Working primarily with teens and young adults for the past five years, something has haunted me. No, I’m not talking about Casper the Ghost, it’s a notion, a thought, a question, that has been at the forefront of my mind. It is something that I’ve wrestled with understanding, and I’ve prayed about countless times. The issue? Why are so many of our young men and women addicted to pain?
In my younger years, it was the grunge movement that took the world by storm. It was a musical and artistic expression of self-loathing. Bands such as Nirvana and the Smashing Pumpkins wrote songs about helplessness and self-hatred. Millions bought their albums and went to their concerts. Why? One could argue that people just went because they liked the musicality and the show that was put on. However, in my opinion, it was because people really connected with what the songs were saying; which was essentially, I’m not all right. I don’t like myself.
However, this next generation has ratcheted things up a bit. Not only do they enjoy songs of despair, they have begun to believe that they themselves are garbage. They have taking self-hatred to the level of self-abuse. Over these years of ministry, I’ve counseled our young adults on issues such as cutting (taking a razor blade and literally cutting the skin open), drinking and drug use, sexual escapades, eating disorders, and even suicide attempts. This list is by no means complete. But, these are the bigger issues I’ve seen our young men and women dealing with.
Nearly every time, the answer given to the question, “Why do you do it?” is always something like, “I just wanted to feel something,” or, “I’m worthless, so I at least want to give someone else some happiness. At least they can be happy,” or “I wanted to feel like I belong.” Essentially, they are saying that they are addicted to pain because it is the only feeling they think they are capable of comprehending.
Now, please understand, I’m not a psychiatrist or psychotherapist, but these are real people with a real addiction. I’m not attempting to diagnose them, I’m simply stating what I’ve witnessed first-hand.
So, the BIG question I’ve wrestled with is, “Why have we let our kids believe that the only thing they are allowed to feel is pain?” Here is my bold, audacious, and probably controversial answer.
Our young men and women are surrounded by things that cause them pain. Don’t get me wrong, not everything is painful. There are moments of fun and happiness. But they pale in comparison to what many of our young adults experience on a daily basis.
Whether it’s at school, at home, or in the media, our teens have become consumers of pain. At school, they are constantly compared to each other. When they don’t fit the mold for what is acceptable (cool), then ridicule and rumors begin to fly. Maybe they’re socially awkward, don’t wear the right clothes, or are too short, too tall, too skinny, or too fat. They just don’t quite fit in. Additionally, if a secret sin is exposed (“So-and-so slept with…”), the person’s reputation is firmly inked and can be attached to that teen for the remainder of their life at the school. Kids can also feel judged by their academic performance. They may feel that the teachers are being unfairly harsh to them in their grading (Even if it’s not true, perception is reality to teens), and often their parents are also hard on them when they don’t perform well. Dating relationships (especially in small schools) can be disastrous. When one person breaks up with another, rumors swirl, and often bitterness takes hold. Salacious information is spread, and people begin to take sides. Parents are often absent, or disconnected from their children. Teens often report that they never felt a close connection to their parents when they were younger, so they don’t trust their parents to help them through issues in their teenage years. On television, some of the most popular shows among the young adult demographic deal with judging. Shows such as Survivor, American Idol, the Bachelor, etc., all deal with a group of people being judged on whether they are talented, intelligent, beautiful, handsome, charming, or acceptable overall. I could go on-and-on, but I hope you see my point. Our kids are surrounding by judgment in nearly every facet of their lives.
Now, being a Christian, I would hope that our kids could find happiness and acceptance in their churches (if their family goes). But, it is not always the case. I’ve heard stories from so many teens about judgmentalism at church, too. People judge them because they don’t dress appropriately, sing poorly, didn’t memorize their memory verse, don’t understand the scriptures, or even committed a sin. They are chastised when they question a particular doctrine, or ask tough questions about God. In essence, they can’t escape judgment in a place that is supposed to preach, teach, and demonstrate grace.
So it is that our kids feel judged on every side. They don’t measure up to the standards of society, the standards of school, the standards of parents, and the standards of church. They can’t win. They feel broken. They feel empty. They feel – nothing.
It is this emptiness that causes them to seek out ways to help them feel at least something – something to fill the emptiness, the void of belonging that exists within them. They crave to feel something, anything. So, they seek fulfillment in the ways I’ve mentioned above. But, these ways only fill the void with garbage, baggage. Oddly enough, these ways temporarily do make them feel better. They provide a short release from the angst. However, as with anything, when something provides an outlet for one’s pain, they begin to crave it more and more. And, the more they do it, the less effective it becomes as a coping mechanism.
Now, please hear me clearly, this is not true of all teenagers and young adults. But, in my experience, it is true for way too many of them. We just don’t see it.
The problem is that they are good at masking their pain. Because they constantly feel judged, they don’t want to add one more thing to be judged about. So, they wear long sleeves to hide the scars from cutting or the track marks from shooting up drugs. They bathe themselves in cologne or perfume to hide the smell of marijuana or crack. They make arrangements to meet their sexual partner when no one else is around. They wear baggy clothing to hide their drastic weight loss. You get the idea, they have become masters at hiding their pain.
So, what do we as youth leaders, parents, pastors, and other concerned adults do to help turn the tide? We, ourselves must lead biblical lives. No, I’m not talking about donning goat skins and eating locusts, I’m talking about framing our entire lives around biblical principals – two in particular. Check out how Jesus put it in Matthew 22:37-38:
Jesus replied, “‘You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. A second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’
If we are preaching and teaching to our kids that God is love, and must be the most important part of our lives, are we modeling it, or just giving it lip-service? Are we telling the kids, or are we showing the kids? There is a big difference. Teens can spot a hypocrite very easily. And, once they do, all credibility is lost.
If we are supposed to love everyone, why do our kids feel so unloved? Once again, are we giving it lip-service, or are we showing how much we love our kids?
The simple answer is that we need to have real, authentic, loving relationships with our young men and women. It’s all about a relationship with God (first and foremost), and with each other.
So, how do we define relationship? A great question to ask is, “What makes a relationship a good one?” Nearly everyone will say things like: trust, love, respect, spend quality time together, can share anything with the person, supportive, fun, open, honest, etc. Though this list is not exhaustive, it paints the picture of what a healthy relationship looks like.
Now, here’s the gut-check question we must all ask ourselves, “Can I say that my relationship with my God, and with each of my kids (youth group or biological) matches this description? If not, we need to refocus on what it means to be a Christian.
I understand that this might sound harsh, and like I’m on my soapbox. Forgive me if it come across that way. That is not my intention.
I fail as often as I succeed in demonstrating this concept to the kids in my church and to my own biological children. It is something that haunts me. But, at the same time, it is my motivator.
I want all of those children and young adults that God has placed in my life to experience the love of Jesus. I want them to be filled up with the power, passion, and love of Christ, not with useless pain and suffering. I want them to feel joy and hope. I want them to bask in awe at the wonders of God. I want them to experience the transformation that happens to each of us when we accept Christ as our Savior. I want each of them to stop feeling judged and to start feeling loved. I want each one of them to experience life the way that it was meant to be – in communion with the God of the universe. I want them to be able to talk about their struggles and not be rebuffed or rejected. I want them to enter a church that is full of people that support, love, and encourage them. I want them to feel comfortable asking the hard questions, knowing that it is OK. I want them to see themselves not as garbage, but as princes and princesses of the Kingdom of God.
So, what are the nuts and bolts we need to help break this pain addiction? We need to read, meditate on, and digest the teachings of Jesus. How did he interact with others? How did he teach others? How did he make others feel loved? How did he help break people free from judgmentalism? How did he show them the glory of God? How did he demonstrate grace? How did he love others? We need to dig in to the Word. We need to let it convict us. We need to let it instruct us. We need to let it lead us.
And then, we need to follow it, not just teach it, but model it. Reach out to the teens in your life. Share your life experiences with them, and let them share theirs. Build a relationship of honesty, trust, love, and respect. Spend time with them, both when teaching and just because. Intrude a little. Lift them up when they are down, and celebrate victories with them. Love them unconditionally. When they fall, pick them up and dust them off. Give them a hug and let them know you are there for them. This is discipleship. It’s not just teaching, it is coming alongside them and being a part of their life.
It is only when we follow in the footsteps of Christ that the cycle of pain and judgment can be broken. It is only then that those young adults that are struggling with a pain addiction can truly begin to experience the everlasting love and grace of Jesus. It is only then that these teens can begin to let go of the pain, and instead feel peace.