I sat next to a 25-year-old man at the Mockingbird Conference in New York in 2010 as he wailed. He had maneuvered himself into a private corner of the majestic nave of historic Parish of Calvary St. George in Grammery Park. As I stood by listening to his sobs and hoping to comfort him with a quiet presence, a common refrain rang amid his heaves of pain. “I didn’t know life was going to be this hard. I had no idea it would be so painful.”
The young man had left the cultural cocoon of suburbia, church, private school, Christian college, and campus ministry only to find a buzzsaw in the real world. He had naive expectations of happiness, prosperity, and connection as he emerged into adulthood. Instead his hopes had been dragged down a gravel road behind a chariot of loneliness, failure, and disillusionment.
From our brief conversation, I got the impression that he thought obediently following Jesus and complying with Christian morality would insulate him from pain. He had always believed that God had a wonderful plan for his life, but now he just wondered where in the world God could be found.
Parents and youth ministry leaders face a quandary in setting realistic expectations of the Christian life for young people. How do we maintain optimism befitting Christ’s victory over sin and death, while demonstrating pessimism consistent with the brokenness of the fallen world?
Jesus exhibited remarkable balance with his disciples, as particularly seen in the Gospel of John. Christ promised abundant life to those who followed the good shepherd. He said that anyone who looks on the Son and believes in him would have eternal life and be raised up on the last day. Christ consistently offers hope, peace, joy, and meaning.
In John, Jesus does not simply offer eternal life after death. The Greek portion of John’s audience valued the immediate implications of religion and had less concern about the afterlife than his Jewish audience did. John appealed to his Greek audience by prioritizing the benefits of eternal life in our present world more than the other three Gospels do. Jesus wanted them to see that there is no greater joy in the present age than to trust, follow, and serve him.
At the same time, Jesus pulled no punches with the disciples. In John 16, he told his friends, “In this life, you will find trial and tribulation.” There is no subjective speculation that you “may” or “could possibly” suffer. He states assertively that pain awaits them. Jesus also cautions the disciples that the world will reject them. In John 15:18, he effectively says, “The world hated me, and it’s going to hate you, too.” Christ guarantees persecution and resistance for his followers. Jesus perfectly obeys God, yet his life climaxes in betrayal, false accusation, torture, mockery, and execution.
The most satisfying, abundant life possible flows out of an intimate, dependent relationship with Jesus. I tell youth to repent from sin because of the joy they forfeit by worshipping idols and violating God’s law. I exhort students to passionately pursue Jesus with their heart and soul. I speak frankly about the hopelessness and emptiness of life in the flesh apart from God.
But I also know the temptation to sell a false kind of Christianity. At times, parents and youth pastors alike so desperately want to see kids converted that they paint a picture of the Christian life that departs from reality. We talk about Christ’s promises of abundant life without nuancing what that actually means, or, more importantly, what it does not mean. Most middle schoolers think that abundant life means they are going to get a boyfriend, or that they are destined to make the basketball team. Kids need to know that Christ makes no promises of comfortable, pleasant circumstances for anyone. His promises apply primarily to the condition of our soul.
We can go on retreats and mission trips where students experience a “Christian high” or “camp high” without warning them about the letdown. Don’t get me wrong, these transcendent experiences can have great value. However, young Christians, especially those who profess faith on youth trips, often think the euphoria of the mountain top represents the normal Christian life. They need to know that all Christians have seasons of joy and of dryness in their walk with Christ.
When we oversell the Christian life, we run a major risk of planting seeds of future disillusionment and doubt. Too often, young adults with unrealistic expectations set during childhood in the church walk away from the faith when their lonely, painful lives do not match the picture painted for them in their younger years. Unmet expectations yield resentment and disappointment.
However, we win trust and credibility with young people when we speak frankly about how difficult life will be, while also promising that the Lord will be there. We can do no better than to point students to Jesus’s very words, both about abundant life and unavoidable affliction. This honesty engenders trust in our relationships with students and deeper trust in their relationship with Christ. It tells them that Jesus cares enough about them to die on their behalf. He also cares enough to tell them the truth.