“And what would you like to be when you grow up?” the first grader was asked.
“Well, little one, you can be whatever you put your mind to.”
Is that really true? The last time I checked I am not able to transfigure myself, make myself taller, or give myself any special abilities. Even more, try as I might, I cannot seem to change the very basics of my personality. I am a strong leader with an indecisive bent. I am a sensitive lover with an Irish temper. I am ambitious with a need for safety and security. How do I become someone else?
We all know the answer to this. We don’t. As a matter of fact, I don’t believe we were intended to either. Scripture tells us that we are “fearfully and wonderfully made.” (Psalm 139:14 NIV) Of course that doesn’t mean that God was afraid He’d break us when He made us; nor does it mean that He was afraid we’d break the world. The fear is referring to a very careful, very intentional creative process. His eyes were squinted and His brows were furrowed as He knit each one of us together in our mother’s womb (Psalm 139:13). And what He knit together wasn’t just good – it was wonderful – and it was you, and it was me.
The narrative that undergirds our young people is not one that gives them more freedom, but rather more anxiety. Depression, anxiety and bi-polar medications are going out the door like Tylenol once did. Suicide rates are at an all-time high, and the age keeps dropping. This narrative has been promoted by Disney for years and our homes, school systems and even churches have all bought into it. Be what you want and don’t let anyone tell you it’s not right, best or possible. I mean, a bunny rabbit arresting a lion… really?
What has happened is this. Little Eden wants to be a famous singer one day, but the poor girl can’t sing. To keep in step with the narrative, her parents, teachers, and even her pastors keep telling her what a beautiful voice she has and how she should “improve” it with some lessons. Sadly, we all know Eden can’t sing. That’s why everyone has a love/hate relationship with Simon Cowell. He says what we all know to be true but have been taught not to say. Meanwhile, poor Eden is getting more and more frustrated because she just can’t land a gig! Eventually that leads to depression because she feels like a failure, which leads to bitterness because the world just doesn’t understand, which leads to another all-too-young obituary.
I know, that’s a little heavy. How about Little Jude? Jude just wants to be a boxer. The only problem is that Jude is only a little guy and he hates getting punched. Not only that, but he is too soft and sweet to want to fight anyone. Or how about Olivia? She wants to be a chemist someday. Unfortunately Olivia cannot do math. I mean… cannot do math. So, to help her achieve her goals, her parents get her the best help available. She has tutors, private classes, and even one-on-one aids in her class to help her get better at what her brain just doesn’t seem to want to do. The result? Not only does Olivia never gets into the program she wants to because she cannot do the math on her own at the level required, but she spent all those years as the “special kid” who needed all the extra help to become something she was not created to be – good at math. And who does she have to blame?
As a last example, let’s take Lorna. Lorna was told that she has to make a good income to be happy. To do so, of course, she needs a college degree. So Lorna chooses the degree she thinks will set her up for the most money in the end. She graduates Magna Cum Laude, but there are simply no jobs in her market. Lorna leaves friends and family in search of a job to pay the debts she accumulated getting the degree she needed for the job that doesn’t exist. She is now living away from home, not doing what she set out to do, nor what she wants to do, all to make a check that barely covers her debts, let alone allows her to enjoy her life.
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What a sad narrative. When will we wake up to see that God has made each of us on purpose, for a purpose? And the purpose is simple – to enjoy Him. What if Eden, Jude, Olivia and Lorna were all told from the very beginning, “Follow what you are good at, what you enjoy, and what allows you to love God and your neighbor (including friends, family, co-workers, etc.).” What if each of them was simply encouraged in what they excelled at and lovingly told the truth about their whims? What if each of them was told that a college degree and six-figure salary will not make them happy, but a life of contentment with Christ surely will? The end of each story would change.
“Godliness with contentment is great gain.” (1 Timothy 6:6 NIV) Don’t believe it? Consider the man who wrote those words. Paul wrote of himself, “I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.” (Philippians 4:12 NIV) To an American, comfort is the meaning of life. In comfort we will find fullness. Perhaps full stomachs and waist lines, but not full lives. Paul was filled to the brim, yet, read what his life was like, “… I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches.” (2 Corinthians 11:23-28 NIV) To an American, Paul had nothing. He lived a third-world life with first world stress. But, of this type of life, here is what he said, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” (Philippians 4:13 NIV) This was Paul’s secret. Learning to be content had nothing to do with circumstance and everything to do with Christ.
True fulfillment, true contentment, does not come through a degree or a salary. It does not come through possessions or positions. It does not come through fame or martyrdom. It does not come through anything, but only through One Person, the God-man Jesus Christ. Jesus Himself said, “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” (John 10:10 NIV)
So what does all of that have to do with a kid wanting to be a lion when he grows up? Good question. Everything. The end goal for every human being is to know God and be made like Him. The recipe for contentment and a fulfilling life is always the same – Jesus. It begins with an introduction to Him. From the very beginning our children need to know Who Jesus is, why Jesus came, and what that has to do with them. They need to know of His infinite love for them, proved on the cross. His definite plan for them, modeled in His life. And His ultimate destination for them, displayed in the resurrection.
If our children can truly grasp the first question in the New City Catechism and say that it is true of their own life, they will live the most fulfilling lives possible. “What is our only hope in life and death? That we are not our own but belong to God.” Do you want to know something? My three year old already has this memorized. The rest of her life, for me, is about helping those words make their way into her heart and life. Everything else is trivial.
For two great resources on this topic see:
Don’t Waste Your Life by John Piper and Ordinary by Michael Horton
Shaun McDonald serves as the Youth Pastor at Open Arms Church in Schenectady, NY. He’s been in youth ministry since 2004, and has been serving on staff with Open Arms since 2008. Shaun received his AAS in Pastoral Ministry from Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary, his BS in Religion from Liberty University, and is currently pursuing his MA in Youth and Family Ministry at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Shaun and his wife Christine live in upstate NY with their three children.