Wow! The “Saddest Letter” post provoked a lot of interesting discussion! Since I received it a week ago, I too have been pondering my response, and in many ways, those who commented touched on many of the things that have been on my heart. For reasons of length and direction, I think my response will break down into three posts. The first will be a general response to the broader issues. The second, a response to parents and spiritual authorities. The third, a personal response to the young lady who wrote the letter, and to her generation.
As a side note, let me first say, the letter is real. A few people have expressed doubt that perhaps I wrote the letter. I don’t operate that way. I wouldn’t deliberately post a lie on this blog. If I was writing fiction for the sake of illustration, I would just say so. The young lady who wrote the letter gave us her cell phone and we contacted her personally about using her letter. It jolted me as much as it did you.
So on with my general response. I want to draw a few key and critical points from a big picture perspective:
1. The letter and the problems articulated are not about finding blame. I did not read a spirit of blame in this letter, so much as a sincere and honest cry for help. She acknowledged imbalances that she experienced growing up, sensed that others experience the same, and simply asked that someone try to address these imbalances. Nobody grows up in a perfect home, and yes everybody is ultimately responsible for making their own spiritual choices—but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t address these patterns of imbalance that are prevalent in many homes.
2. The problems described in her letter are universal—they are present in every group, not just one or two. This is not a set of problems that flow from a certain type of church or home. They are foundational problems that could be present in any home. Neglectful parents, fragmented families, and bitter children are the norm for our culture and society. It’s impossible to point at any particular brand of Christianity and say, “That’s the source!”
3. There truly are some fantastic resources for parents and families that address the very problems this young lady described. And I believe there is a growing generation of parents (one which this young lady will probably soon be a part of) that desperately want to fight these problems biblically and with godly compassion. The two books that come to mind that every parents should read multiple times are both written by Tedd Tripp—Shepherding a Child’s Heart and Instructing a Child’s Heart. These books excellently detail a biblical approach to parenting that will resolve the problems described in the letter.
4. Rules are not the problem, lack of relationship is the problem. (I’m talking about biblical, well principled rules.) I’ve often seen families and teens toss aside all “rules” under the guise of “legalism”—a word often misused and misunderstood. Tossing rules aside doesn’t help. But I agree strongly that the presence of rules without a strong relationship simply breeds rebellion. Any strong relationship will have boundaries. It’s that simple. My marriage, to be strong, must have boundaries. The boundaries are not standards of legalism, they are merely rules of conduct that protect the relationship. If I love the relationship—the person—there are certain things I will do and will not do—if only to PLEASE the other person. Such is our relationship with God. The behavior, the “faith in action,” along with the rules, should flow from a heart that is deeply in love and close to Him. Loving Him is the only real and lasting motivation for living a godly lifestyle. And the Bible is very clear about God’s desire for us to live godly lives—holy, distinct, separated from the world. But those “rules” or “standards” or “boundaries” are designed not to create mere performance or outward appearance, they are to flow from and facilitate a continued strong personal relationship with the Lord.
I recently taught our senior high an entire lesson on this entitled “Avoiding the Trap of Impersonal Christianity”—the point being that God would rather us put away all of our religiosity if our hearts are far from Him. He desires our hearts first, and then our lifestyle to reflect that heart. In practicality, my own children don’t have a problem with my rules as long as my heart is closely knit to theirs and as long as I am directing their hearts to the Lord. (This lesson will probably post soon on our SM127 podcast on iTunes.)
5. Everybody writes from their own paradigm. I noticed in the comments we all had pretty strong opinions about various aspects of her letter. Some are of the opinion that every church (of a certain type) is this way, or most families (of certain affiliations) are this way. It’s impossible to throw that large of a blanket over Christendom or any one segment of Christianity. For instance, I grew up in several churches. One was well balanced in these matters and trained my parents and me to put relationships first. We did, and as a new Christian family we were greatly helped. One church was exactly the opposite—total surface, appearance driven, and very political in nature. Everything was about externals—if you looked good and conformed well, that’s all that mattered. The vast majority of young people from that church have wandered away from God in their adult years, many into very deep sin. My present church is the one I have served in for 21 years.
Philosophically, we have done our best to be balanced and biblically focused on relationships, but also keep the restraint right by setting the right boundaries. I’m sure we have failed at times. But, we have seen, on average, about 80% of our young people stay faithful to God into their adult years. That’s not good enough, but we are doing our best to fight the battle biblically. Point being, don’t allow your narrow paradigm to cause you to paint with a broad brush over any one segment of Christianity. For instance, if everybody you know is doing it wrong, that doesn’t represent the whole.
6. There are a lot of churches and homes doing it right. Through our teen-parent meetings, family counseling, and fellowship at Lancaster Baptist, it has been my joy to get to know hundreds, perhaps thousands, of parents and families over the years. In addition to this, I’ve been exposed to hundreds of churches and pastors through our ministry, and I want to say, there are a lot of people—pastors, parents, youth pastors—who understand this problem, grew up with this problem, and are fighting to break out of and avoid this trend. Some are those who grew up like the young lady who wrote the letter. Others simply came through ministries where they experienced the imbalance. Others grow up with a good model and are perpetuating it. And yet others are simply godly people who have a very biblical focus in life. But I am encouraged with what I see in Bible-believing churches with whom I fellowship. I am encouraged with the families that I see at Lancaster Baptist and the parents who are diligently attempting to get it right.
7. Kids who grow up in the best of environments can still grow up and choose sin, reject God, and experience deep problems. I guess the ultimate proof of this is that people will choose to reject Christ at the end of the millennial reign! Imagine growing up in the millennial reign of Jesus Christ in the perfect world. Even then, Satan will be able to deceive many and mount an army against Christ. At some point it becomes, not a matter of how I grew up, but where I will decide to go in the future and how I will respond to my past.
8. Finally, the problems revealed in the letter are generational in nature. We’re not dealing with new problems. For the most part, today’s neglectful and disconnected parents are children of the same, and often their grandparents are too. Satan has been hard at work on the American family for many generations. It’s been a long time since healthy families were the norm. It’s been a long time since many people have seen a good model of family life—especially a biblical one.
For instance, just last week I had an appointment with a father who has never talked to his teenage son about sexual matters—this is true of most fathers (and grandfathers). He was asking for help in how to do so. He said his father had never talked to him and he was unsure of how to approach this. I was happy to help, but reminded again of the failure of past generations. I can’t imagine a more important subject for a father and teen son to have a continual and close connection on, but so few actually do.
Many parents have just never seen a good model and never been taught the biblical principles, but I find that Christian parents are hungry to help. That encourages me!
In my next response, I will write to parents. I look forward to hearing your thoughts again… feel free to comment below.