents wisely intervene when a teacher was verbally abusing their child. Sometimes children need to weather a challenge to grow in Christian toughness, and sometimes children need parental protection. Parents need wisdom from God to know the difference.
In developing kids with character, endurance, and toughness, the best thing we can do is walk with them through their seasons of sufferings. What may seem like minor problems to us—failed tests, broken friendships, cuts from tryouts—are the training grounds of character and toughness. We need to listen to our kids, comfort them, and remind them of the gospel. We also need to trust that God himself will teach and train them in these moments of pain.