In the quest to discover and adopt an identity, the teenagers you know and love are looking for answers to questions such as: Am I worthwhile? What makes me worthwhile? How am I unique from others? Are those uniqueness’ good or bad? What makes me special? And most importantly, who am I? In a perfect world, all of our teenagers would accept proper guidance and be drawn to Godly identity-shaping models. They would understand themselves and find their identity in who they are as unique individuals created in the image of God for a relationship with Him. But we don’t live in perfect world. Life in a fallen world presents kids with two options: either finding one’s identity in Christ, or choosing to find that identity in something else. Our kids embrace idolatry when they base their value, worth, and identity on someone or something other than God.
If our calling as parents and youth workers is ultimately about pointing kids to Christ and praying that He would embrace them so hard that they would find their identity solely in their embrace of Him, then what can we do to help our kids find their way through youth culture’s current muddled and confusing identity mess? Here are some suggestions to get you started.
First, continually look in the mirror to check on yourself, asking this question: “Where am I finding my identity?” Identity is a constant struggle for us all. Our example speaks louder than anything else to our kids. In his book The Reason For God, Tim Keller reminds us that “every person must find some way to ‘justify their existence,’ and to stave off the universal fear that they’re a ‘bum.’” Ultimately, our identity can and must be found in Christ and Christ alone. We must be sure that with Augustine we are able to say, “Our hearts our restless until they find their rest in Thee!”
Second, continually check in on the identity-shaping world of your kids. Watching culture is not a once-and-done past-tense activity. For the Christian parent, culture-watching is an active and on-going responsibility. Because culture is constantly shifting and changing, the responsibility lies on us to stay on top of the nuances of our kids’ youth culture, particularly the messengers and messages that are shaping their identity. But it’s not just something we do. It’s something we do with a purpose. Theologian John Stott calls this “dual listening.” He says that we “stand between the Word and the world with consequent obligation to listen to both. We listen to the Word in order to discover ever more of the riches of Christ. And we listen to the world in order to discover which of Christ’s riches are needed most and how to present them in their best light.” When it comes to the task of shaping identity – both our own and our students’ – dual listening is a necessity. We must know their world in order to bring the light of the Word to bear on it.
Third, confront the lies. Several times in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus issues “You have heard it said. . . . but I tell you” statements. Each and every time, Jesus is issuing a corrective to conventional, widely-held, cultural wisdom that his hearers had not only heard, but had allowed to become a part of their very lives. A hallmark of our parenting is continually assuming the same “you have heard it said. . . . but Jesus tells you” posture on identity matters.
History tells us that the famous monk Bernard of Clairvaux hadn’t always found his identity in Christ. He was born into the luxury-filled life of nobility. Eventually he learned that his identity could only be found in Christ. Out of that experience of living on the foundation of a new identity-base, Bernard would pen these words to his now-classic hymn: “Jesus, Thou joy of loving hearts! Thou fount of life! Thou light of men! From the best bliss that earth imparts, We turn unfilled to Thee again.” That, and only that, is the place where our kids will truly find themselves.