Discipleship in the Teen Years

We all want our kids to experience salvation through Jesus at a young age, don’t we? We sense that the earlier they know and understand the gospel, the better. If they can grasp the penetrating love of God in a personal way, they will be spared many painful years of rebellion and grief. And so will we.

So we share the gospel with them from day one. We contextualize the truth for our little ones, reading to them from children’s storybook Bibles and singing songs about Jesus. We want them to understand, as best they can, that Jesus loves them, died for them, and has made a way for them to be close to God.

Some of them get it. Their little hearts embrace the truth and they ask Jesus to save them. We rejoice, knowing that their future is secure and that the Father holds them close.

But our job doesn’t end there.

What happens when that little heart grows into a bigger heart and questions the gospel he learned and believed as a kid? What happens when the joyful little girl who knew the love of Jesus begins to look shadowed and burdened, wondering if it all makes sense?

Both our teenagers expressed faith in Christ and his gospel at an early age. We are grateful for that and feel blessed that God drew them to himself. In our joy and relief, we have been tempted to relax, thinking our spiritual job as parents is complete. But we all know that isn’t the case. Ahead of our kids lies a long road of discipleship, and they need someone to show them the way, continuing to help them apply the gospel to the different stages of their lives.

Discipleship in the Shadows

One of our kids has lately found herself in a lonely place. We raised her on a diet of truth, but she is struggling to see how the truth she knew as a kid relates to the pain she knows now that she’s older.  She wonders whether faith in Jesus can make any real difference in her life. Or whether the whole thing falls into the category of bedtime stories and lullabies.

She’s at the point where the stories need to come true. The stories have always been true, of course, but now she needs to know them true. For real. For her.

Her struggle makes me sad. I want to fix it, erase it, or make it go away. I want to go back to the smiling days, the happy days, the days before the gray cloud moved in and settled over her soul. And our home.

There are days when I handle the shadows well. I understand her struggle and feel compassion for her. I am able, by God’s grace, to love her unconditionally and to wait patiently for the Spirit to work in her heart, to lead her back into the light. I have faith that God’s got her.

And then there are other days. Those days her struggle frustrates me. I want her to get over it, get past it, move away from it so that we can get back to living in light and joy. I take her resistance personally and think about holding her at arm’s length.

Those days I feel like I’m getting in the way.

“He didn’t let his sin hinder my progress”

Last Sunday we heard a moving testimony from guy in our church who did not, unfortunately, come to know Jesus as a child. He told us the story of how his sin took him into the wrong crowd in middle school, into drugs in high school, and eventually into a 6×9 prison cell with nothing but a metal bed and a Bible on the counter.

God came for him in that 6×9, making his word come alive in that young man’s soul. We rejoiced with him as he continued his story, showing how God rescued him and is using him to minister to other troubled teens in our city.

But the part of his story that gripped me was how he described his father. All through his years of teenage rebellion, he told how his father prayed for him. His father continued to love him, sometimes in a tough and unyielding way. His father had his own rebellious past, his own current struggles, and certainly felt an enormous amount of grief as his son repeated his past mistakes. But rather than punishing or berating, shaming or abandoning his son, this father persisted in praying for him. His son told us, “He didn’t let his sin hinder my progress.” He didn’t get in the way.

Loving Through the Shadows

As I attempt to love my daughter through her struggle, I am trying to get out of the way. I am trying not to let my sin hinder her progress. As I fluctuate between good days and bad days in regard to my flesh, I’d like to share with you with some common traps I’ve fallen into, places where my sin threatens to entangle both myself and my daughter. Maybe you can recognize these lies in your own parenting:

You’re ruining my peace. As we have transitioned from the golden years of elementary school into the turbulent waters of teen life, I have been tempted to resent the one who is disturbing the peace. I tend to blame the one struggling for threatening to take the rest of the family down with her.

You’re making me look bad. When my kids struggle spiritually, I can make it about myself. I worry that their struggle somehow tarnishes my reputation. Diminishes my ministry effectiveness. (This trap can especially ensnare those of us in vocational ministry.)

You’re my life’s work, and you’re failing. We pour ourselves into our kids, wanting more than anything for them to walk with Jesus. When they question, struggle, or even rebel, we get angry. They are not cooperating with our goals. Our life’s work seems to be in shambles.

Ugly, I know. These traps reveal some pretty nasty idols. We find ourselves no longer worshiping God, but worshiping peace or approval or our performance instead. When we give into these lies, we get in the way of what God is doing in our kids’ lives. We let our sin hinder their progress.

Get out of the way

I am learning to get out of the way. I am learning how to keep my sin from hindering my daughter’s progress. These practices help keep me out of fleshly idol-worshiping traps:

Remember the gospel. I need to hear the same gospel that she does. I need to remind myself of Jesus’ work on my behalf, and allow God’s kindness to lead me to repentance. As I confess my sin and receive God’s grace, I am able to express compassion toward my daughter and struggle with her rather than against her.

Run to Jesus. I also need to daily remind myself that my peace, approval, and significance are all found in Jesus, not in my circumstances or my performance. My relationship with Jesus is the only dependable place to find what I long for. I need to look to him to meet my needs, rather than placing that burden on my daughter.

Pray for grace. I am realizing that it’s going to take a lot of prayer to keep my sin out of the way. I need to begin each day with a plea for grace, for myself and for my daughter as we struggle together.

Don’t panic. I need to remember that the gospel is big enough for any struggle. God is faithful to hold those who belong to him close, forever. He is the one working in the heart of my child, and he will finish what he has begun.

Birth is painful. And there comes a time when the gospel needs to “re-birthed” in our kids’ hearts. They have been taught the truth early on, but at some point the truth needs to show itself big enough to grow along with them. Big enough for bigger hearts, bigger problems, bigger struggles. And here’s the good news: the truth of gospel is plenty big enough for us all, no matter what we’re facing. We just need to remind ourselves of that. And remind our kids.

So read the stories and sing the songs to your little ones, but don’t forget that one day they will grow up. And so will their problems. But don’t worry. God can handle the shadows. Walk with your kids, struggle with them, and pray for them, trusting God to work. And in the meantime, you might want to get out of the way.

Lindsay Powell Fooshee is married to John, a pastor at Redeemer Community Church and church planter with Acts 29. They are raising 3 great kids in East Tennessee. Lindsay holds an M.A. in Christian Thought from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and blogs regularly at Kitchen Stool.