As director of Generation Joshua, I work with thousands of teens
across the nation. At one of our events, a student tapped me on the shoulder
and asked if we could talk. Ten minutes of trivialities passed before he worked
up his courage to tell me what was really on his mind.
“I hate you. You’re a
hypocrite. You say you love me, but no one really loves me.”
The GenJ staff and I
confused him, he said. He assumed all Christians were hypocrites. His parents
were Christians, and he thought he knew what that meant. But my team and I also
said we were Christians—and we were different from what he expected. To him,
our Christianity and his parents’ Christianity were worlds apart.
We talked for almost six
hours. As I listened, I saw a familiar pattern repeat itself.
This young man had come
to believe that his whole world was governed by rigid rules. If he broke those
rules, he would face the consequences. The rules were clear and the
consequences were consistent, but that was all there was. His entire
understanding of his relationship with his parents, as well as his relationship
with God, had been reduced to a series of if-then statements.
As a result, the young
man believed that everything in life, including his parents’ love, was
dependent on his own actions. During our conversation he could not think of a
single example of unconditional love that had been shown to him in his life. I
have no doubt that he had received such unconditional love; my point is that he
was unable to recognize it.
I have seen this example
repeated again and again as I work with teens across America. There was the boy
who told us how he used to cut himself because it gave him one small part of
his life where he felt he could determine the consequences. There was the girl
who abandoned her faith because all she had experienced was judgment, and the
boy who felt that attempting suicide was the only way to get empathy. And there
was the young man who killed himself because he believed that no one, not even
his parents, loved him.
Again and again I meet
broken young men and women who are drowning under a tidal wave of crushing
rules and expectations, just as they are finishing high school and trying to
enter adulthood. The result is often manifested in severe depression,
self-destructive behavior (such as cutting), involvement in witchcraft, or suicidal
I don’t think these
extreme situations happen because of strict parenting. Having clearly defined,
consistently applied rules in the home is not the problem. The problem is when
relationships are contingent on the rules.
In responding to student
crises over my past seven years at Generation Joshua, I’ve seen a common theme.
In most of these cases, the students do not believe that their parents love
them, or else they are convinced that their parents’ love is conditional. When
I get the opportunity to talk to their parents, it is usually clear that they
deeply love their children. But they have not included regular, tangible
demonstrations of unconditional love in their parenting. The love is there—but
the children never get the chance to see it.
We pour our energy into
raising our children, conscientiously trying
to discipline and educate them so they can have responsible, rewarding lives. We push ourselves to make sure we
teach our children that actions have consequences, and that lesson is crucial.
But sometimes I think we don’t make an equal effort to demonstrate
unconditional love to our children. I find it ironic that, as a person whose
life has been changed by Jesus Christ’s extreme act of unsolicited love and
unexpected grace, I still find it so hard to always show that same love to my
Sometimes when I
recognize that I should be showing more grace and
love to my children, I also find myself concerned that doing so will undermine
my attempts to teach discipline. This is the wrong way of thinking, and often
stems from an unclear definition of grace. In The
Knowledge of the Holy, A. W. Tozer
defines grace as “the good pleasure of God that inclines him to bestow benefits
on the undeserving.” I simplify that to say that grace in parenting is the idea
of unmerited favor toward my children.
Grace is the natural outworking of unconditional love. If
we love our children, we should be looking for opportunities to show them
grace. I should not be so obsessed with making sure my children recognize the
consequences of sin that I neglect to show them the amazing power of grace and
unconditional love. Teaching consequences without ever showing grace will crush
the joy, and often the faith, out of our children.
Look for moments when you
can show grace and love in your children’s lives, then take those opportunities
and explain them. God’s unconditional love may be the most powerful lesson our
children learn from us.
For the young man I spoke
with that day, experiencing unconditional love resulted in a new faith in God.
That change led to a restoration of relationship with his parents as well. For
him, love was the most important lesson he needed.
Joel Grewe is
the director of HSLDA’s
Generation Joshua. He and his wife, Christie, have three young sons.