It doesn’t take much insight or cultural awareness to realize that we need to be concerned about the culture in which our children are growing. The philosophies of materialism, autonomy, entitlement, and hedonism beckon them at every turn. The popular media is able to beam these philosophies into our homes by means of powerful drama, engaging comedy, visually frenetic music videos and 30-second attention-commanding commercials. All of this is to say that our children are being powerfully influenced, and the view of life being propagated is decidedly unbiblical. We need to be actively engaging our children with the life-transforming truths that will expose the counterfeits for what they are. These truths must be packaged in a way that is understandable to the average young person.
One of the places where our culture has most obviously exchanged the truth of God for a lie is in the area sexuality. This lie is being peddled to our children incesstantly, from the teen magazines that portray a distorted sexuality to the overtly sexual images of MTV music videos. How important it is for us to be in the battle! To do that we must prepare ourselves by thinking in a genuinely Biblical fashion about teenagers and sexuality. That is the purpose of this article. My goal is not to do an exhaustive critique of sexuality in Western culture, but to lay out a biblical conceptual base and to suggest practical strategies for discipling teenagers in this area. I will start by examining the culture and the church, move next to a biblical view of teenagers, then to a biblical model of sexuality, and finally to practical strategies for dealing with our teenagers in this area.
THE STATE OF THE CULTURE: INSTITUTIONALIZING SEXUAL IDOLATRY
The presence of overt sexual expression in our culture should not surprise us since it is rooted in a view of life that has “exchanged the worship and service of the Creator for the worship and service of the created thing.” The view of life from which modern sexual expression emerges holds these “truths” to be self-evident:
1. That people are ultimate and autonomous. That is, there is nothing more important than the individual; I am self-sustaining and free from any authority I do not choose to follow.
2. That the highest of human values and experiences is personal satisfaction and pleasure. I am entitled to my share of pleasure and comfort.
3. That I must be constantly vigilant that my “needs” will be met.
4. That the most important of loves is the love of self. Without this I will be unable to function.
5. That bigger pleasure is better — a constant desire for greater, more effective stimulation.
6. That what is important is the here and now, leading to a constant pursuit of instant gratification.
7. That the physical person is more important than the spiritual person, leading to an inordinate body focus.
In a culture that looks at people as ultimate, God as absent, and pleasure as the highest experience, it is no wonder that sexuality becomes such a dominant force. It provides a powerful pathway to instant physical pleasure. It provides false worship (counterfeiting the first great command) and false relationship (counterfeiting the second great command). We must realize that our culture will never provide a balanced view of sexuality to our children if it does not also abandon its roots in a philosophy that leaves God out and makes human satisfaction its single focus. Each institution in our culture is infected with a distorted view of human sexuality. It can be seen in marriage, at school, in government, in commerce, and in entertainment. This being so, our children need us to be radically active in countering it.
THE STATE OF THE CHURCH: GIVING MIXED MESSAGES TO OUR TEENS
It is important to recognize the ambivalence of the church when it comes to sex. We need to acknowledge how this ambivalence has affected our teenagers.
As Christians, we say that sex is a gift from God, yet we are strangely silent on the topic and uncomfortable in the rare instances when it is discussed. We treat this area in a way that is uniquely different from other important areas of life. This leads to a lack of sexual balance, a lack of openness, and a lack of clear. practical sexual education. Sex tends, in other words, to get placed outside the boundaries of the normative Christian world view.
From the vantage point of the typical teenager (who doesn’t consider the underlying issues or give the benefit of the doubt). Christianity appears to be “sex-negative.” The church has been perceived as viewing human sexuality as less than good for a long time, and it is surely the perception of many teens in and around the church today. I can remember taking my nine-and eleven-year-old sons out for pizza with the purpose of talking about sex. After we ordered I opened up the subject, took out a pen and began drawing on a napkin. At first my sons were surprised that I was willing to talk with such openness. Then they figured that if I was not reticent to talk with them about sex, they should not be either. My goal was to treat this area in the same way I had treated other areas — as an important piece of the Christian world and life view that I was seeking to instill in them. I had every reason to discuss the subject and no reason to be embarrassed or silent.
If the church unwittingly implies that it is “sex negative,” it loses its authority in the teenager’s life as an available and reliable resource for understanding, guiding, or correcting his or her sexual life. Teens won’t (and often don’t) come to the Christian community with their sexual questions, fears, and experiences.
Why are we as Christians so ambivalent about this area? Why do we tend to give confusing signals to our teens? It seems that this ambivalence is rooted in three biblical misunderstandings. As long as these distortions are present in the evangelical church, we will fail our teens in our role as God’s agents to develop sexual godliness in them. These three misunderstandings will be discussed in this article:
1. The church has tended to have an unbiblical view of sexuality as less than good and godly.
2. We have tended to have an unbiblical view of sin as behavioral and physical rather than a matter of the heart.
3. We have tended to have an unbiblical view of teenagers; seeing teen choice as biologically determined.
If our ambivalence has implied to our teens that the church is sex-negative, what options are left for them? (1) They can attempt to live with the church’s embarrassed silence and cope with their questions, interests, and experiences alone. This is not a workable option. (2) The teens are left thinking that Christians do not have sexual questions or problems and tions or problems and begin to question their own relationship with the Lord when they do. Do we really want our teens to think that sexual temptation and sin are not part of the· Christian’s normal struggle? (3) Finally, teens can go where information is readily available and open discussion the norm—that is, the world. Here they will be able to ask questions and get answers, no matter how regrettable they may be.
We cannot live with the ambivalence of the church. We cannot allow the world to be the primary source of guidance for our teens in this or any other area. The Christian community, from the home to the organized church, must be prepared to act, to educate, to guide, and to restore. This article will layout a practical agenda for dealing with teens in the area of sex. My hope is that it will serve as a guide to all who are involved in teaching, parenting, counseling, and restoring our teenagers.
A BIBLICAL VIEW OF TEENAGERS
One of the major reasons the church has not been more active in dealing with our teens in this area is that we have bought into an unbiblical view of adolescence. It is not hard to figure out what most parents expect of a child this age. I heard it recently at a conference. “We just have to expect our teenagers to be rebellious; all of us were. We just need to ride it out,” a father said. His wife chimed in, “You can’t argue with hormones!” Those two comments give us the current view of most Christian parents as they view the teenage years. The question is: Is this a biblical view of this period of life?
Too often, when it comes to teenagers, we have bought into a biological model of behavior, more talk about our teenagers as collections of raging rebel hormones encased in developing skin. and we see our goal as somehow chaining those hormones long enough so that we can survive until they reach age twenty. It’s a survival mentality that exposes the poverty of this view. Many parents who talk to me about their teens talk without hope because they see them as victims of hormones that drive them to do crazy things. It is implied that for this age span Scripture doesn’t work, the gospel doesn’t work, talking doesn’t work (i.e., “You can’t talk to hormones!”). But we cannot be satisfied with this view of teenagers. As in all other areas of life, we need a view that is distinctly biblical.
In 2 Timothy 2:22, Paul exhorts Timothy to “flee the evil desires [lusts] of youth.” This interesting phrase speaks to the way we view teenagers and the way we define the teen years. First, notice that the Bible is not naive about this time of life. There are lusts that uniquely plague youth, temptations that are particularly powerful. These need to be faced. Scripture is enjoining us to be strategic, to ask the question. “What are the evil desires that grip a person during this phase of life?”
Another thing to be drawn from Paul’s qualifier, “youthful” is that each phase of life has its own set of temptations. The temptations of the young man and the old man are not identical. Paul is reminding Timothy to be aware of who he is and where the pockets of temptation exist around him.
Another thing that can be drawn from this phrase is that teenagers have not been singled out for particular sacrifice and suffering. Each person at each time in his life, if he seeks to please the Lord, must watch, pray, stand fast, and fight lest he fall into temptation. The young person is called to run from the evil desires of youth, while the older person is called to guard against the temptations unique to age. Each person must accept each stage of warfare in the normal Christian life.
When seeking to understand the tempting desires of youth, look at the book of Proverbs. In the first seven chapters, a father addresses his son, detailing what it means to live wisely and foolishly. It is a father warning his son about the particular temptations of his youth. This portion of Scripture has particular areas of focus and helps us establish a genuinely biblical model of our teenagers’ struggles in contrast to current, popular, biological model. Several characteristics of young people emerge from these chapters.
1. Teenagers don’t tend to value wisdom. My teenagers don’t run to me at the end of their school day and say, “Boy, Dad, I’ve been thinking about it today, and I realize that I have an abject lack of wisdom. I would love to sit at your feet and glean the wisdom you have received from your years of Scripture study and walking with the Lord.” Most of us would be shocked if such a thing happened!
Teenagers tend to be closed. They tend to be defensive. Teenagers don’t tend to love correction or long for wisdom and understanding. Teenagers tend to be much more externally focused, more concerned about physical things than spiritual things. So the father in Proverbs says to his son many times and in many ways, “Get wisdom!”
2. Young people tend to be unwise in their choice of companions. What parent hasn’t winced as their teenager has brought home their latest, greatest friend who looks like a prison escapee! The parent struggles to be polite while thinking, “I don’t want you to ever see this person again!”
Teenagers don’t tend to make mature evaluations of their relationships. They tend to be unwise in choosing those who have influence in their lives. And they tend to get easily hurt if you criticize their friends. Again, the early chapters of Proverbs emphasize the impact of relationships on who you are, what you think, and what you do.
3. Teenagers don’t tend to focus on the heart. In the middle of this section of Proverbs the author says, “Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life” (4:23). He is telling his son that the heart needs to be the focus of his concern, yet it is the very thing that teenagers most easily ignore.
Teenagers tend to be experts in instant gratification, not longterm outcomes. As a father, I want to make my children aware of the issues of their hearts. That is not what my children are interested in naturally. As sinners, they tend to bring a natural legalism to our relationship. They want to know what the rule is and how close they can get to the boundaries without getting in trouble. They want to know what will happen if they actually cross the boundaries. Their view of God’s law is the exact opposite of what Christ expressed in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:17–48). Teenagers tend to focus on the letter of the law and not the spirit. If we are unaware of this and ignore the heart that lies beneath the behavior, we may be encouraging the kind of Pharisaism that Christ is confronting in His sermon. We may be raising children who “honor God with their lips, but their hearts are far from Him.”
4. Young people don’t tend to have an eschatological per an eschatological perspective. I have never had one of my teenagers come to me and say,“You know, Dad, I was really faced with temptation today; but I looked at the temptation in the light of eternity, and I thought, Dad, that the ‘suffering of this present moment’….” The view of life that brings godly responsibility to one’s sexuality is rooted in eternity, but for the teenager eternity is distant and irrelevant. Teenagers tend to be experts in instant gratification, not long-term outcomes. Their perspective is most often dominated by the moment, with few looks to the future. Thus, this first section of Proverbs uses many eschatological metaphors like harvesting, inheriting, paths, and the “ends” of things. The message of the father to his son is, “Remember, Son, this is not all there is. Live for the future; do not let the desires of the moment trick you into forgetting what is to come. The seeds you plant now you will harvest later.”
5. Teenagers tend to be uniquely susceptible to sexual temptation. No issue gets more attention in this Scripture portion than this one. There is warning after warning to guard against sexual sin. Proverbs 5 and 7 are entirely dedicated to this issue. Any parent knows that there is an explosion of awareness and interest in sexuality during the teen years. Suddenly our children realize that it is significant that there are two sexes. They see and feel things that they never have before. They have come alive to an important dimension of human life, yet often without the maturity to deal with it in a self-controlled and godly fashion.
To summarize, it is important when dealing with our teenagers about sexuality to remember who they are. We do not want to buy into the biological hopelessness of our culture. At the same time, we do not want to be naive about the real struggles of this time of life. The five characteristics noted above contextualize the teenager’s struggle with sexuality for us. They remind us of what the teenager brings to moments of sexual temptation and personal sexual desire. They show us how the world tends to look from a young person’s vantage point, giving us a sense of the issues we need to deal with as we seek to help them. Each characteristic shapes the way a teenager thinks and acts in this important area of life.
Honestly examining each of these characteristics should remind us not of how utterly different teenagers are but of how much they are like us. Each of us can relate to being blind to issues of the heart, to living for the moment, to rejecting wisdom and correction. In their purest form, these are issues of the fallen nature, not just issues of a particular phase of life. At that level we can humbly bring the hope of the gospel to our teenagers instead of the harsh judgment that comes when we forget who we are.
(To be continued)
Paul Tripp is Academic Dean at Christian Counseling and Educational Foundation, 1803 East Willow Grove Avenue, Glenside, Pennsylvania 19038; telephone (215) 884-7676;fax (215) 884-9435; e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
This article is reprinted with permission from the Spring 1995 issue of The Journal of Biblical Counseling.