Not long ago I was sitting outside around a table on a bright Middle Eastern day with a dozen Christian Iranian youth. When we think about being persecuted for our faith, we often think of what these young believers face under the current Islamic regime: the threat of imprisonment, physical harm, and economic punishment.
Most American youth don’t face these sorts of threats, but that doesn’t mean their faith comes without cost. America doesn’t kill or incarcerate people for being Christian, but it does foster a social and economic environment that makes following Jesus increasingly costly.
I remember a conversation almost a decade ago with a wise and well-traveled man who made his living speaking about Jesus and the Christian faith around the world. We were talking about persecution, pain, and suffering in the Christian experience. I don’t remember his exact words, but he said something like, “Christians in the West might not face persecution like they do in the Middle East or China, but they do face the very real threat of seduction and the suffering that comes from daily resisting.”
As I’ve reflected on these words over the years, I’ve found them true to God's Word and experience. The youth I’ve worked with don’t fear martyrdom, but in calling them to live under the lordship of Jesus in their daily lives, I realized I am asking them to die daily to self. Saying “no” to that which entices us is incredibly difficult and painful. The loss feels very real. In many ways, this loss is heightened for youth beginning to develop their sense of self.
In a culture that has made sex both a commodity and a form of self-expression, it feels like suffering when a teenager says “no” to the hormones and external pressures driving him or her to sin. It feels like they are missing out on something pleasurable when they avoid pornography.
In a culture that worships popularity and power, teens experience loss when they have a chance to join the “in crowd” but let it pass because doing so would require them to compromise their Christian convictions. Practicing humility can be humiliating.
In a country where approximately $170 billion was spent last year on advertising, it is painful for teens who, out of spiritual conviction, practice contentment and resist finding their identity by the brands they wear. Constantly saying “no” to the latest trend is hard in a culture that spends so much time, energy, and money to get you to say “yes.”
All this assumes, of course, that we are calling youth to resist worshiping the American idols of money, sex, power, and self-fulfillment. It assumes that we are discipling them toward finding ways of living out their faith that affect how they view and approach money, live out their sexuality, interact with others, and relate to authority in their daily lives.
In talking with the Iranian youth, I realized that it was possible for Iranians to avoid persecution—so long as they stayed silent about their faith and kept it a purely private matter. Persecution comes when they live out their faith publicly and share the gospel with others inside their country. Likewise, with American youth, it is possible for them to avoid the pain and suffering that comes with following Jesus if they keep Christianity a private thing that only affects their afterlife. The pain comes when they do the difficult work of saying “no” to the seductive idols of our culture.
Jesus says to all—Iranian and American—“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23). For some, this will mean living with the threat of imprisonment and physical death as they resist tyrannical empires. For others, this will mean daily battle, regular humiliation, and the pain of saying “no” as they resist a seductive empire.
Our youth are engaged in a spiritual battle for their affections and their allegiance. Let’s not minimize the danger of our culture’s seduction, nor the cost that comes with our youth’s resisting the American way in the name of Jesus.
My prayer is that today’s youth will grow in the grace of God, taste his goodness, and experience the fullness only found in Christ. For it is far easier to resist the fleeting pleasures of idolatry when you know the true joy of God’s love, given to us in the gospel.