In the past couple of months, I’ve had a number of heavy conversations with friends about the realities of life. We’ve talked about the heartaches of infertility, questions about parenting, devastating breakups, marriage conflicts, unwanted singleness, and struggles with sexuality. A few friends have been abruptly fired from ministry positions, and others have left overseas posts because of difficulties with leadership. More than one dream job has turned out to be not so dreamy after all.
From a distance, it seems like everything has fallen into place for these highly educated people, mostly raised in middle-class church families. Much has gone well for them, and many are leaders in their communities. Without knowing their stories, you wouldn’t know their 20s weren’t all they thought they were going to be. Throughout our conversations, a consistent theme has emerged: we didn’t expect these years to be so hard. Most of us realize we that we believed big problems weren’t supposed to come so early in life, and real troubles were for an older crowd. Whether we knew it or not, we imagined our 20s to be carefree and blissfully happy, with the track of “We Are Young” playing during a video montage of road trips, pub nights, and crazy adventures. How were we so wrong?
To Change the World
Somewhere between elementary school self-esteem talks, Jesus Freaks youth group lessons, and “you can single-handedly evangelize the 10/40 window” college mission conferences, we were pumped up and ready to change the world. We anticipated picture-perfect marriages and families after we signed our commitments at True Love Waits and kissed dating good-bye. What could go wrong when we had the prayer of Jabez on our side and enough Christian T-shirts to win the world to Jesus? We were doing our part with sponsored children, the 30-Hour Famine, and prayer vigils for the persecuted church. God would certainly give us the good life with all of that sacrifice, wouldn’t he?
Although we consistently asked what would Jesus do, no one told us how important it was to learn how he dealt with suffering. While we may have escaped much of the suffering of the world and generations past, we weren’t equipped to deal with the realities of life. We had categories for the American dream and grand ministry experiences, but many of us didn’t have a framework to endure deaths of siblings, financial hardship, cancer, or family conflict. Here we are, 10 years later, trying to deal with hard things and coming to terms with our own sin, and the harsh fact that suffering isn’t ageist after all.
It’s not my intent to blame-shift, which is another thing we do so well, to play the victim and rage against the machine when we don’t get what we want. We need to take responsibility for our role in our delusions, buying into pop Christian culture instead of the Bible, believing the larger cultural claims that youth is the highest good. This isn’t an excuse for our poor responses to hardship or for not listening when someone tried to tell us truth. We must own our cynicism and bitterness against the church, even if we have accurately identified some real ways it contributed to the illusion that life would fall into perfectly into place for us.
Grieve Shattered Dreams
Instead, I’m calling us to suffer well, to realize we are not in ultimate control, although many of us have vast amounts of freedom and choices. We need to learn to grieve our shattered dreams, to understand and absorb sadness, to sit with unanswered questions and learn about trusting God in this space without sugar-coating the truth. Although we may not be thinking about knee replacements right now, we need to know that we live in a broken world, and soon enough our bodies will break down too. We need to put to death our expectations of a perfect life, prepare for things to be hard, and realize the fall has affected every part of the world. We need to learn that there is nowhere we can escape from sin, because we can’t escape from ourselves. We need to learn to bring our regrets to Jesus, that he can meet us in our shame if we have wasted years of our lives.
But we also need to grow new expectations, ones that wait for God to show up in ways we couldn’t imagine, to expect seasons of joy and grace in the midst of difficulties. We need courage to find new dreams when our old ones aren’t happening. When I think about these conversations with friends puzzling over our lives, the best parts have been talking about the ways our hard circumstances have brought new life, how the severe mercy of God has forced us to wrestle with the deep truths of Scripture, and how we long for heaven more than we ever would have if life had gone as we wished.
We’ve also talked about how we need to hear from the older generations, how they have faced hard things and fought for faith. We need their perspective, their wisdom, their words spoken into our lives. We want to hear more from our pastors and leaders about how they move though struggles. We wish the church were more honest, that we didn’t feel alone there in our addictions and sin and heartbreak, that we could walk in and be real. Most of us don’t care all that much about the music style and building aesthetics. We long for transparent relationships with people who are willing to enter our mess and point us to Jesus. This is how we most want the church to be relevant.
Many of us are investing in the next generation in some way, hoping to show them a real and true picture of life, to teach them that even the “best” years of their lives will include heartache and pain. We want them to have all the excitable idealism of being young, but we want that enthusiasm to be met with wisdom and tempered with reality. Most of all, we want to tell them of all the good we found along the way, how we learned to live again, and how we look to our next decades with hope that God is making something new out of our crushed expectations.
Jackie Knapp has spent the last decade mentoring and counseling college students at The Master’s College in Santa Clarita, California, and University Reformed Church in East Lansing, Michigan. She now lives and writes in Oakland, California. You can follow her adventures at paperandskyblog.blogspot.com.