When I was in high school, I went to youth group at my church every Sunday evening and I loved it. In fact, I loved it so much that I basically got my degree in youth group. I would not be the man I am today if I didn’t have my youth group. I’m a youth minister now because of my youth group. (I said “youth group a lot in that paragraph. No apologies.)
Unfortunately, youth ministry as an institution of the church is not perfect. Some things—like so many youth groups’ obsession with incorporating puns into everything they do—are pretty excusable. Others have the potential to be damaging to a young person’s theology, or even their self-perception. As much as I hate to publicly criticize the field in which I now hold a job, I feel like I need to shed light upon an issue that has been a major stumbling block in my life.
Back in my youth group days, a tradition at nearly every Christian youth camp or retreat was a specific guys-only and girls-only session. Without fail, the people putting on the event found a way to split us up. Even sometimes at youth group we would split up by gender and have specific talks.
The girls would go off with the female adult leaders, where most often (from what I have heard from women who grew up in youth group, not firsthand experience of course) they would be affirmed in their beauty—inside and out—and their identities in Christ. They would be taught that they are princesses, daughters of the king, and as a result they should be very careful what guys they let into their heart. Not just any dude is worthy of dating them. This was a time of love and encouragement, and probably a time of a lot of crying too.
All of these are great and true things that I believe every young woman needs to be taught and reminded of frequently. It’s unfortunate that so few outlets are providing this affirmation for the ladies in our society. I have absolutely zero problem with this.
What I do have a problem with is that when the guys would go off by ourselves, it seems that we got a much different message. I can’t really think of a single “guys-only” session that had a primary focus other than “quit that lusting, dude!” And yeah, for 90% of guys (and the other 10% who are lying [that joke isn’t mine]) lust is a very serious deal that is almost always very destructive. I agree that it absolutely needs to be talked about openly, and I know that these “guys-only” talks were genuinely well-intentioned. However, I do have two major qualms with them:
- Lust ain’t the only sin.
Lust is not even the worst sin, really. After all, few people in my Christian tradition believe that there is an actual systematic hierarchy of sin (in God’s eyes, at least), even if the consequences of some sins differ greatly in severity from others. And yeah, we treat some sins like they’re worse than others (usually if they aren’t the sins we struggle with), but we do understand deep down that sin is sin in God’s eyes.
However, as a teenager I had it hammered into my head that I had to focus all my strength on getting to sleep that night without lusting so I could mark my calendar with a smiley-face instead of a sad-face. By the time I did finally get my lust wrestled into submission, I found to my great surprise that I was a prideful, angry, hateful, apathetic jerk. At the risk of sounding dramatic, my heart had atrophied.
Somehow, I got it into my mind that lust was the absolute worst thing, and if I could somehow get over it I would be okay. My attention was so focused on the giant of lust that I didn’t notice those other things slipping in, things which were just as sinful and just as destructive. My life became defined by struggle rather than by grace. When that happens, I believe, it eats away at you until there’s not much left.
- Guys need consistent affirmation too.
For some reason, our culture has this perception that guys are so tough that they could never be in need of encouragement or affirmation. You can kick a dude in the teeth with truth and tell him got walk it off, knowing he’ll be okay soon enough. That’s just the way guys are. That’s what it means to be a man.
I bought into this lie hardcore. I have always been obsessed with being viewed as strong, emotionally if not physically. In high school, I made certain that externally I always appeared self-assured and needing nothing from anyone. But on the inside, I didn’t think too highly of myself. I was lonely and depressed. I was dying for someone to affirm me as a man.
However, it felt like the only message I heard was “be a man” when what I really needed to hear was “you are a man.” I craved for someone to gush over me about how much God loves me and how strong I am in Christ, like it seemed the girls were always getting in their “girl talks”. Unfortunately, that was rarely the case.
Instead, it seemed that everyone was telling me to just cut it out with the lust stuff already. As a result, I couldn’t imagine that God could love me all that much, and he certainly couldn’t like me at all. Each time I failed, all I felt was shame, emasculation, and depression. My entire faith became predicated on mollifying what I perceived as God’s inexorable wrath against me. Grace wasn’t a factor at all. I couldn’t even understand it.
I was completely beaten down and defeated by what I saw as my terrible moral failure. Each time a “guys-only” session came up and I still hadn’t conquered my lust, I felt more and more hopeless. It was a rare occurrence when I truly felt like who I was more important than what I did. I wondered, “If God really loves us all the same, and wants to forgive us no matter what we’ve done, shouldn’t that be spoken loudest and clearest? Why do I—and so many other guys—feel like I have to behave before God will love me?
Now I don’t want it to sound like I’m saying we should quit talking about lust, or that we should excuse it as a natural part of growing up. That’s absolutely not what I’m saying. Rather, I’m saying that we should talk about God’s love and forgiveness just as much if not more. We should go out of our way to let people know that a struggle with any sin isn’t going to stop God’s love for them, just like death, life, angels, demons, the present, the future, the powers that be, heights, depths, or anything else.
For me, it wasn’t until an adult leader from my youth group came alongside me and pulled me to my feet that I started to see hope for myself. He spent time with me and listened to me and showed me unconditional love. He reinforced grace over sin management and Jesus’ blood over my blunders.
Kids are always going to fail. You’re always going to fail. I’m always going to fail. And while sanctification should certainly be our goal, we should be screaming out that the gospel starts with love and salvation. If that’s not our primary message, then there’s a problem.
The difficulty, though, comes in balancing truth and grace. Both are absolutely imperative, but too much of each can be dangerous. An overemphasis on truth can become Puritanism, whereas an overemphasis on grace can become moral relativism. Achieving a healthy balance of each would be an act fit for a circus.
What does that mean for the subject at hand? I still believe we need to teach the truth about lust (that it’s destructive, but that it’s not the only bad thing out there), and do so in an overwhelming context of grace. Too often, I think, grace is treated as a footnote rather than the overarching theme. “Yeah, there’s grace—kind of as a back-up plan—but you really need to get your act together, dude.” Thankfully that’s not the way the gospel works.
Truth convicts and grace restores. When I was in high school, I got the truth convicts thing down perfectly. But it wasn’t until I understood grace that my faith became real and my heart began to change. That’s when I realized that the joy of the Lord is my strength, not my ability to resist temptation. That’s when it was clear to me that I was not a man because of anything I did or didn’t do, but because of what God has already done on my behalf.