Am I Doing Enough for God: The Secret Struggle of Modern Teens
I had an interesting conversation with my high school students recently during our weekly Bible study. We were discussing Paul’s imprisonment and his unshakable joy. The conversation quickly spun toward the concept of being “of use” to God. The students, eager to use their lives for the glory of God, yearned to one day hear the coveted words, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” Yet there was decidedly a small flicker of fear as to whether or not they would actually hear those words.
They wondered if they were doing enough for God. If they were using their time wisely and taking every opportunity given to them to further God’s kingdom.
While this mindset is admirable, it revealed an underlying level of stress. These high school students have been taught that performance is everything, and this view has crept in beside the reality of grace, threatening to trip up what these wise young souls know to be true.
Our world has dictated to young people that performance is everything. We measure ourselves by our performances. On tests. On job evaluations. On good behavior. Even among solid biblical churches, we sometimes focus perhaps too much on the fact that the only way to prove someone is a Christian is to look at his or her fruit. After all, a true believer will produce fruit (see John 15:2-8) and that fruit is the evidence of salvation, which is true and necessary to teach. However, to some Christians hearing these messages, it looks like we've created our own version of a performance-based assessment.
In a world overrun with false conversions (see 2 Tim. 3:1-5), it’s important to know ways to identify true believers from false ones, but we can start to sound a bit like standardized test makers when we make lists of “standards” Christians should uphold or display. For young believers, who hear enough about standards and performance assessments at school, this can be frightening. We need to remind them of grace, lest they think Christianity is just another benchmark test they must endure, one that lasts the rest of their lives.
Do you ever wonder if you’re being useful to God? Or maybe you wonder if you’re being useful enough. Isn’t there more you could be doing? Should be doing?
Can God be pleased with us if we aren’t doing enough?
These questions seemed to burn out from behind my students’ eyes. They felt both a great weight of responsibility and, wisely, the threat of pride in assessing our own usefulness to God.
The pressure of today’s world has impacted teens to the point that they wonder if they can ever measure up. Ever be enough. Ever do enough. Even in matters of faith.
In reality, this kind of thinking hinders action.
Our culture and our ideology have put such a strain on young people to perform and achieve that too often they boomerang the opposite direction: into idleness. And the trouble is, they feel paralyzed to move forward, to get out of this predicament because of yet another lie the world feeds them: that they are weak.
I recently read an interesting article on the mentality of Gen Z. It said that young people no longer believe they can change the world. Instead, they feel helpless to change it. And it’s all because of a shift in thinking that says the world is how it is because of other people. “Today’s students are more pessimistic—of both themselves and also the world around them,” writes Chris Colquitt in his article on The Gospel Coalition’s website. He explains how our culture quietly tells young people of their weakness. He adds, “students today increasingly need to hear ‘you can be strong.’”
Today's students have been told too often of their own weakness. If all our problems are based on systems in place around us and the people who uphold those systems, then we are not at fault for the way things are.
This is meant perhaps as a way to free young people (and all of us, really) from worry and unnecessary guilt or fear. However, no responsibility means no culpability. And underneath that, hiding where we never expected it, is the whispered truth that young people can’t do anything.
Our world, in the attempt to fix its problems, has created a way of thinking that pushes all problems onto things outside ourselves. Whatever is wrong is someone else’s fault.
Certainly, some things that happen to us in life have nothing to do with us. We can’t deny that or ignore it. But the problem with saying everything is someone else’s fault has an ugly little side effect: hopelessness.
If everything in the world is someone else’s fault, then we are truly powerless. Everything simply happens to us not by us.
We then begin to wonder what on earth are we actually capable of?
Teenagers stress about tests because they are performance assessments. They stress about how people will respond to what they wear because it is a social assessment. They stress about how people will react to what they post online because it is a type of idea assessment or, even worse, a worth assessment. But perhaps the reason young people are so active on social media is because it’s a way to do something. Posting something online is bold. Posting something online is permanent (sort of). Posting something online is action. Even if they fail, in a sense, to post something that is accepted, then, we tell them, it is not their fault. It is everyone else's fault.
To the teens who have been told from childhood that everything around them is not their fault, not their doing, but who are also told to perform well, to dress right, to act right, to be right, action quickly becomes either inconsequential, because they think failure is not their fault, or paralyzing, because they think they are not really capable of meaningful action.
This particular struggle has entered the realm of Christian faith. Many believers, teens and adults alike, fear that if everything in life is performance based, it’s logical to assume faith is too. Even if we know verses like Ephesians 2:8, which tells us faith is a gift of God and not a result of works, it’s hard to separate our performance anxiety from our faith.
Conversion means we begin the journey to Christlikeness. But the journey is lifelong. Part of that journey is coming to understand how our thinking must change. Sanctification in this life, according to the scriptures, involves the remaking of our minds, not our physical bodies (Rom. 12:2; Eph. 4:22, 23).
As time goes on, the Christian begins to see the faults in the world’s way of thinking and comes to trust God’s Word over the world’s. This is not an easy or a quick process. It takes time and often a little discomfort to first spot the world’s lies, then realize we’ve believed them, then work to combat them with God’s truth. It’s an ongoing battle for every believer.
So, in order to combat the problem of feeling paralyzed in uselessness, let’s dig a little deeper into the lies surrounding this mentality.
Putting all blame on outside causes creates the lie that the individual is simply an effect. A result. An output after a whole bunch of negative inputs. This idea, without us even knowing it, generates in the individual a feeling of utter uselessness. We probably never intended for this to be the result. But it has happened. Young people in particular, because this is the predominant mentality they see in the world today, are being told in a roundabout way that they are just effects in a big world of causes. How depressing.
No wonder so many young people don’t want to do anything. They have been told all their lives that they can’t.
Second, a world that pushes all problems onto some outside cause misses the point that some problems have in fact been caused by us. Ouch. Yes, it’s true.
But we need to sit here a moment and think about what it means to be responsible for something. Making a bad grade isn’t fun, but when it’s the fault of not preparing for the test, we should be willing to take that bad grade as something we did to ourselves. Try that idea out in most modern American classrooms, and you’ll get yelled at or be forced to talk to an irate momma spewing with reasons why her kid’s bad grade wasn’t the kid’s fault (it was the teacher’s, in case you were wondering).
What have we done? We’ve taken all agency out of our young people. They can’t even take responsibility for their own bad grades. In an attempt to help them, we’ve removed their ability to function on their own, make choices, and complete tasks without crippling anxiety of failure.
This mentality is also crippling the church.
When we remove ourselves from the weighty and onerous task of calling someone responsible for their actions, then we remove the charge of calling them sinners. Sinners are responsible for their sins. That’s how it works. If someone hits me on the head, I’m not responsible for that. If I use God’s name in vain, I am responsible for that.
But in a world where nothing is our own fault, we run into a wall when trying to explain sin to people.
And if a person can’t understand sin, and his own culpability for it, then how can he see a need for a Savior?
For those who accept the notion of sin and the reality that they are accountable for it, there is yet another problem. Once by grace we see our sin and flee to Christ and become Christians, we are struck again with the lie of being useless. We have now two roads, both dangerous, that we can take if we still believe the world’s lies about our own actions.
First, we could assume that since God is responsible for the entire universe, and He’s in charge of every little thing, then we can sit back and let Him do His thing. We can be comfortable being inactive. We’ve been inactive and not responsible for so long that we simply continue on that path, with the holy notion that our inaction is simply trusting God, or as the popular phrase has it, we just let go and let God.
Second, we could lapse again into the fear of failure. Pressure to perform well on a test or get a good job could migrate to pressure to be good enough for God. To be useful enough for His kingdom. This fear can lead to works-based righteousness, when we think we can do enough to please the Lord and forget that without Christ, we can do nothing to please God (John 15:5). Too often, this kind of motivation burns out and leaves us feeling utterly incapable of living up to what we feel is the standard of “usefulness” to an Almighty God.
Both attitudes result in inaction.
And both attitudes are rooted in the world’s lie that we are simply effects in a sea of causes.
It’s time we debunk that lie and look at what scripture says we can do.
How do believers rightly approach the topic of usefulness to God? As one wise young man in my Bible study put it, there’s a ditch on both sides. Either you throw your hands up, knowing that God’s going to do what He’s planned, regardless of what we do or don’t do, or you become overly confident in your ability to be useful to God and begin to think of yourself as necessary to God.
Scripture, as always, provides the only source of truth in this dilemma. God’s Word shows us just how useful we can be, even when we feel utterly incapable and even when we are threatened to be prideful in own ability.
Paul certainly was useful God, in the sense that he wrote much of the New Testament. He was called out by God to be an “apostle” and “prisoner of Christ Jesus” to reveal essential eternal truths “which for ages [had] been hidden in God” (Eph. 1:1; 3:1, 9). Through Paul, the “mystery of Christ, which in other generations was not made known,” was finally revealed (Eph. 3:4, 5). This was a big deal. Paul seemed to understand just how important his work was for the glory of God and for the church. He knew that he was “made a minister of the gospel, according to the gift of God’s grace . . . according to the working of His power” (Eph. 3:7). He was keenly aware also of his own lack of merit in being chosen for this task: he calls himself “the very least of all saints” (Eph. 3:8).
We can gain much confidence from examining Paul’s words. He was aware that God did not see anything of value in the person of Paul, but chose him anyway to complete a world-changing task (Eph. 3:8-10).
While we won’t be chosen to write more scripture, we can be assured that God has “good works” planned for us; in fact, He’s planned beforehand all the good things we will do in our lives (Eph. 2:10). This should comfort every believer, especially the one feeling useless to God. Does an Almighty, sovereign God need us to do His will? No. He could do whatever He wanted without us. But the amazing thing is that He does use us.
What does God use us for? Namely, glorifying Him. When we do good works and “bear much fruit,” we prove to be Christ’s disciples, which glorifies the Father (John 15:8). The most comforting thing here is that God appoints us to “go and bear fruit” and He ensures that our fruit remains, not for our glory, but for His (John 15:16).
Our usefulness to God is first created by Him then sustained by Him, not because of who we are to Him, but because of who He is and the glory He receives from His saints. This is different from the world’s view that all things are a result of outside causes because God really is the only cause, and when He enables us to be of use to Him, He ensures that we are. This means we can act. This means we can do incredible things.
We can make disciples by sharing the gospel. We can teach others to observe all that God commands of us. We can be content in all circumstances. We can turn from sin. We can comfort others. We can worship rightly. We can uphold the truth. We can love our spouses. We can teach and discipline our children in love. We can love our enemies. We can submit to authority. We can work and study and go to class as if for Christ. We can be humble. We can gain treasure in heaven. We can be part of the eternal plan of God to bring glory to His name. We can please God.
Believer, this is a comfort! We can do so much for God because He equips us with His Spirit and provides us with His power to bring about His glory (see Eph. 1:19 and 2:20, 21). We can rest assured that He has called us “to obey Jesus Christ,” and in His great love, He’s given us just what we need to do so: “His divine power has granted to us everything pertaining to life and godliness” (1 Pet. 1:2, 2 Pet.1:3).
Young people and adults alike, you are of use to God. If He’s called you to Himself, He will use you for His glory. If you feel incapable or inadequate, He can still use you. Maybe not to part the Red Sea, but to love your mean classmates. To submit to your boss. To honor your parents. If you feel prideful over what you’ve done for God or over the amount of times you’ve shared the gospel, for instance, then simply ask God to forgive you of your pride and remind yourself of the fact that all our good works are blessings given to us by God so that we can have the honor of glorifying Him.
May God’s Word bring you strength, confidence, and comfort today and always.