Last night I was going through some of my files on teenagers and grief. I came across this article from Youth Specialties written by Renee Altson. The main thrust behind the article is walking students through the process of grief and disappointment and frustration with life sans the pat answers.
As ministers we like to have answers-the right answers.
People expect us to have answers-the right answers quickly.
As Alston says in the article, we are a culture of quick fixes. While I’ve only been doing ministry for a handful of years, I know that nothing in this life or in adolescence or in the journey of faith comes quick and easy. Pains aren’t quickly forgotten. Wounds don’t heal over night. Blurbs about faith and purpose and God’s will ring hollow in the ears of teenagers dealing with loss.
The youth pastor patted me on top of the head—not with tenderness, but with a dismissive, condescending motion. Tap-tap-tap. Tap-tap-tap. “Just remember,” he said, “God causes all things to work together for good. God won’t give you anything that you can’t handle.”
I wiped away the tears that had started to form and forced a smile. Walking away, I thought, “Dude, you have no idea what I’m going through. I don’t even know if there is a God anymore.”
We live in a world of instant gratification. We can have almost anything we want on demand. Fast food, fast Bible lessons, fast relationships—everything comes with a money-back, feel-good, 30-minutes-or-less guarantee.
Today’s Christianity has bought into that kind of mentality,as well. Got a broken heart? Jesus can fix it. Feel overwhelmed by sadness? Cast all your cares on him. Feeling stuck between two decisions? Just trust and obey.
What are we offering our students when we give them pat answers and tired clichés? Are we teaching them that we buy into the notion of instant pleasure and quick fixes? Are we setting them up for a life of disappointment and doubt?
The pat answers given to me throughout my lifetime, particularly during my adolescent years, almost did me in. They brought guilt and shame—a sense of never being good enough, of never being godly enough. I struggled constantly with these quick fixes that just didn’t work for me. I’d confess, repent, and accept Jesus into my heart—I really would. And nothing would feel any different. So I’d do it again, repeatedly confessing and repenting in an attempt to feel the answers that were supposed to be there. I’d pray for hours, asking Jesus into my heart again and again. Why didn’t he fix me? Why didn’t God give me strength? What was I doing wrong?
In the end, swamped with frustration and sadness, I didn’t blame God or suddenly decide it was Jesus’ fault. I blamed myself.
One of the problems with pat answers is that they’re usually taken straight from Scripture and therefore contain some element of truth—enough truth to distort; enough truth that, when offered, seems real.
We don’t offer lies to our students, we offer half-truths. We offer the resurrection without the agony of the cross. We offer the ascension without the garden of Gethsemane. And we end up with students with half-truth lives—students who won’t know how to survive the difficulties they face; students with weak faith that is easily uprooted by winds of disappointment and doubt.
What can you do to help ground your students? How do you get beyond pat answers? Do you even want to?
You must befriend the reality of hurting people; you must acknowledge some wounds that are so big they may make you ask, “Why, God?” and even “God, are you there?”
One of the problems with Christians is that we feel we must constantly defend our faith so zealously, we don’t know how to let God handle the huge issues. We try to minimize our situations and lives so we don’t need a big God. Big pain requires a big God.
A million years of theology doesn’t speak to the heart like a genuine “I don’t know.” And let’s be truthful—there are some things we don’t know.
We can guess. We can come up with alliterative phrases that describe the atonement, the purpose of sin, the meaning of redemption; but when it comes to this student in this moment in this situation, we all too often just don’t know. Pretending that we do leads to pat answers and dishonesty.
Allow for Process
There’s a lot of pressure in the church to be okay. It’s subliminal, from upraised hands during the worship chorus to kneeled moments during the altar call, but it exists.
Many people will expect you to fix the hurting kids in your ministry. After all, you’re the youth pastor. But it’s important not to rush the process. We don’t serve a God who expects us to be put together; we serve a God who suffers with us in our sufferings, who weeps with us in our sorrow.
Sometimes the best words are no words at all. A lot is unsaid in those quiet, intimate moments. Much is conveyed in quiet breathing and simple sharing of space. And in that silence, you won’t damage someone’s heart. You won’t minimize his pain or tell him what you think he needs to hear or what you want to say.
Just be with her. Be with her without feeling a need to fix her. Listen to the cries of her heart. Offer them up to God.
Pat answers are dangerous. They minimize our God and they minimize us. They turn our religion into something that God never intended. And they diminish our light.
I’ve been reading through the book of Job this week.
What has struck me is how quickly Job’s “friends” resort to offering up the pat answers. One minute they are they sitting quietly and comforting Job (11-13) and the next minute they are offering up “explanations” and “remedies” for the cause of Job’s calamities.
I know why Job’s friends felt the need to speak up. I’m sure that the silence was deafening. The weight of the situation often compels us to speak. We have a need to rationalize and explain away things that we can’t/won’t understand.
Grief is hard enough without us adding the pain and shortsightedness that pat answers bring. Teenagers feel everything so deeply. Walk them through it slowly.
I can’t explain the reason behind what happened to those students yesterday in Alabama or what happened to those basketball players in Atlanta this morning.
What I can do is offer a shoulder for crying, an ear for listening, and a whisper for a prayer.
When people are dealing with grief and junk that the world has dumped on them I am reminded of the words of St Francis of Assisi:
Go into all the world and preach the gospel and use words if necessary.
Time over quickness. Walking over running. Presence over pat answers.