The word unprecedented is, in general, a concise way of saying, “I don’t read history.” I have cautioned our church that if we think our circumstances are truly without precedent, we cut ourselves off from the wisdom of prior generations of Christians. Further, we give ourselves implicit and dangerous permission to act outside the boundaries suitable to “normal” times.
Nonetheless, it is true that recent decades—and certainly the last two years—have been disorienting, unlike anything in our own experience. Because much has changed already, we often think of the unique challenges that our young people will face now and in the future. Perhaps never before have the allurements of the age been so immediate.
I don’t wish to downplay those temptations to sin. But I think there is another significant difference between the experience of most of those reading this and the likely experience of those currently, say, school age.
I suspect that many who are reading this post grew up in Christian homes. You may well have been zealous for the things of Christ for as long as you can remember. And likely, that meant that you sometimes faced resentment from your peers. Whether you attended a public school or a Christian school, there were those who had no love for Christ and regarded those who did as worthy of their disdain.
But the nature of this disdain is important. Often, the righteous are loathed because they refuse to take part in the ordinary vices of others. Their abstinence serves to highlight the wickedness of sin, stripping it of its veneer of normality. Peter writes of this kind of contempt: “For the time that is past suffices for doing what the Gentiles want to do, living in sensuality, passions, drunkenness, orgies, drinking parties, and lawless idolatry. With respect to this they are surprised when you do not join them in the same flood of debauchery, and they malign you” (1 Peter 4:3–4).
By contrast, the young people in our churches now face a very different resistance. No longer are they resented for being “too holy”; instead, their peers consider them to be evil. The central moral tenets of our day are rooted in categories of self-expression, affirmation, and non-judgmentalism. But any serious commitment to the Christ of Scripture demands that we make distinctions. The gospel message begins with bad news: God does not accept you as you are. And you cannot do anything yourself to fix that. You need a Savior; you must be saved (a grand word that has lost too much potency from overuse).
The gospel is meaningless apart from the reality of sin and the judgment it deserves. Christians cannot embrace the notion that personal authenticity is the measure of merit. And so if affirmation is the measure of virtue, Christians are bad people.
(A word of warning: in a day when we are considered evil by the world around us, we must be exceedingly zealous to not be evil, living down to the accusations lodged against us.)
While being counted as immoral may be new to us, this accusation is not unprecedented. Our Lord has told us to expect to be maligned in this way: “Indeed, the hour is coming when whoever kills you will think he is offering service to God” (John 16:2). Or in the less-quoted beatitude from Luke’s Gospel: “Blessed are you when people hate you and when they exclude you and revile you and spurn your name as evil, on account of the Son of Man! Rejoice in that day, and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven; for so their fathers did to the prophets” (Luke 6:22–23).
As Moses did, we too must learn to bear “the reproach of Christ,” counting it “greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, . . . looking to the reward” (Hebrews 11:26).
We must be clear to our churches, and especially our young people, that this is what it will mean for them to follow Christ in this age. The burden of being considered a wicked person is a different one than the burden of being faithfully virtuous even when pressured to do evil. Equipping Christians for faithful discipleship in this age is impossible if we give false expectations of the nature of the difficulties that Christians will face.