Selfish Stagnation: A New Stage for Twenty-Somethings?

A century ago psychologists identified a new stage in human development – adolescence, which our culture now accepts without question. It is taken for granted that 12-18 year olds are not ready for adult roles and responsibilities and need an additional six years of development under the careful or careless watch of parents. Now, some experts are arguing for a new stage of development for 19-29 year olds they call “emerging adulthood.” Jeffery Arnett, psychology professor at Clark University, describes this stage in the New York Times Magazine, “young men and women are more self-focused than at any other time of life, less certain about the future and yet also more optimistic, no matter what their economic background.” During this time, emerging adults face the developmental tasks of “identity exploration”, “self-focus”, and “experimentation in love, work, and worldview.”

The arguments for this new developmental stage have come as a result of the major shifts taking place among twenty-somethings. No longer are they graduating college (or high school), getting entry-level jobs, getting married, making a home, taking on responsibility, and having children. They graduate and have on average seven jobs before they turn 30. Instead of making a home, one-third lives in a new residence every year and 40% move back in with mom and dad. Two-thirds live with a romantic partner without being married, putting off marriage to the late twenties. In 1960, 77% of women and 65% of men had completed school, left home, become financially independent, married, and had a child. In 2000, fewer than half of the women and only one-third of the men had done the same. While there are some twenty-somethings who desire to achieve these things but have been prevented by circumstance, it is clear that a shift has occurred in the culture and mindset of this generation.

Sociologist Michael Kimmel explains this phenomenon in his book Guyland:

“Today many of these young men poised between adolescence and adulthood are more likely to feel anxious and uncertain… After graduation they drift aimlessly from one dead-end job to another, spend more time online playing video games and gambling than they do on dates, ‘hook up’ occasionally with a ‘friend with benefits’, go out with their buddies, drink too much, and save too little… They watch a lot of sports. They have grandiose visions for their futures and not a clue how to get from here to there.”

Acts 29 Vice President Darrin Patrick describes the problem this way:

“We live in a world full of males who have prolonged their adolescence. They are neither boys nor men. They live suspended between childhood and adulthood, between growing up and being a grown-up. Let’s call this kind of male Ban, a hybrid of both man and boy. This kind of male is everywhere, including the church and even vocational ministry…  Assuming the responsibilities of husband and father makes a boy into a man, but Ban doesn’t like responsibility so he extends his adolescence and sets his focus squarely and supremely on himself.”

Psychologists will readily admit that “emerging adulthood” doesn’t yet qualify for a developmental stage.  Part of the definition of a developmental stage is that you have to experience it to develop properly and there are too many successful people who simply haven’t. It also tends to be confined to the middle and upper class since it usually requires the support of parents. But that doesn’t stop many experts from attempting to justify a period of prolonged adolescence that is self-focused and comes with little responsibility. If it can be justified, no longer do parents or societies have to be worried that junior refuses to work a real job, move out of the basement, play less video games, watch Sportscenter only once instead of three times in a row, occasionally hook-up instead of invest in a real relationship, and avoid responsibility for anything but his or her own desires.

The consequences for the acceptance of “emerging adulthood” as a new developmental stage are huge for society, demanding new institutions, programs, and structures to support children into their late twenties who fail to pull their own weight; just as the acceptance of adolescence required. The consequences for the church would also be disastrous as portions of the congregation would be useless to volunteer, serve, give, teach, or commit, lost to self-discovery at the peak of their effectiveness for Christ.

The developmental tasks of “identity exploration”, “self-focus”, and “experimentation in love, work, and worldview,” may be part of “emerging adulthood”, but they are not part of emerging into the image of Christ. Instead of self-discovery, Jesus tells us, “whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.  Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matt. 10:38-39). It is in putting to death the self twenty-somethings are so eager to indulge and discover that we follow Christ. We need this generation to rise up and take on responsibility for their selves, their family, their church, and their community; showing the culture a better way instead of conforming to it. What would it look like to have a generation transformed by the gospel rise up, take on responsibility, and give selflessly to the cause of Christ instead of sleeping to noon in mom’s basement after their hook-up the night before? May we raise up such a generation in the church and lovingly help those twenty-somethings working to get there.

(Note: This is not a critique of those who haven’t married, bought a house, found a career, etc. but a critique of the selfishness, avoidance of responsibility, and lack of purpose of which those things CAN be symptoms)



What Does “Unequally Yoked” Really Mean?

If I had a dollar for every time I or someone else took a Bible verse out of context or coined a cute phrase commonly mistaken for a Bible verse (“Once saved always saved!”), I would give them all to missions and the nations would be glad. We often approach Scripture casually. We search for particular words or topics that interest us that day and squeeze it to fit an existing belief. The combined powers of church marquees, preaching sound bites and a lazy approach to the study equal a poor understanding of God’s word. This was demonstrated in my own life two days ago.

Even if you didn’t grow up in an evangelical church, you might’ve heard the phrase unequally yoked. When the topic of Christians dating non-Christians surfaces, the faithful immediately run to 2 Corinthians 6:14 – “Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers. For what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness? Or what fellowship has light with darkness?” (ESV) I confess, this is one of my denomination’s favorites (right behind Matthew 18:20). Many dads have squashed many dates in its wake. God wouldn’t put His holy stamp of approval on dating relationships or marriages comprised of a believer and non-believer (as a side note, many wrongly use this text to denounce interracial marriage).

Previously, my understanding of this verse was second-hand. Even though I had read it before, clearly, I had never studied this passage intently; the meaning hinged on what I heard.  As a result, I’ve held a false understanding of this text for years.

One of Paul’s reasons for this letter was to remind the Corinthians of their calling and his. Corinth was still largely pagan and the new Christians were struggling to live like Jesus. Paul reminded the Corinthians that God has called them to the ministry of reconciliation. He then stressed at the beginning of chapter six that nothing would prohibit the gospel’s progress. It’s at this point that Paul gave the command in verse 14; he followed it with a string of rhetorical questions to illustrate the absurdity of such a partnership. As temples of the living God (vs.16), the distinction of His children is imperative to their sanctification and witness.

Curious: nowhere in this section nor in the entire body of the letter will you find a reference to or teaching about marriage. This command was given to prohibit close relationships with nonbelievers where camaraderie was the highest goal. Such a union could lead to sinful pursuits of mutual consent, the downfall of the Christian and the smearing of Christ’s name. The New American Commentary phrases it accurately:

“Paul has in mind an alliance with spiritual opposites and the image of harnessing oneself to someone who is spiritually incompatible….Those who bear Christ’s yoke (Matt 11:30) cannot share it with those who deny Christ. Those who harness themselves together with unbelievers will soon find themselves plowing Satan’s fields. One can only be a true yokefellow (Phil. 4:3) with a fellow Christian.” (pp. 331)

This explanation fits the context and is in agreement with the entire letter. Chapter seven of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians is largely devoted to marriage and even includes instructions for Christian-pagan marriages (for those who came to faith after marrying). It seems that if revisiting this topic for the same church, he would use similar language and clear phrases like, “Do not be married to unbelievers.” Further, the imagery of being yoked together does not reflect marriage. Animals of identical make-up, strength and purpose were placed in a yoke to plow a field. When Paul writes to the Ephesians, he compares marriage with Christ’s relationship to the church; two very different but indispensable members of a unique covenant, one to love and lead, one to love and follow. There is no biblical evidence that Paul has the marriage relationship in mind in 2 Corinthians 6.

Having said that, this does not mean a Christian can obediently date or marry a non-Christian; the comprehensive teaching of Scripture is clear. The dangers Paul warns about here are multiplied when Christians consent to marry pagans; God does not command against unequally yoked platonic relationships and then condone marriages of the same nature. Paul gives greater clarity in his first letter to the Corinthians:

“Do we not have the right to take along a believing wife, as do the other apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas?” 1 Corinthians 9:5

The word translated “believing” holds the meaning of a fellow sister in the Christian faith. Paul was reminding the Corinthians he and his fellow workers had the freedom to marry but emphasized those women must be Christians.

In Ephesians 5, Paul’s instructions assume that both husband and wife are Christians. If one is not, practicing this teaching is impossible, leaving the individual in rebellion to God and out of His will. These relationships cannot satisfy the chief end of marriage (to display Christ’s relationship to His church) and will not receive blessing, yield fruit or expand God’s kingdom. The principle in 2 Corinthians 6:14 absolutely applies to marriage even though it is not directly referencing it.

You might ask, so what’s the big deal? Does it matter that someone might interpret this verse wrongly? Will anything really be lost? Our task in reading the Bible is not to prove traditional beliefs. It isn’t to look for verse band-aids to fix problems. It isn’t even to prove someone else wrong. When I open the Bible, it should be a serious endeavor to seek God’s truth in His word. It isn’t my word; I’m not at liberty to play fast and loose with it. However, if you’ve learned anything, you know not to take my word for it.


Article on same subject for Christian teens by Emily:

Why “Revolutionary” Christianity Fizzles, Pt. 3

All of us have at one time or another experienced the dissatisfaction with the church and our Christian experience that the purveyors of “Revolutionary” Christianity seek to address. We run to the impassioned books, messages, and movements of “Revolutionary” Christianity to try to remedy our situation with a hardcore or newer version of the faith. But I believe the very premise – that this dissatisfaction must be fixed – is flawed.  If the church had it all together and we were totally satisfied with the output of our Christian lives than what need would we have for a Savior to come and reconcile creation to himself? The very fact that we have been transformed by the life and death of Christ puts us at odds with a fallen creation and our sinful flesh. Maybe we should be worried not that we find problems with the church, failure in our Christian lives, and increasing hostility with the culture; maybe we should be worried if we don’t.

When it comes to the shortcomings of the church, we love to run to Acts 2 to see what a New Testament church should look like. But does anyone ever think to run to Corinthians? They were a New Testament church too and struggled with pride, divisions, and sexual immorality. They were abusing the Lord’s Supper and suing one another in court. Christ has been risen for barely twenty years and his followers have already messed it up. When it comes to living out the Christian life, Paul was second to none. Yet when looking back he declares of his experience in Romans 7:24, “Wretched man that I am, who will deliver me from this body of death?” How about that for a little dissatisfaction? And as for difficulties with the culture, it was Jesus who said, “If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you.” Perhaps we should stop worrying about problems, failings, and hostility and start expecting it – Jesus did say it was a narrow, hard road.

We need a solid dose of reality – things are always going to be messed up. Our lives will always fall short of our desire to live for Christ. The church will always manage to royally fail us and the world in some way. The culture will mutate and develop new immunities to our attempts to engage and transform it. So what do we do? The answer is not to go out and get fired up by a “Revolutionary” new book, message, movement, or cause, hang pictures of African babies on your living room wall, and talk about the evils of capitalism while drinking mocha at Starbucks. The answer is a slow, committed, passionate, dogged, pressing on, day by day, courageously normal, occasionally exciting, usually dull, engaging, sacrificial, fruitful, faithful, Christianity that seeks to obey the Scriptures out of a deep transformation by and understanding of the gospel.

We, especially as younger Christians, are attracted to a “Revolutionary” Christianity that promises to enable us to change history, right the wrongs in the world, and put us on the path to self-actualization. But after all the energy and excitement is spent we often find ourselves right where we began or worse. Kevin DeYoung describes it in this way:

Many of us are attracted to a Tasmanian Devil kind of Christianity…splattering, spinning around. You get fired up—praise God for that—and you spin out like the Tasmanian Devil ready to conquer the world for Christ and you blow up into a tree somewhere.

When the demands of “Revolutionary” Christianity meet the hard realities of the world in which we live and the sinful flesh which we inhabit it blows up into a tree somewhere.

Sadly, for many “Revolutionary” Christians, their lives are defined by highs and lows, grand visions, few accomplishments, lots of talk, little action, an occasional sacrifice, and long fruitless seasons. So what do we do? We press on in sacrificial, courageously normal, occasionally exciting, usually dull, sometimes difficult, but always fruitful and faithful lives that follow-through on their commitment to follow Jesus. We study the Scriptures and preach the gospel to ourselves every day until it fully transforms us. We cut down the idols in our hearts and kill the sins – even the seemingly insignificant ones – in our lives. We make the difference we can in the church, culture, and world where we find ourselves; only being known, being dramatic, or being revolutionary if it just so happens to be part of the mission we’re called to. Continuing the quote from above, DeYoung says:

Our generation in particular is prone to radicalism without follow-through. We want to change the world and we have never changed a diaper. You want to make a difference for Christ? Here is where you can start: this Sunday, volunteer for the nursery. Say, “Here I am, pastor. What can I do to serve?”

Teach the 1st grade Sunday school class. Go with the youth group to summer camp. Share the gospel with that friend in your apartment complex. Give a percentage of your income to Christ and increase it until it hurts. Get to know the residents in a nursing home. Go on a mission trip. Meet the needs of the people around you. Love your family. Read the Bible. Spend more time in prayer. And sink deeper into the gospel until it affects every area of your life. You may not bring balance and harmony to the church and the planet, but you may just hear at the end of it all “well done, good and faithful servant.”


Why Revolutionary Christianity Fizzles, pt.2

“Revolutionary” Christianity identifies problems and dissatisfactions within Christianity or the church and seeks to address them with more intense commitment to Christ, more faithful and culturally relevant lives, or more rethinking of doctrine in light of new understanding. Those who preach the messages, write the books, and lead the movements of “Revolutionary” Christianity vary from biblically faithful leaders desiring to change the world for the glory of God to leaders seeking to redefine and rewrite the faith. But why, with all the energy being spent on igniting Christians to seize a new and glorious future is the American church largely on the same path? Why do individual Christians inspired by “Revolutionary” Christianity still find life on the same mediocre, ineffective path? Why do all the passions, sacrifices, enthusiasms, commitments and changes fizzle out?

First, “Revolutionary” Christianity fizzles out because it fails to deal with idols in our hearts. Idolatry, as Tim Keller writes, happens when “the human heart takes good things… and turns them into ultimate things. Our hearts deify them as the center of our lives, because, we think, they can give us significance and security, safety and fulfillment, if we attain them.” In a worship service I may be moved to sacrificially give more money than I can afford because that is what success looks like for a committed Christian. But on Monday success at my job looks like earning a promotion, success with my friends looks like a new car, and success at the gym looks like only 2% body fat. If success is the idol of my heart my Christianity will change according to its demands. This is why, for some, their commitment to Christ varies widely depending on who they are dating. The idol of their heart is a relationship; they are crazy or apathetic about Jesus depending on the demands of the relationship. Unless we deal with the idols of our hearts, any attempt to live out a “Revolutionary” Christianity will fizzle.

Second, “Revolutionary” Christianity fizzles out because it fails to take sin seriously. In the midst of the books and messages screaming at Christians to feed the poor, end all slavery, right political wrongs, go green, fix the church, engage the culture, rediscover New Testament Christianity, create authentic community, plant churches and heal the world in a big group hug is largely absent any discussion of sin. I can sleep with my girlfriend as long as I feed the homeless. No one would say this, but when killing sin is not part of our “Revolutionary” Christianity we might as well be. Paul proposed a revolution when he said in Colossians 3:

Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry… seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator.

“Revolutionary” Christianity fizzles when it is brought down by an earthly addiction. All of our good deeds can quickly become poisoned by unchecked pride and envy. Until putting sin to death and putting on Christ is part of our revolution it will burn out like MC Hammer’s career.

Third, “Revolutionary” Christianity fizzles out because it fails to deal with reality. I was reading one popular book that attempted to encourage me by telling the stories of Christians who were living out an intense commitment to Christ. Rather than inspiring me, I found the stories discouraged me. The people in the accounts were all doing amazing things for God and had no struggles, no fears, no sins, no mistakes, no doubts, and never swerved from their calling. I, on the other hand, fight doubts and fears, struggle with sin, make mistakes, fall short of God’s call and my accomplishments for Christ feel unexciting.  The author mentioned that if the stories in the Bible felt unattainable, hopefully these Christians were easier to emulate. Actually, I could relate to the Bible characters easier. Moses was a murderer who wanted out of God’s call. David committed adultery and fell into pride. Peter denied Christ and made mistakes. Elijah got so depressed he wanted to die. Jonah was selfish and disobedient. Jacob wrestled with God all his life and in his tent. Abraham lied. Thomas doubted. Noah drank. Christianity isn’t lived in some glorious adventure moment that inspires generations but in the midst of real life. Any commitment that fails to touch real life will fizzle out.

Finally, “Revolutionary” Christianity fizzles out because it is not driven by a deep understanding of the gospel. Did you know that changing the world, making a difference, living a life of significance, and being hardcore for Jesus are not biblical motivations? The Bible motivates us by teaching us about who God is and what He has done for us. When Paul wants the Corinthian church to be generous, he reminds of them of Christ’s generosity to them (2 Cor. 8). When Peter wants Christians to live holy lives, he reminds them that they were ransomed with the blood of Christ (1 Pet. 1). When Jesus commands to make disciples he reminds us who He is; that he will be with us, empower us, and has the authority to carry out the mission through us (Matt. 28, Acts 1). “Revolutionary” Christianity seeks to motivate us to do and accomplish for Christ; but if it bypasses or marginalizes who God is and what He has done for us then what we are doing will not be driven by a powerful “why” and it will fizzle.

In the final part of this series, we will examine how we might live a life intensely committed to Christ that does not fizzle out.

Where’s Team Bella?

Only the Amish (and possibly the President) are unaware of the heated battle between Edward Cullen and Jacob Black for Bella Swan’s heart. Since the release of Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight saga and subsequent movies, these stories have gathered nothing short of a cult following. The Twi-hards have possibly the broadest age range of any female fan base, past or present, and they reach into the millions. Rarely can a soccer mom, her 10 year-old daughter and the teenage babysitter share equally in the excitement of a movie outing.

The infatuation with this love triangle is not solely based on good looks and good plot (can I get a witness?). The obsession flows from the new flavor of love presented by vampire-boyfriend Edward: unwavering commitment, unexpected purity and unconditional protection, all for mortal-girlfriend Bella. This sort of courtship was order of the day years ago, but its manifestation in a modern tale is foreign. With the likes of Rihanna’s “Rude Boy” governing the airwaves, this noble love seems impossible and unheard of and it is driving women wild.

With the release of the third movie, “Eclipse,” the world learned (whether trying or not) that while initially Bella was a vampire-wannabe-hopelessly-devoted-til-her-impending-death to Edward, she is officially torn between him and Jacob. Now we all must choose a team (who should win Bella). In their own words and ways, both boys claim that they possess an undying love for her that will not be deterred by the other. When hanging around Twi-hards, you might hear phrases like, “Isn’t it so amazing that he would do anything for her?” or “I wish I could find a love like that!” You may even see cyberspace cat-fights over who should emerge victorious. In this whirlwind of passion and torment, I have to ask: Who is rooting for Bella? If the answer is “no one”, then our next question should be, “why not?” Why aren’t we hearing comments from guys like, “I wish I could find a girl like Bella”?

The story is so dominated by the dark character of Edward and now his rivalry with Jacob that Bella, our point-of-view character, can quietly slip into the background. She unknowingly has become the pawn of our story in that we only care anything for her because we care tremendously about what Edward and Jacob will do next. She could be Dora the Explorer, Lady Gaga or Martha Stewart; it is Edward’s love, not the object of his love, which is driving this story. If his love is so epic, does it not follow that the object of his love should be somewhat comparable? When closely examined, it’s hard to figure out exactly why Edward and Jacob are so taken with Bella.

First, who is she? A troubled soul with divorced parents who rarely smiles and has no hobbies (other than keeping Edward and Jacob guessing); she cares little for school or any other pursuits. Bella has a charitable relationship with her dad, in that she mostly feels sorry for him and keeps things peaceable, but not with genuine love and effort. She is not above disrespecting him or his wishes and puts her desires above his rules. Bella rarely initiates self-less action for the good of others. After many invitations from her peers, Bella does not pursue friendships (other than her suitors), leaving her self-centered.

Second, what does she want? Maybe to be a vampire or someone’s soul-mate. Bella is wishy-washy at best; where she once touted Edward was all she was living for, she now cannot decide if she really wants him or not. She promised to do anything for him, but when he asks her to respect relationship boundaries, Bella scoffs at them and pursues Jacob with guiltless zeal. In an Edward-loving (or lusting) moment, she begs him to stop being a gentleman, claiming his standards of physical purity are “ancient.” Only a few days later, she initiates a kiss with Jacob “just to see if there’s anything there.” Instead of love, Bella seems wants what satisfies her in that particular moment.

When the dramatic scenes, intense music and close-up shots of her porcelain face are stripped away, what’s left of Bella? High emotions, little virtue and no knowledge of real love. While there may be glimpses of love in what Edward represents, Bella does not offer girls of any age much to aspire to. Scripture’s standard for the virtuous woman is clear and far more attractive than what we are given in Twilight. Proverbs 31 teaches that the virtuous woman has purpose beyond herself(13-19, 27), cares deeply for others (20-21), has exemplary character and beauty (25-26, 30-31) and maintains a godly relationship with the only man in her life, her husband (10-12, 28-29). Sadly, Bella reflects none of these things.  Even further, what does that say about those pursuing her? They too are fallible, foolish and need some serious girl advice.

While there’s nothing wrong with following the story of Bella, Edward and Jacob, failing to square its messages through the lens of God’s Word can produce unhealthy expectations, futile pursuits and unbiblical practice in pursuing womanhood and relationships as our Creator intended. These characters do not know the One who made love a reality (and He doesn’t even bite).


Why “Revolutionary” Christianity Fizzles

Something has gone wrong with the church and the Christianity it adheres to.  It comes from a failure to properly understand and faithfully live out the radical call that Christ has placed on the lives of his followers. This is the basic premise of countless books that have emerged on the market, playing on this generation’s dissatisfaction with its Christian experience. This dissatisfaction is expressed through statements like: ‘the church isn’t meeting my needs’, ‘there is no authentic community’, ‘we are too narrow and judgmental’, ‘the culture views us negatively’, ‘we aren’t making an impact in the world’, or ‘we don’t look like the New Testament church’.

The answers to this dissatisfaction differ depending on which stream the author of the book swims in. For some, we have grown fat and happy on the American dream and need to take seriously Christ’s commands in the Scriptures. For others, the church needs to let go of the traditions and moralities that are weighing it down and embrace a new, yet ancient faith that is more real and authentic. For others still, we need to re-evaluate the theological truths and dogmas we have fought over in favor of a more open and evolving concept of God that welcomes diverse and outside perspectives. There are many more; the basic idea is if we could get back to what Christ taught and lived and the way early Christians existed and then effectively apply it to our time the dissatisfaction would cease and we would usher in a golden age for Christianity in our culture and in our lives.

And we love this stuff, don’t we? At some level, all of us have experienced this dissatisfaction in one way or another and we are eager to embrace a solution that feels more right. We believe we clearly see the problems in the church and in Christianity and we are more optimistic than ever of our ability to make it all right. I love the way Owen Strachan puts it in a blog on the Gospel Coalition site:

“Having pushed away, at least in principle, from big-box, cookie-cutter, megachurchdom, we have warmed to an activist, nonjudgmental Christianity that soars with hope and promise. We can end sex trafficking, we are told; we can transform the political scene; we can end world hunger in this generation; we can go so green that the secular green movement will see our greenness and renounce its secularity; we can right the wrongs of the historic church, one state-fair confession booth at a time; we can correct the heinousness of the Religious Right and win our progressive friends to the faith; we can reclaim the life and practice of the early church; we can reconstruct the American polis through soup kitchens and after-school mentoring; we can redeem entire cities by going block by block, neighborhood by neighborhood, until the whole thing is Christian; we can rediscover the secret of true community through monastic living; we can dial down the fire-breathing tone of past evangelists and win our friends, in massive numbers, through gentle conversation; we can turn back whole denominations and movements from heterodoxy and faithlessness; we can heal families, generations of them, by advocating our views; we can plant churches by the bushel and they will all succeed and flourish; we can complete, like a bulleted check list, the momentous task of evangelizing all the people of the world in this generation; we can create culture that is so beautiful, so stirring, so epic that people simply will not be able to turn away from it and deny the faith that fuels it but will embrace it in a great wave that will break over the art galleries and cinemas and coffeehouses of the upculture bohemians.”

While this is satire, many of us hunger for it to be reality and readily gobble up the latest book, message, blog, or organization that claims – humbly or not – to be able to make it all happen based on their latest bit of Bible study, historical investigation, or transcendent experience that can be applied to your life and the church. Now I’m not picking on these speakers, authors, and leaders; many of them are faithful servants of Christ who have advanced the gospel and the kingdom far more than I will ever do. Some are influencing thousands of Christians to love God more deeply and follow Christ more passionately. Some are influencing thousands of Christians away from the God of the Bible and into foolish myths that will render them useless for Christ.

What I am doing is simply pointing out that “revolutionary” Christianity usually fizzles. We hunger to see the realities listed above come into being but are constantly frustrated when they don’t. We read a book or hear a message or go on a mission trip and get excited about living radically for Christ but a month later its back to the same mediocrity. We have armies of young Christians surrendered to do whatever it takes for Christ but our churches and our culture are largely the same. Why?

In the next two posts we’ll examine (1) Why revolutionary Christianity fizzles and (2) How we can prevent its fizzilation (I made that word up). I’m not saying I live this out well or that I have special wisdom to offer. Simply that I’ve received some wisdom from others I’m passing along that will hopefully challenge you as much as it has me in my journey to live for the glory of God.


Self-Esteem: America’s Favorite Idol

Most American women (and maybe some men) are a bit surprised and very relieved that our culture is starting to rewrite its long-standing definition of beauty, that which was affixed by the media and beauty industry. This is evidenced by recent promos from companies such as Hanes (who recently began featuring models of different shapes and larger sizes) and Cover Girl, boasting curvy stars Drew Barrymore and Queen Latifah as spokeswomen.  While perfectly toned and exotic models still frequent videos, commercials and magazines, the glamour media is casting its net wider (size 12 perhaps) to promote a healthier, more realistic idea of the beautiful female.

Arguably leading this charge with their proactive approach is Dove Incorporated, who developed the Campaign for Real Beauty. One of their most poignant ads features an elementary school-aged girl, captivated by a billboard featuring a model: flawless skin, very little clothing, fat-free limbs and a seductive pose. A rapid-fire sequence of images ensues on the bill board, with more perfect bodies and words like “hot” and “diet” being seen or heard. Abruptly, the girl is back at home, sitting in her living room, staring at the television which continues a sequence of ads. This accurately illustrates the uninvited and inescapable onslaught of impossible standards for beauty cast upon young girls at every corner.

After this scene, Dove steps in with the remedy of self-esteem workshops. Dove boasts that “2 million girls have begun to see themselves as beautiful.” They emerge victorious over the mannequin mentality with applause for the young girl (with whom viewers have been trekking), who vows into the microphone at one of the workshops, “I promise to think of myself as a beautiful person.”  For America, this solution is timely and satisfying. For Christians, this solution should cause us to put our hands to the plough. Physical beauty has a shelf-mate on the shrine: the non-physical self.

Dove is no small corporation and I applaud them for taking action when they could easily and quietly follow suit with the likes of commercials for AXE Body Wash and Hardees cheeseburgers (the unfortunate but contrived drop of sauce landing on Padma’s long leg, to mention one). Their campaign has required vision, effort and advertising dollars. They recognize the danger and the effects of the 20+ year campaign for American beauty on both adolescent and mature females. Further to their credit, they have rightly discerned three biblical truths:

1. Beauty is fleeting (Isaiah 40:8, Proverbs 31:30)

2. Exercise/physical care is only of some value (1 Timothy 4:8)

3. The heart of a person is more important than their appearance (1 Samuel 16:7)

While their diagnoses are accurate, their cure is lacking. The solution of self-esteem boosting does nothing more than turn the idolatrous pursuit from the outer self to the inner self, an equally empty and detrimental path. Both idolize the self by putting hope in one’s own ability to attain peace, joy and happiness.

Self-esteem is not a new concept in our culture; studies show that while American 5th graders have nearly the worst math scores among developed nations, they actually feel better about their math scores than any other national group of students their age who outscore them. Why? Because America has exerted great effort to fix our youth with self-esteem boosting programs, hoping that all of the racism, bullying, ugliness, self-doubt and troubled childhoods will be overcome by “liking” or “believing in” themselves. We see this in the gyms of elementary schools, where children are still playing games, but no one loses…everyone wins. No one has to go home with their feelings hurt. The problem with this methodology is that young people are blinded from the reality of their failing, sinful selves.  The focus on self-esteem appears less shallow and more noble than chasing vanity, but both are poisonous though different flavors of idolatry, which lead to pride.  Well-meaning parents, wanting the best for their daughters might ask, “How can you suggest that self-esteem is bad for my little girl? She’s doing the best she can with what the world offers her.”

Eve also thought she was doing the best with what she was given. The serpent began deceiving her in Genesis 3:1 by challenging the authority (and content) of the commands God gave to Adam only a few verses earlier in 2:16-17(a tactic that has not changed in the few thousand years that separate us from the garden). He asked her, “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden?’” His agenda is further revealed in 3:4-5“But the serpent said to the woman, ‘You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of [the fruit] your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.’” The serpent took God’s perfect instruction and tricked Eve into believing that there was a better way for her to live her life. In essence, the serpent was asking, “Eve, do you really need God?” Champions of both physical perfection and self-esteem pose similar questions: “Do you actually believe you need God? You can be beautiful, talented and sufficient in and of yourself.” Eve went her own way and tried to gain identity, knowledge, power and sufficiency in someone other than in God. Most are keenly aware of how this ended for her (and for us).

Affirming the cultural norm of self-esteem and teaching it to our young girls and then later trying to convince them that they need Jesus too is nonsensical: “If I have me, why do I need a Savior?” This mentality nurses pride and leads to disappointment. The self-esteem doctrine will fail, just as the pursuit of physical beauty has failed so many in the form of anorexia, bulimia, self-mutilation and suicide. Self-esteem might sustain one for a short while, but what happens when it runs its course? Unfortunately, all the workshops in the world will not prevent the indiscriminate ins and outs of life: She doesn’t make the cheerleading squad. She misses the game winning free-throw. She does not place in the science competition. Her top choice college rejects her. Classmates laugh at her speech. She no longer sees herself as beautiful. She gives in to cutting.  Her father abuses her. Mom and Dad divorce. She is raped. What does the message of self-esteem offer to these circumstances? To which savior does she turn? Will self-esteem provide sufficient peace and joy to press-on, if there’s any left to be had?

But hasn’t self-esteem worked for some? What is there to say to those who do not seem to experience the rougher ins and outs, the small group of adolescents who are living the envied life void of failure and disappointment, who have been given all the attention, protection, clothes, activities, vacations, electronics, parties, trophies, acceptance letters and accolades one could want? They seem to be missing nothing. In 2007, Barna reported:

Most young people admit that they feel as if they do not receive sufficient attention from their parents; do not have enough good friends whom they can count on; are unsettled about their own future; have personal spiritual perspectives but not much of a sense of spiritual community; lack role models; and do not feel that they have intrinsic value.

The CDC reports that 14.5% of high school students reported seriously considering suicide in past year; it is the 3rd leading cause of death among 15-24 year olds. Prescriptions for anti-depressants are at an all-time high for teenagers with 8% having experienced a major depressive episode. These numbers represent every teenager. Emptiness does not discriminate, and the mask, be it a workshop or soccer scholarship, does not fix it.

Self-esteem is a sophisticated name for pride; it is not a virtue. Paul warns the Corinthians: “Therefore, let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall (1 Corinthians 10:12).” Here, Paul was referencing the struggle to overcome temptation and how easy it becomes to believe we (in and of ourselves) have it beaten. This verse in its context still applies to our issue. When we teach young girls that they have the power within themselves to overcome culture’s pressures and to live up to culture’s standards, we’re saying, “You, just by believing in yourself, can conquer anything that comes your way”. There is no amount of positive thinking, inner goodness, hugs from friends, talent or beauty that can combat against the schemes of the enemy: “Be sober minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour (1 Peter 5:8).” Frankly, the sober-minded are not seeking higher self-esteem. What we perceive as seemingly harmless things are sometimes powerful tools in the enemy’s arsenal.  He knows Christians will run from MTV, but who would run from a workshop?

In reference to one’s own ability to attain righteousness, Paul again tells the Philippian church, “For we are the real circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh (Philippians 3:3).” Clearly, we are to be confident and glory in Jesus and not our own flesh. Today, confidence in the flesh is expected and encouraged. There are more self-esteem books and workshops than can be listed here; employers expect you to sell yourself and your abilities in an interview; teachers tape posters to their classroom walls, listing 100 Ways to Praise a Child; Hollywood and ESPN survive on the looks and egos of athletes and stars being the prettiest and the best. America is an incubator for self-esteem and self-confidence. For the Christian, Scripture is clear on where our confidence is to come from:

“For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, whom God made our wisdom and our righteousness and sanctification and redemption. Therefore, as it is written, ‘Let one who boasts, boast in the Lord.’” – 1 Corinthians 1:26-31

Does all of this mean that we need to ignore, even loathe, the grace God has given us in both who we are and our gifting? Absolutely not! We are made in His image (Genesis 1:27), we are a wondrous creation (Psalm 139: 14), crafted by God to do good things (Ephesians 2:10); we are children of God and coheirs with Christ (Romans 8:17); we are friends of the Son (John 15:15) and no longer slaves to the world (Galatians 4:7); we have been forgiven (Acts 10:43) and been made righteous (2 Cor. 5:21)…how can our joy not take the shape of confidence? It is because of these truths that we worship Him, He is glorified and the lost come to saving faith. Paul reminds us that there is no condemnation for the redeemed (Romans 8:1), so it is certainly not God’s desire that His children continually live in sackcloth and ashes, dwelling on their sinful natures; this does not speak the truth of the gospel anymore than the idolizing of physical beauty. The key to understanding and living out the truths listed above is the knowing the source from which they come and where the praise should go: God the Father, God the Son and God the Spirit, not Me the Beautiful, Me the Smart and Me the Talented.

Children will not one day abandon the Christian faith and pledge allegiance to the enemy because they had parents who encouraged them: ice cream for good grades, a pep talk before a competition and comforting words after being rejected are simple ways to offer the tangible love Scripture teaches all Christians to have and share. It is only problematic when we fail to include Jesus with these gifts as the One who empowers, heals, and satisfies. Parents must find a way to balance nurturing their children in their abilities and navigating life’s circumstances while putting Jesus before them as the true Savior, worthy of all the glory.

At some point, be it in a classroom, a living room or a great hall, every girl will be given the microphone. My hope is that when their moment comes, rather than promising to always think of themselves as beautiful or worthy of praise, they would think of someone else entirely: “My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness.”

“My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.”  – Psalm 73:26

“Not to us O Lord, not to us, but to your name give glory, for the sake of your steadfast love and your faithfulness!” – Psalm 115:1