The youth pastor patted me on top of the head—not with tenderness, but with a dismissive, condescending motion. Tap-tap-tap. Tap-tap-tap. “Just remember,” he said, “God causes all things to work together for good. God won’t give you anything you can’t handle.”
I wiped away the tears that had started to form and forced a smile. Walking away, I thought, “Dude, you have no idea what I’m going through. I don’t even know if there is a God anymore.”
We live in a world of instant gratification. We can have almost anything we want on demand: fast food, fast Bible lessons, fast relationships—everything comes with a money-back, feel-good, thirty-minutes-or-less guarantee.
Today’s Christianity has bought into that kind of mentality, as well. Got a broken heart? Jesus can fix it. Feel overwhelmed by sadness? Cast all your cares on him. Feeling stuck between two decisions? Just trust and obey.
What are we offering our students when we give them pat answers and tired clichés? Are we teaching them that we buy into the notion of instant pleasure and quick fixes? Are we setting them up for a life of disappointment and doubt?
The pat answers given to me throughout my lifetime—particularly those I heard during my adolescent years—almost did me in. They brought guilt and shame and a sense that I was never good enough or godly enough. I struggled constantly with these quick fixes that just didn’t work for me. I’d confess, repent, and accept Jesus into my heart—I really would. And nothing would feel different. So I’d do it again, repeatedly confessing and repenting in an attempt to feel the answers that were supposed to be there. I’d pray for hours, asking Jesus into my heart again and again. Why didn’t he fix me? Why didn’t God give me strength? What was I doing wrong?
In the end, swamped with frustration and sadness, I didn’t blame God or suddenly decide it was Jesus’ fault. I blamed myself.
One of the problems with pat answers is that they’re usually taken straight from Scripture and therefore contain some element of truth—enough truth to distort and enough truth that the pat answer seems real.
We don’t offer lies to our students—we offer half-truths. We offer the resurrection without the agony of the cross. We offer the ascension without the garden of Gethsemane. And we end up with students with half-true lives—students who won’t know how to survive the difficulties they face—students with weak faith easily uprooted by winds of disappointment and doubt.
What can you do to help ground your students? How do you get beyond pat answers? Do you even want to?
You must recognize the reality of hurting people. You must acknowledge some wounds that are so big they may make you ask, “Why, God?” and even, “God, are you there?”
One of the problems with Christians is that we feel we must constantly defend our faith so zealously that we don’t know how to let God handle the huge issues. We try to minimize our situations and lives so we don’t need a big God. Big pain requires a big God.
A million years of theology doesn’t speak to the heart like a genuine “I don’t know.” And let’s be truthful—there are some things we don’t know.
We can guess. We can come up with alliterative phrases that describe the atonement, the purpose of sin, and the meaning of redemption—but when it comes to this student in this moment in this situation, often we just don’t know. Pretending that we do leads to pat answers and dishonesty.
ALLOW FOR PROCESS
There’s a lot of pressure in the church for everyone to be okay. It’s subliminal, from upraised hands during the worship chorus to kneeled moments during the altar call, but it exists.
Many people will expect you to fix the hurting students in your ministry. After all, you’re the youth pastor. But it’s important not to rush the process. We don’t serve a God who expects us to be put together—we serve a God who suffers with us in our sufferings and weeps with us in our sorrow.
Sometimes the best words are no words at all. A lot is unsaid in those quiet, intimate moments. Much is conveyed in quiet breathing and simple sharing of space. And in that silence, you won’t damage someone’s heart. You won’t minimize that student’s pain or tell him what you think he needs to hear or what you want to say.
Just be with your student. Be with her without feeling a need to fix her. Listen to the cries of her heart. Offer them up to God.
Pat answers are dangerous: they minimize our God, and they minimize us. They turn our religion into something God never intended. And they diminish our light in the world.