I fear the worst has happened.
You are losing heart, may have already lost it altogether.
No more terrible loss can be suffered. For once we lose heart, everything else follows—our ability to live and love, to find joy and happiness. Without a rich life of the heart, we cannot sustain friendship or meaning or purpose or any of the things we once enjoyed. But the loss happens subtly, over time, like cancer—so that only when we are emaciated do we begin to realize what’s happened.
I believe this loss of heart, now sweeping an entire generation, is deeply linked to some core beliefs that have crept in. I call them “agreements” because they are ideas which have secured a deep agreement in your heart without you really stopping to consider the implications. We all breathe a cultural air; the assumptions we absorb are the very things that seem to us to need no explanation.
Which is good news, actually, because it means you can fight your way out; you can get your hope and your heart back.
Agreement Number 1: Doubt Is One of the Highest Virtues
You may find this statement overstated; but that is actually helpful to you. If the exposure of an agreement isn’t at first startling, we probably haven’t gotten to the core issue.
Your generation has many beautiful qualities, among them an openness to the views and opinions of others and a strong defiance of authoritarianism—especially religious authoritarianism. On a daily basis you and your peers are subjected to yet another exposé of some respected figure, policy, or organization who, it turns out, has been lying to the public for some time. Too much of this and suspicion becomes a mode of survival. Who do you trust anymore? Certainly not the banks or government, not political leaders or church denominations or even the universities.
And so doubt has become a virtue, a means of rejecting intolerance and oppression. Doubt is your millennial membership card; suspicion is your posture towards everything. Harold Bloom saw this coming when he wrote The Closing of the American Mind:
Openness—and the relativism that makes it the only plausible stance in the face of various claims to truth and various ways of life and kinds of human beings—is the great insight of our times. The true believer is the real danger. The study of history and of culture teaches that all the world was mad in the past; men always thought they were right, and that led to wars, persecutions, slavery, xenophobia, racism and chauvinism. The point is not to correct the mistakes and really be right; rather it is not to think you are right at all.
Laid-back relativism is a moral requisite for millennials. Do not dare to think you are right.
But the danger in making that agreement is that your capacity to believe—one of God’s greatest gifts to you—is being eroded hour by hour, and when you cannot hold fast to strong belief, your life is cast adrift on an ebbing tide of meaninglessness. If you feel the true believer is the real danger, then nothing really matters, because we can’t trust anything. The tragedy is, you cannot live with faith, hope, and love when you abandon belief.
Jesus understands doubt; he has mercy for it. But he never, ever leaves a person stuck there. He certainly doesn’t praise it. “Stop doubting and believe,” was his position.
The erosion of your capacity to believe is something to be fought tooth and nail, fought with every ounce of your being, as if your life depended on it. For it does.
Agreement Number 2: Offense Is the Worst
You were nursed almost exclusively on the milk of Tolerance; it is one of your highest values and the last Absolute Truth. I say this with compassion. I think Agreement 1 snuck in through the door of the very legitimate desire to avoid blind dogmatism. Agreement 2 has crept in through the door of wanting to be seen as a kind and accepting person. But the minefield of social sensitivities you must currently navigate has become psychotic, labyrinthine. Make no slight against whatever gender angle someone might be, or their politics, certainly never against people of color—though at any given moment in this shifting sea you have no idea what the offense of the day might be. You have to become a contortionist in order to find the posture every possible people group, party, faith, or unbelief will find kind and accepting.
It is like playing a game of Twister with an octopus; the octopus will always win.
This agreement is particularly seductive for Christians, who in this age of hatred want very much to represent Christ as a gracious and accepting person. And so we at first hide, then slowly surrender convictions that might put us at odds with the Culture of Tolerance Above All Else.
But, good-hearted millennial, even if you surrender every conviction, you cannot possibly avoid offense in this hour. You live in the culture that prizes and rewards victimhood; this is the culture of the Offended Self. “Do not offend” is not only a weak personal ethic, it is impossible to live out. Tolerance is simply not a strong enough virtue to build your life on. By all means love. Love is the highest call. Love is the measuring rod of all other things. But of course, Scripture urges us to speak the truth in love—not abandon the truth in order to love.
Suddenly we find ourselves faced with a choice between saying nothing, so as not to offend, and the higher call of speaking truthfully in order to love.
Jesus, who in most circles is still regarded as a loving man, passed on to his followers something awkward indeed—the offense of the Cross. But having made Agreements 1 and 2, it is understandable that Number 3 is all that you have left.
Agreement Number 3: Justice Is the Best Expression of the Gospel
Not only has yours been the first generation raised on the media of exposé (thus your suspicion of everything), you have also had the heartache of the world set before you like no previous generation. Ever. Tragedy, violence, and oppression from every remote corner of the globe is delivered to you, daily, moment by moment, on your phones. In a beautiful response, your generation has risen to champion the suffering of people groups and causes your parents never imagined.
Witness how deeply this has taken hold: if you are not up-to-date on every issue of injustice from the latest corporate scam to the plight of hidden people groups, you feel a little embarrassed. For the good millennial must know and care about everything. “Really—you didn’t know that the chocolate you are eating promotes slavery?” “You didn’t know the shoes you wear are made by a company that dumps toxic waste into Chinese rivers?” “I only wear clothing made from organic cotton by women rescued from trafficking.” To be ignorant on any point of justice is a kind of moral failure.
Compassion fatigue is inevitable. The burnout rate of those serving on the front lines of justice causes is catastrophic. What does this tell us?
Your soul is finite; you simply cannot care about an infinite number of causes. You cannot know about so much suffering without it actually doing harm. In fact, there is evidence that to be exposed to so much trauma is in itself traumatizing. So—doesn’t justice then require that you end the trauma you are being subjected to by regulating how much trauma-news you take in? The game of Twister I mentioned above has become dangerous and complex.
A second weakness of the Justice Gospel is that helping is not always helpful.
Did you know a majority of women rescued from the sex trade return to the industry of their own choosing? The reason being, unless you heal the human soul of the ravages of trauma and release it from the darkness that enters into those fractures, you will not in fact rescue those women. Justice is needed, but justice is woefully insufficient to heal humanity. Which leads us to the deepest, most entangled, and emotionally volatile weakness of the Justice Gospel…
The simple, alarming fact is that the primary mission of Jesus Christ is not social justice; it is to save mankind from their sin. The brilliance of this approach can be seen in the fact that the global sex trade would collapse in one month if every man and woman purchasing sex had a change of heart. The trade will not cease so long as depraved humanity provides a robust market for it. This change of heart, this internal moral revolution Scripture calls repentance—this is the core of the Gospel.
Given her wealth and influence, Oprah will do far more for the justice movement than you or your church ever will. But you have something Oprah does not apparently offer the world: you have Jesus Christ, and him crucified. So, is telling the world about Christ crucified central to your work? Even your motives? Alas—having become entangled in Agreement Number 2, many millennials are paralyzed here. “Can’t we just do good and let that be our witness?” What distinguishes your work from the secular NGOs doing the same?
Let’s be honest: the attraction of the justice movement is that it allows people to demonstrate their good will without having to enter into that difficult task—so well-known to the prophets, the apostles and Christ himself—of telling the world that much of what it believes and how it behaves is flat wrong.
But of course, in our world, telling someone they are wrong is now considered an injustice. Which puts you in a terrible bind.
Friends, the world is a heroin addict committing crimes to feed its habit. It doesn’t just need compassion—it needs intervention. It needs to be courageously told to sober up. Yes, it needs help doing so; but it also needs to be called out, held accountable, confronted. I know, I know—we are going to be criticized for even saying this. “We are winning a hearing for the Gospel because we are involved in Justice!” I think that can be a legitimate strategy. My only question is, “Do you speak the Gospel of repentance of sins as clearly and as frequently as you provide other services?”
I believe justice is a fruit of something deeper, larger, grander. I believe it is an outcome of the kingdom of God advancing on the earth. If that’s true, if that is a far more coherent and sustainable strategy, then wouldn’t helping people learn to live under the influence of Jesus and his kingdom be our number one priority?
Agreement Number 4: Gender Is a Construct
This is where the debate currently rages regarding our view of human beings and the design God has for their happiness.
But sadly, this subject is so volatile and reactionary, so filled with accusation and vilification, that reasonable conversation has become impossible. (The octopus in your social game of Twister is now wielding poison daggers in all eight tentacles.)
I will therefore only point out something I feel to be helpful to the person wanting to take the teachings of Jesus Christ seriously: Jesus believed humanity has a design to it. He said we are made in the image of God—a truth that would do wonders for the cause of Justice if the world embraced it.
He also believed that gender was part of the created order, teaching that we were made “male and female” (Matthew 19:4). Now, whatever else that implies, Jesus clearly felt that gender is something woven into our created being, not a thing of our own making.
The starting point is this: human nature is something designed by God, and only by finding his design can we flourish. Once you abandon this, you will find you need to distance yourselves from Scripture as a whole, or rewrite it or reinterpret it in ways that are compatible with the current cultural milieu.
You can do that, of course. I simply want to point out that once you abandon the reliability of the Gospel witness of Jesus Christ and abandon with it the high view of Scripture Jesus clearly built his whole teaching on, you will no longer have anything resembling Christianity or Christ.
Agreement Number 5: There Is Nothing Epic About My Story
Yours also was the education shaped by “deconstruction,” now a marginal philosophy. But it did its damage, like a high-speed automobile accident. Sure—it’s over, but you are now missing a limb. The general impression of your peers is that no story really has any claim over any other (thus Agreements 1,2,3, and 4).
Simply notice how much you need to couch your opinions in any social setting: “But that’s just how I see it…I feel that for myself...In my own personal journey….” Not only that, anyone who steps forward with what they claim to be The Story explaining all stories is the very person every millennial in the room moves away from. Don’t want to be seen with them.
The reason I saved this for last is because the deadliest agreements are those which open the elevator shaft to the abyss of meaninglessness.
You can try to keep up with the yoga contortions of social sensitivity; you can stand for justice though your own heart drowns under the accumulated grief of the world; you can remain silent on human design. But when you come to believe that your life has no real purpose or grand design, what else follows but depression, then despair? Why else has suicide become the second leading cause of death among millennials?
And here is the tragic irony—only the epic worldview will explain your life and the world to you; only the epic worldview will see you through it. Only the strong belief (there goes Agreement 1) that you are an essential part of a beautiful and powerful Story will provide you with the bearing you need to navigate the world. Do you think it coincidence that in this very moment of unbelief and laid-back relativism, we’ve seen the resurgence of the bazillion superhero movies and the Star Wars canon? The world is aching for epic meaning.
We live in a moment in time when everything, absolutely everything, is either at stake (see Agreements 1-4) or already lost. Truth is lost. Beauty is lost. Goodness is lost. Humanity is lost. How much more epic do you want?
Small little life with some self-constructed meaning is not going to cut it, dear ones.
Your coffee-roasting, beanie-wearing, socially aware buddy is not going to save himself from a massive loss of heart.
God bless the heart—it refuses to be neglected or cowed before false gods. It rebels. It cries out in the form of anxiety and aimlessness; it protests in the form of hopelessness, depression, anger, and despair. We would do well to listen.
If any of these agreements have rung true for you, if you find that you have made even the smallest concession to them, the first matter of business is to renounce them. Kick them out of your heart and life. Reject their every attempt to rule or return. Embrace the opposite. It will not merely save your psyche; it will allow you to get your heart back. And with it, everything that makes a life worth living.