Original photo by Fayez.
One of the most meaningful bits of youth ministry advice I’ve received is to make sure I don’t say or teach things that students will have to “unlearn.” This becomes so much more difficult when students are in the midst of tough life situations. Sometimes those situations are brought on by their own mistakes, and sometimes terrible things just happen to students. In those moments, it can be so easy to say something like, “God has a bigger plan and we have to trust it.” But that can’t be our best answer.
We have to look at what our students learn from the subtext of that kind of comment. When we only talk about God having a bigger plan, we are recognizing that God knows something we don’t but the subtext of our words says that God might have wanted us to experience pain, or even that God planned to harm us.
I can’t tell a student that God planned to harm her or that God wanted him to experience the weight of his sin. There has to be a better way to say it.
In his book, Things Hidden, Richard Rohr describes what he calls God’s “economy of grace.” It is the way in which God fills in the gaps, using every life experience, all of our pain, and even all of our mistakes, to show us again and again that God is with us and that God loves us. Rohr says it like this:
“In God, everything is used and nothing is wasted, not even sin.” – Richard Rohr
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This is a much better answer to a student in the midst of life’s troubles. It points to a God that is among us, suffering with us, and willing to walk alongside us even as we experience the consequences of our own mistakes. Also, the subtext of this idea points to an even deeper understanding of God’s love for us. This is truly a message of the gospel, describing a God who is active in the ongoing work of our redemption.
If you’re well-versed in church vocabulary like me, then it may be more difficult to move away from the language of “God’s plan” when talking about our pain. But again, the goal is to make sure that students don’t have to one day unlearn what we’ve taught through what we say and the subtext that comes with it. And isn’t it much more life-giving for students to know a God who wants to sit with us in our turmoil, transforming our pain into something beautiful?
Jacob Eckeberger is the content and community manager at YouthSpecialties.com, an itinerant worship leader, the husband of a church planter, and a long time volunteer youth worker. You can find him at @jacobeck.