In the 2008 movie Marley and Me, one particular scene will resonate with anyone who has sacrificed a part of their life for someone they love. Jenny, a woman who has left a successful career to become a stay-at-home mom, finds herself exhausted and a bit resentful at the unceasing demands of an active toddler and an infant. In a moment of shame and frustration, she offers these brutally honest words to her husband: “I got overwhelmed… Being a parent [is] the hardest thing in the world and no one prepares you for that. No one tells you how much you have to give up. I gave up so much of what makes me ‘me.’”
Most parents can relate to Jenny’s feelings. Having a child changes you in ways that are difficult to explain with mere words. There is no way you can be prepared for it, and you will give up more of what makes you “you” than you could ever imagine. At her lowest point, Jenny mourns the loss of her old self, afraid that she is losing the essence of who she is. As parents, we may not have ever been quite that affected (or maybe we have), but we understand the loss she feels, even as we understand how much more we have gained.
“If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for Me will find it.” (Matthew 16:24-25)
Losing one’s life is a tricky proposition even under the best of circumstances because most of us are quite fond of our “lives.” Our choices, our desires, and our beliefs make us who we are. Everything from our love for strawberry ice cream to our faith in God composes a messy and frequently contradictory concoction that is our “life.” As Christians and as parents, we understand giving up parts of our life in order to gain something greater. However, teens are still in the process of coming to grips with who they are. The idea of losing one’s life for Jesus when you’re not even sure what that life is can sound not only unappealing, but also downright confusing. Sure, “selling out for God” sounds good, but too often, teens mistakenly believe that losing one’s life is only about giving up “fun” things in a never-ending attempt to win God’s approval.
I held on to this idea until much longer than I care to admit. For me as a dutiful, church-going teenager, being a good Christian meant exhibiting exemplary behavior. If you did the right things, God was pleased. If you made bad choices, especially if you made them knowing that your action was “against His will” (a phrase that caused me severe anxiety for years), God would be displeased. At a point in my life when my own identity was still rather undefined, phrases like “your identity is in Christ” and “losing your life for Christ” didn’t do much to clarify what it meant to be a follower of Christ. In many ways, they muddied the waters and resulted in years of frustration and missed opportunities.
As I think back to my own uncertainty about what it meant to lose my life, I realize the extent to which I was caught up in the negative connotations of the word “lose.” It is not a word that is used very often in pleasant circumstances, as it implies pain, grief, and embarrassment. For teens whose previous experiences with loss might include situations ranging from humiliating defeat to tragic or unexpected death, it might benefit them to emphasize that loss can be both necessary and desirable. These words, from The Message, paint a much more positive picture of what it means to lose one’s life:
“Anyone who holds on to life just as it is destroys that life. But if you let it go, reckless in your love, you’ll have it forever, real and eternal.” John 12:25.
Here, the image is letting go, rather than something being taken away. To be sure, it is a loss, and we never want to imply to our kids that following Christ will always be easy, but these words show how losing one’s life can be liberating. We can release our life to Christ, reckless in our love for Him, so that we may have life eternal, real, and unimaginably better than any we could create for ourselves.
But what is our “life just as it is?” As we talk with teenagers, whether in the home or in church or other ministry situations, we should be prepared to have an answer for what it means to lose one’s life. It is not simply refusing to engage in “bad” behavior. We must emphasize to our kids that losing one’s life means “letting go” of:
- Their desire to please others rather than pleasing God. This speaks to the idea many teens have that “exemplary behavior = pleasing God.” If I’m honest in my reflections back on my teenage years, I’m uncomfortably aware that I *might* have been a bit more interested in pleasing others with my commendable actions than pleasing God. Emphasize to your child that the approval one receives from others is shallow and fleeting; God’s love and acceptance are bottomless and forever.
- Their need to be right. In the treacherous world of the high school social scene, Christian teens sometimes fall prey to a sense of moral superiority. While we as parents want to discourage our kids from participating in destructive behavior, we don’t want to encourage a judgmental attitude. Our teens may be acting out of a sincere desire to please God, but we must help them remember that we are all sinners in need of God’s forgiveness and mercy.
- Anything that interferes with their relationship with God. A number of factors can pull us away from God. We all have our weaknesses: is it a toxic friendship or a desire for material possessions? Is it an activity that may not be unhealthy in and of itself, but one that has assumed an unhealthy importance in our lives? As parents, we should reflect to our teens that any activity or thought that does not reflect God’s grace and mercy to others should be removed, not as a punishment to them, but as a means of freeing their lives for more of God’s goodness.
If we communicate to our kids that losing one’s life is not simply about giving up what makes us unique, but about releasing what separates us from a holy and loving God, we equip them with confidence to “go and make disciples” in the way God created especially for them. We demonstrate letting go, reckless in love for Christ, in order to gain a life that is immeasurably better.
Who wouldn’t want that?