In yesterday’s post, I began my own list of DOs and DON’Ts in response to a minister friend’s question regarding what to do about the apparent collusion to keep secret certain sinful behaviors in the midst of his church teen group. In that initial section, I shared ideas that had to do with basic attitudes, or a basic posture towards approaching such problems. Today, perhaps in the spirit of Jesus’ admonition to “first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye”, I’d like to address some of our own motivations, as adults. With that in mind, I continue my list:
DON’T obsess about it
What I mean is that adults can be guilty of displacing their own hopes and fears onto their kids. We can begin to obsess about (or at least over-focus on) them, based on our own ideals and longings, based on our preoccupation with our own image, or based on our own felt inadequacies, past and present. Bruce Springsteen famously captured the kind of dissatisfaction adults can feel with their own lives and the associated nostalgic remembrances:
I hope when I get old I don’t sit around thinking about it
but I probably will
Yeah, just sitting back trying to recapture
a little of the glory of, well time slips away
and leaves you with nothing mister but
boring stories of glory days
Glory days well they’ll pass you by
Glory days in the wink of a young girl’s eye
Glory days, glory days
Sometimes, the “Glory Days” really were good; it’s just that we can’t go back. So, we want to relive them through our kids. Sometimes, the old days really weren’t all that glorious; deep down we know our memories are lying to us. So, our kids become our “do over” (or “mulligan” for you golfers!). We want them to get right what we didn’t get right at their age. Either way, we tend to obsess about our teens, their conduct, their secrets… and especially their sexuality!
In truth, there is a darker side to this phenomenon of living vicariously through our teens. I think this is particularly true when it comes to their sexual (mis-)conduct. The following observations are not mere coincidences:
- many horror flicks juxtapose titillating scenes of teens being lewd and blatantly sexual with scenes of (retaliatory) violence towards these same teens,
- women viewed as seductive or sensual may become victims of “honor killings” in more radical Muslim communities,
- Christian parents and ministers tend to worry about teen sexual sin more than any other, and
- Churches disfellowship members more quickly for sexual sins than most other offenses (such as greed).
At an obvious level, we hate in others the things that scare or disgust us in our own selves (see below). But, at a more subtle level, there is now solid empirical evidence that anxiety about death/mortality leads men to be more judgmental and punitive regarding sex. For instance, in 2006, Landau and his colleagues who conduct research in the field of “terror management” published a series of studies in the prestigious Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Their results were fascinating:
When the experimenters covertly increased participants’ awareness of death (called mortality salience) and had them recall a time when they felt intense sexual lust (or lust prime), these participants were much more likely to be more tolerant, in a subsequent “unrelated” (or so the participants thought) study, of violence towards women. Similarly, men who were subliminally primed with mortality-related prompts tended (a) to rate alluring women as less attractive, (b) to deny their own sexual attraction towards sexy women, and (c) to report less attraction to seductive (versus wholesome) women, when compared to men who were not subliminally primed with mortality salience.
In other words, things that connect us strongly to our bodies (such as our own sexual feelings) are harder to tolerate when we are aware of our mortality. On a related note, when mortality is salient, people also tend to become more rigidly entrenched in their own worldview and become more intolerant of outsiders (e.g., Muslims or Jews). In sum, when we are reminded of our mortality, we tend to have more negative views of women who might arouse us (the reverse effect does not appear to be true for women, though), we tend to have more negative views of outsiders; we also tend to be drawn towards more charismatic (rather than relational) leaders and we tend to favor harsher punishment for crimes & misbehavior, and so on.
I personally find this area of research (“terror management”) pretty fascinating in light of the Hebrew writer’s words:
Many of us don’t think of ourselves as being “held in slavery” by our fear of death. After all, we don’t worry all the time about dying; we’re confident about our eternal destiny. And yet… there, at a less than conscious level, our acute awareness of our own mortality is shaping our attitudes and causing us to act in ways we attributed to something else (such as, our convictions about sin). But that shouldn’t really surprise us.
So back to our topic, when it comes to our own kids (or, for that matter, the church’s kids), they obviously represent our future. As such, therefore, they readily become a way for us to “overcome” our mortality. So, in a sense, we need them to do well and especially not to be too corporeal! Hence our preoccupation. I hope I’m not overreaching with my application of the terror management research. And certainly I’m not saying we should be apathetic about the sins of our teenagers. We surely should desire to help them. But, in so doing, we should also try and be as self-aware as possible and realize that, sometimes, lurking behind our seemingly best of intentions–such as helping our teens not have secret sins–lurk darker motivations. Behind our preoccupation with our teens secrets, we might just have our own “secrets”!
DO be good examples
I think the age old principle that the best way to induce change in our kids is through our own example applies here. If we’d like the temptation to secrecy to be lessened among our teens (I say lessened, because I don’t think the temptation will ever be fully eradicated… in this life), then our most concerted efforts should be towards being, ourselves as adults, the kind of people who live in truth and transparency, and who are examples of repentance in our own lives.
Repentance. In my work counseling families, I’d have to say that one of the recurrent surprises concerns adults’ inability to see the parallels between their teens’ struggles and their own. I’m not saying that the parents struggles caused their teens’ struggles (that is an entirely too simplistic, and not so Scripturally sound model); but, there is a very real parallel that should lead adults (a) to have more empathy & compassion and (b) to see an opportunity to be an example. But, all too often, because we don’t struggle with the exact same sins or at least not in as blatant of a way, we tend to see their sin as a plank and our own as a speck.
Now, truth be known, in any congregation where teens are struggling with internet porn and not confessing it, the statistics plainly show that a large number of adults are doing exactly the same thing! So, sometimes the struggle is actually the same. But sometimes it is not. A scenario I have sat through more times than I’d care to remember is sitting with a couple of church elders talking about a teenager or young adult’s sexual sin, as they try to determine how to “handle” the problem. Eventually, the topic of “discipline” or “warning” the wayward teen comes up. I’ve already shared (here) that I think we should avoid a punitive approach, but the thing that recurrently shocks me is that, in almost all such cases, the elder (or parent, or other leader) I’m sitting with has obvious problems of his own that have not radically changed in his life: one is clearly overweight and has been for years, another is known to be strong-headed, still another has a short fuse… and so on. How can we not see the parallel? And then resolve that the best way to help our youth is by example of dealing with “our own stuff”?
Openness. The corollary to repentance is openness (or confession). When as parents or spiritual leaders we realize the importance of being good examples of repentance, the temptation creeps in to be less than honest. We might confess, even publicly, our past offenses (particularly in our “pre-Christian” days); we might talk about our more socially acceptable struggles. But we’re not exactly honest about how powerless we are about that sin (or those sins) that dog us, discourage us, make us feel defeated. Maybe we’re not honest with ourselves (we simply deny that we ever feel defeated); or, maybe we’re not transparent with our teens.
To be sure, wisdom and judgment are needed. I’m not advocating a role reversal where a teen becomes his parent’s or his church leader’s “confessor” or “spiritual director”. God knows, he or she doesn’t need that pressure! But don’t the majority of us find ourselves most inspired by people we can relate to? Don’t people who are aware of their brokenness really help us more, in the long run, than triumphalists? In our human struggle, don’t the Henri Nouwen, Brennan Manning, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Stanley Hauerwas, and Jim McGuiggan’s of the world help us more than the Joel Osteen, Robert Shuller’s with their prosperity gospels?
Lack of honesty is pretty devastating in my mind, both to our own lives but also to the community. For instance, I think of church leaders (some I’ve known personally, some I’ve not) who seem determined to eradicate sexual sin from their ministries. As a result, young members have their salvation questioned, they are privately or publicly warned or even expelled for sexual struggles. And, to be fair, I do think that, in part, the motivation is simply to present to Christ the church as a pure bride, to prevent the church becoming just like the world. But, then that darker motivation also creeps in; predictably, many of these men have their own struggles with impurity, or their difficult sexual relationships in marriage. I such cases, it would be so much more helpful to the congregation if these leaders invited people into their own struggles, as these are going on (and not simply after the fact, as a “past” and “conquered” event).
I think teens, particularly this skeptical post-modern (and rapidly becoming a post-Christendom) generation, have an allergic reaction to anything that seems fake or phony. “Authenticity” is one of their highest ideals… and one I think Jesus might agree with! So, what a great opportunity we have as older and more experienced believers to model for them truthful living. We can be living examples of people who both (a) are acutely aware of their present sinfulness and brokenness, and (b) yet still strive for growth, repentance and change, refusing to settle for complacency. We can, at the same time, (a) be deeply compassionate and empathetic, as men and women who know their own fallenness all too well, and (b) be deeply passionate about righteousness, holiness and purity. It’s not an either… or situation, but a both… and.
A Closing Word
I realize this post is, in some ways, pretty hard hitting. Maybe it’s too psychological for your taste. Or maybe I did not emphasize that there is indeed a case for taking a strong stance on sin, up to and including “disfellowshipping” people. I do believe that to be true; however, judging by Jesus (and Paul’s) way of dealing with sinners (even blatant ones), that is far from the norm. I’m generally concerned that once we begin to think that the threat of exclusion produces results, pretty soon it becomes one of our “go-to” approaches for addressing repeated sin; in so doing, we take a shortcut. And the impact on community life and individuals’ understanding of grace is considerable. But a balanced discussion of that topic (sin & judgment) will have to wait for some other post.
In these 2 posts, my goal has been to paint a picture of the kind of community I think most teenagers deeply long to be part of. Jesus knew the hearts of men very well. Unlike the pharisees, he was not blind to the darker motivations that crept into the hearts of religious men and women. As a result, his message was plain and truthful, sometimes painfully so, and he was as honest and real, in his parables and actions, as anyone could be. And the people were “amazed”! At the same time, he still deeply loved these very sinners and drew them to himself, despite their sinfulness. And the little seed that he planted in that tiny community of the first believers, grew to fill the world! That’s how contagious this kind of community is. So, the short answer to the question “what can I do about the fact that some teens are keeping secret sins, even big one, while others are staying quiet about it?” is “pray and work diligently towards becoming a compelling community”.