– By Walt Mueller
©2008, The Center for Parent/Youth Understanding
Last summer, I taught my buddy, Ian, how to water ski. Just like I’ve done with dozens of rookie skiers before him, I ran through a rote litany of instructions designed to prepare Ian for his first-time experience. After telling Ian how to position himself in the water and what to do to get out of the water, I issued this warning: “Once you’re up and out of the water, you will feel an overwhelming desire to pull your hands and the tow rope close to your chest. I guarantee it. But don’t do it! Do it, and you’ll fall over backwards. Tell yourself right now, ‘No matter how much I feel like doing otherwise, I will keep my arms extended and not pull in.’”
Why was I so emphatic? Because I remember the first time I water-skied. I pulled my hands into my chest several times over—which of course meant I fell over several times. Even after those falls and repeated warnings from my instructor, I continued to give in to my feelings, which meant that I was spending all my time in, rather than on, the water.
Guess what happened to Ian? Like most other rookie water-skiers, Ian trusted his feelings more than the truth of my instructions. He started off spending more time swimming, than skiing.
At the same time Ian was learning to water-ski, a young 20-something named Katy Perry sat atop the music charts thanks to kissing another girl and liking it. This pastor’s daughter/former CCM singer turned mainstream pop star told her impressionable young listeners that she was conflicted about the experience, based not on any sort of enduring moral standards, but on her feelings: “If felt so wrong, it felt so right.” In the end, feeling “right” yielded to “like,” which turned into alright, and Perry’s message came through loud and clear. The old ’60s counter-culture motto—“If it feels good, do it!”—is now embraced and embodied as a mainstream cultural mantra, so much so that if you choose not to adopt it and live your life under submission to some outside authority—let’s say Jesus Christ—you’re hopelessly old-fashioned, terribly out-of-date and downright ridiculous.
For those of us who love, raise and work with kids, the word feel (and all its relatives) is the f-word that should concern us the most. Not because feelings are bad, but because the growing reliance on feelings as the guide for life is a challenge that cuts right to the core of everything we’re called to teach our students about life in the Kingdom of God. Our students are swimming in a culture where—increasingly—the authority most appealed to when faced with decisions of all kinds is my own feelings, which by the way, can change at any given point in time. Trust me, I know.
Any of you who’ve spent any amount of time around me when I’m talking about youth culture know that Jessica Simpson has had me scratching and shaking my head for a long, long time. As high-profile people go, she just might be the poster girl for the place feelings now play in determining the shape of our Christian faith. Just when I start to forget how confusing her strange mix of stated belief in God’s Word and embodied allegiance to whatever feels good really is, she goes and does something that puts her right back in the news. This time it was the September issue of Elle magazine, where she talks about current boyfriend Tony Romo being “the first person I’ve spiritually connected with.” He takes her to church. They pray aloud together before meals. And—here’s the clincher—they pray together before going to bed.
If our goal is to lead our kids into a deep faith that informs and directs all of life for the rest of their lives, then we must endeavor to understand the realities of where they’re at so that we might effectively point them to where they are called to be.
Recent research from the Barna Group indicates that cultural icons like Katy Perry and Jessica Simpson are living and modeling values, attitudes and behaviors that already are deeply embedded in the fabric of who kids are. The Barna Group’s David Kinnaman and his team of researchers say the shape of faith for Christian kids is less and less orthodox in nature. Instead, they are embracing what’s called a “nouveau Christianity.” Christianity and the Christian life are being reformulated, with belief in absolute moral and spiritual truth now a sign of closed-mindedness. The good news is that faith is still an acceptable attribute and pursuit among students. But the fact is that while students still embrace values that may be consistent with Christian beliefs (goodness, kindness and tolerance), the research is showing that those values are not based on biblical foundations. Sadly, students are increasingly skeptical of the Bible.
As we look at the world around us, we must recognize, reckon with and earnestly address the cultural reality that our students are not embracing an Other-defined faith that’s built on the unmovable foundation of God’s Word (incarnate and written), but a personally defined fluid faith built more and more on their own feelings. Feelings rule. Being nurtured in this type of world means that it will be okay or even virtuous for our Christian students to kiss someone of the same sex and like it, or to love and serve God (or whoever/whatever they feel “God” is) by praying with their unmarried significant other at bedtime—simply because it feelsright.
In order to effectively turn the tide on this shift from timeless foundations to in-the-moment feelings, it’s helpful to understand the unique forces converging in the lives of today’s kids. Why the shift?
First, feelings are part of their humanity. God has made us all to be emotional people. Emotions and feelings are not evil or bad in and of themselves. They are a God-ordained part of our makeup. The Scriptures are full of references to human emotion, running the gamut from happy and joyful, to grieving, down-trodden and sad. To be human is to feel. To try to squelch our emotive nature is to squelch our humanity. In sharing in our humanity, the God-man Jesus Christ emoted across the full spectrum, from laughter and joy, to sorrow and weeping. All humans emote, and there’s nothing wrong with that. We must recognize the temptation to overreact that could come with doing ministry in a feeling-oriented culture; that is, that we throw out the beautiful baby of human emotion with the bathwater of misplaced emotional function.
Second, the advent of sin into the world undid everything good, including our emotions. Like us, our kids are depraved human beings. Sin and its results have infected every corner of the world and every nook and cranny of our lives—including our emotions. In a post-Genesis 3:6 world, sorrow and sadness visit every life, at times taking up residence in the lives of God’s people for years and years on end. Not only that, but God’s order and design has been turned upside down, including the functioning of our emotions. Like everything else that’s been broken by sin, our emotions have been thrown out of whack. Along with the rocks, trees, mountains and all humanity, our emotions groan and cry out for redemption. And, in the brokenness that is our world, we sometimes allow our emotions to be removed from their God-given place, allowing them to become idols that we follow and serve, rather than a gift to be used in service to God. We live our lives and understand truth based on our feelings, rather than filtering our changing emotions through the unchanging truth of God’s Word—and properly feeling good about that.
Third, adolescents are passing through a developmental stage that is, well, emotional! Jerry Scott and Jim Borgman bring a smile to my face every day. They’re the creators of the popular daily comic strip “Zits,” a hilariously funny and all-too-true peek into the life of an angst-ridden teenager by the name of Jeremy Duncan, his frustrated and clueless parents, and his interesting group of friends. Not a day goes by without Jeremy offering readers insight into the emotionally tumultuous and change-filled teenage years. And, not a day seems to go by without his confused parents looking at each other with befuddled looks as if to say, “What’s happening to our boy???” What’s happening is that Jeremy and his teenaged peers are growing through a short period of life that’s jam-packed with more confusing changes, growth and questioning than any other period of life they have faced or will have to face. As a group, teenagers are generally more feeling-oriented and emotionally vulnerable than any other age group. Remember middle school? Consequently, they’re especially vulnerable to falling into the trap of making and embracing an emotionally defined mutation of true Christianity.
Fourth, the postmodern world stresses feelings. Perhaps nothing in our culture reflects this more than the world of marketing. In the more modernist early days of television advertising, products were generally marketed using rational appeals to viewer reason. A product was visually compared to a leading competitor’s similar product. When, let’s say, one shirt came out of the washing machine cleaner than the other, there was “scientific” proof as to which product was the one to purchase. Generally speaking, that’s not so today. A classic example of how advertising reflects this shift from reason to feelings is the case of James J. Smith, a child psychologist who spent six years helping advertisers research how to sell to children. Children want love and acceptance, so, like adults, they are willing to spend their money to get it. The basic premise of advertising to children and teens involves “luring” them with a basic felt need and “cloaking the message.” Smith cites an Oreo cookie ad as a perfect example. The ad flashes 30 images of happy children, but the product logo is shown only once. The intended result is to have children associate the cookie with feelings of love and happiness. Nothing is mentioned about the cookie’s taste or nutritional makeup. The appeal is entirely emotional.1 The postmodern world has rejected modernism’s rationality and reason, and it plays well to developmentally vulnerable kids. Kids choose to believe and live by “what I like” or what “feels good to me.” Ravi Zacharias says the postmodern generation “hears with its eyes and thinks with its feelings.”2 Consequently, more and more of our kids construct their own spiritual reality and beliefs using personal subjective experience as their authority.
Fifth, our kids feel bad and they desperately want to feel good. I have a love/hate relationship with my friend Chap Clark’s term “systemic abandonment.” Chap says it’s the defining characteristic of today’s emerging generations. In other words, all of the institutions that should be caring for and nurturing kids are ignoring and failing them. I agree. I love the term because it’s accurate. I hate the term for the same reason: it accurately captures the ugly reality of what’s happening with our kids. Because their God-given emotions are correctly telling them that something’s deeply wrong, they oftentimes compensate in dangerous and inappropriate ways in an effort to feel better. Sometimes the avenues pursued are simply cover-ups intended to temporarily anesthetize themselves to reality (drugs, alcohol, sex, disordered eating, materialism, etc.). At other times, they create and re-create false realities—including spiritual realities—that may feel good and work for the moment, helping them to deal with their difficult and broken lives.
Finally, they lack any compelling examples of an emotionally balanced life. Stated simply, there are very few adults in their lives who are modeling a lifestyle of balanced emotional management that brings honor and glory to God. Both inside and outside the church, kids see adults (many times their own parents) choosing and living distortions of orthodox Christian faith and life based on what feels good to them.
What can we do in and through our homes and ministries to bring about a corrective shift that would lead to a balanced and biblically realistic knowledge of who God is and how to live in His world according to His Kingdom priorities? How can we teach our kids to embrace a faith that shapes and informs their emotions, rather than the other way around?
First, always, always, always emphasize the authority of the Word. Most kids don’t realize that all of their decisions in life are made based on some authority. Usually it’s a combination of authorities adopted unconsciously, including peers, media, parents, self, etc. While it is worth seeking out and accepting wise advice from these people and things, the primary authority we’re called to consciously live under is the authority of the One who made us. We must teach our students to consciously recognize, understand and embrace God as the authority in their lives, looking to the incarnate Word Jesus (who said that “all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me,” and God’s written revelation of Himself in the Scriptures, which is “God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness”) to guide every step of our lives. But don’t stop there. Teach them how the authoritative Word speaks to every area of life, going to great lengths to speak God’s truth on the matters to which they are deferring to the authority of their feelings. In our postmodern world we can easily be tempted into feeling like we should downplay any truth claims, including those found in the Scriptures. It would be a shame for history to remember our era as the watershed moment when parents, pastors and youth workers didn’t do enough to help kids embrace the authority of the Word over the whims of their wind-blown emotions. Feelings should never eclipse truth. Truth should always direct our understanding of our feelings as the only trustworthy feelings are those grounded in truth.
Second, teach them about the dangerous practice of trusting their feelings. I recently had a discussion with a college graduate about a major decision she had made. I didn’t know her well, but she asked my opinion. Before voicing my concern about what I saw as an obvious disconnect between her professed faith and her choice, I wanted to know more about how she came to her decision. She summed it up in four words: “It just felt right.” When I was kid, my dad picked up on the fact that I had a bent toward making impulsive decisions based on my emotions. He warned me that my feelings could play tricks on me, that they were unreliable and that, if trusted, they could lead me down the path of making many unwise, dangerous or even immoral choices. I’m not sure he “felt” I was listening at the time, but his warnings did sink in, albeit rather slowly. In fact, it took some hard lessons learned as the result of feeling-oriented choices to help me see just how tricky our emotions can be. I have learned to never, ever make choices when my emotions are especially high or especially low. If I do, I might give my feelings the sway they shouldn’t have. Walk the kids you know and love through the Scriptures to see how dangerous emotions can be. The Old and New Testaments are full of examples of people who allowed their feelings to eclipse truth and suffered the consequences (David and Bathsheeba, Lot’s wife, Ananias and Sapphira, etc.). On the positive side, the Scriptures and the history of the church also are filled with stories of those who refused to equate the absence of good feelings with the absence of God (Noah, Abraham, Joseph, David, Job, Paul, etc.). They held on to the truth they knew even though their feelings led them down the road of being tempted to do otherwise. One of the best and most convincing tools in your arsenal is to become vulnerable with your kids, sharing the good, bad and ugly from your own life and feeling-based choices.
Third, make sure they know that following Jesus doesn’t always feel good. I have many fond memories of a childhood spent in Sunday school. Our teachers utilized all the high-tech tools of music, puppets, crafts and flannel graphs. What I remember the most is the music, particularly the songs that are still ingrained in my mind due to weekly repetition. But over the years I’ve come to regret a few of those songs because they were filled with lies and bad theology. I think some of those songs did more harm than good. Do you remember singing “Happy, happy, happy, happy, happy are the people whose God is the Lord?” I do. It messed me up. It wasn’t until later in life, when I thought that difficulty in life was a sign of the absence of God’s blessing and presence, that the words of Jesus—“take up your cross and follow me”—suddenly became real. I learned that the life of discipleship is costly, painful and usually quite difficult. Martyrs for the faith know grace, mercy and peace. I don’t believe that they really feel good—physically or emotionally—while dying for their faith. Chances are your kids won’t be martyred. But they will suffer in this life. Most of them are suffering already. They need to know that growth usually comes through suffering. In the words of one preacher, “God often puts his children to bed in the dark.” Rarely is it something that we like. We need to teach our kids to meet the unchanging God who is—rather than invent a god that makes sense at the moment—in the midst of their suffering.
Fourth, give them the knowledge and skill to utilize the “this I knows.” My wife teaches three-year-olds in Sunday school. Over the course of the year she leads them through the memorization of eight questions from the Children’s Catechism. She asks the questions and they recite the answers back—week, after week, after week. In our worship service, we recite the Apostle’s Creed—week, after week, after week. Some might think we’re subjecting ourselves to brainwashing, or, at the very least, empty ritual. But I have to tell you that this has become one of the most valuable moments of my week. I pray it would be the same for the kids. Why? Because all during the week I face challenges to my faith—some of them quite attractive and compelling. Emotionally, I might even want to “go for it.” But then I remind myself of the “this I knows”—the truths that never waver or change—that serve to keep my emotions, and the dangerous choices that could result from trusting them, in check. I have learned to talk to myself, rather than listen to my emotions. We would serve our kids better if we would fill their wells full of “this I knows.”
So whatever happened with Ian? After pulling his hands into his chest a few times, Ian finally got it. When I swung around and picked him up after his first successful run, he looked up at us with a big smile on his face. “Now that felt good,” he said. And so it should. And from time to time, living a life in submission to the Way, the Truth and the Life will feel very, very good.
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