This week the blog is sponsored by Crown & Covenant and this post is written by Pastor Rutledge “Rut” Etheridge III is assistant professor of biblical studies at Geneva College. His book, God Breathed (Crown & Covenant Publications), releases August 2019.
I like to think that I’m young, and compared to some people—and most trees—I am. But as the number to the right of the four in my age continues its cruel ascent, I’m increasingly thankful for the life-giving privilege of ministering as pastor and professor to people who actually are youthful: young adults. Or perhaps you know them as “snowflakes.”
Some older adults use that libelous label to mock the shivering souls who meltdown when life turns the slightest heat upon them. The irony is palpable when politically conservative talk show hosts bluster and storm about the snowflakes, telling us that if they hear of just ONE.MORE. MILLENNIAL.MELTDOWN, their heads will explode. Seems those radio guys are a tad touchy, too! Raw-nervedness exists in every generation. While hellish, crippling anxiety is statistically more evident among young adults, it’s not inherent to them. It’s their inheritance. It’s not a millennial way of life; it’s a cultural reckoning.
Augustine asked a profound rhetorical question, “Who has the art and power to make himself?” Pop culture demagogues in the wealthy West have piped up, “I do!” Ours is the Age of Self-Definition, in which the perennial pursuit of personal autonomy has fused more fully with a general philosophy that hails autonomy as truth itself. The “I” generation speaks of “my truth” and “my reality,” having learned a literally self-centered way of life from older, autonomy-seeking adults. We tell rising generations that they are, in essence, gods. Yet when reality refuses to bend to their personal truth, when that which they seize upon for their self-defined sense of significance slips through their grasp, these gods feel like cosmic failures. The fall from heavenly realms ends in a hard crash.
The American College Heath Association found that 44.6% of all students surveyed among American colleges felt hopeless; 56.6% felt very lonely; 49.9% felt overwhelming anxiety, and 29.5% felt so depressed that it was difficult to function.Older adults would likely be shocked at how commonly young adults discuss suicide, not as a desperate escape from an unbearably dark existence, but as a matter of course for a relatively tolerable life. For an increasing number of them, suicide isn’t “if” but simply “when.” It’s the conclusive separation which for them follows logically, inevitably, from an increasingly disconnected, isolated, lonely life. While correlation is not causation, a palpable sense of dis-integration, and the falling apart that comes with, makes perfect sense in a world built on personal truth.
The primeval ache of the human heart is to love and be loved beyond the self. But “my truth” pushes other people away into their truths and prevents togetherness based on the truth. If personal perception is all we have of life and in life, then we cannot know, and cannot love, beyond the self. Nor can we truly know, much less truly love, ourselves. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “Only those who have been placed into the truth can understand themselves in truth.” Separated from God, others, and even from ourselves, loneliness is not merely a way of life; loneliness is life. It’s no mere coincidence that the Age of Self Definition was hailed by philosophers long ago as the “Age of the Lonely Self” and “The Age of the Disappearing Other.”
Enter, then, into this loneliness the Scriptures of the triune God, who is eternally a social being; enter the words that tell us of Immanuel, “God with us.” Enter into the dogmatics of self-definition the absolute truth of the great “I AM.” Because self-definition can only come from self-existence, we can only find true fullness and freedom in the one who answers the cry of the eternity he inscribed upon our hearts. Enter into a culture of personal truth and meaningless significance the one who is the truth—the reality—of full humanness in full fellowship with our Maker. Enter into a culture of suicide the one who is the resurrection and the life. The stats show an alarming crisis; the Scriptures proclaim an Almighty Christ.
I love serving young adults in the Savior’s name. I loathe the way they’re slandered and stereotyped. I harbor no illusions that time with them can keep me youngish, but it is the thrill of a mid-lifetime to see truly young, profoundly restless hearts renounce the separation-inducing slavery of self-definition for the togetherness-fostering freedom of self-denial. What a time in which to speak the written Word. What a day to minister the mercy of the incarnate Word. In the loving light and warm embrace of God’s son, hearts young and old don’t melt down; they just melt. As Augustine famously prayed, “Our hearts are restless, O Lord, until they find their rest in you.”