This is an adaptation of a lecture I recently gave to the students at Veritas School in Richmond, VA.
I would like everyone to remember back to the age of nine or ten for a moment. For most of you, this was five or six years ago. Over the last five years, have you become more righteous? Are you more obedient now than you were in fifth grade? Have you, with every passing year, come to love your parents more? Do you pray now with greater fervor than you did years ago? Do you confess your sins to your parents more quickly, more readily now than you did before? Are you growing in the Lord?
Or, since the age of nine or ten, have you become less and less righteous with every passing year? Are you a little less obedient every year than you were last year? Do you think of God a little less frequently than you used to? When you survey the course of your life over the last five years, do you see yourself inching further and further away from obedience, away from honesty, away from prayer, away from righteousness? Do you sin more now than you did five years ago?
If, over the last several years, you see yourself becoming less and less interested in God, less and less interested in righteousness, and more and more sinful, I would like to ask you a very simple question: When do you think this is going to stop?
I will follow up a very simple question with a very simple fact: For some people, it doesn’t stop.
For some people, once the joy, innocence, and simple righteousness of childhood begins receding, it never ceases receding. It just gets further and further away, and at the age of thirty or thirty-five, a man says, “When I was a child, I was good. I prayed, and I meant it. But then something happened to me and I prayed less and less, and thought of God less and less, and then I became an adult and had work and bills and a family and there just wasn’t time for God.”
The kind of man who ultimately comes to say this kind of thing probably still goes to Church. If you have become less and less righteous over the last five years, it is not because you have quit going to Church. Rather, you have continued going to Church, continued “believing in the existence of God,” continued believing that Christianity is right, and yet become more sinful and less interested in God.
If this is the case, and you seen yourself becoming less interested in obedience and righteousness and God, and if you have wondered when it is going to stop, the answer is this: It is not going to stop until you stop it. It doesn’t stop naturally. It keeps going naturally.
When I was a little child, I was good. I was obedient. When I lied to my parents, about half the time I would go back to them, hours later, and tearfully confess what I had done. When I was very young, I believed my mother was very special, and that in heaven, she would have a seat very close to the throne of God Himself. I believed that she would be rewarded for her great love of her family, and that everyone would acknowledge she was a remarkable human being.
However, by the time I was fifteen, my parents had largely become obstacles which stood between me and the things I wanted to do. When I was a little child, I thought of my parents as the people who took me to the park, took me out for ice cream, bought me Christmas presents, told me stories, and sang and prayed with me in the evening, before bed. By fifteen, I thought of my parents as the people who told me I couldn’t listen to this music, couldn’t watch this movie, couldn’t go to this party. To this day— and I am 37 years old— to this day, my soul still suffers from the residual effects of seeing my parents as obstacles. The role which God intends your parents to play in your young life is so vital, so massive, so important, that the failure to love, cling to, admire and respect your parents during your teenage years stands to skew your life, send your life on a dark, contradictory path that will only become increasingly harder to correct with every passing day.
Of course, as you come to see your parents as obstacles, you grow closer to your friends. I hope you understand that I am not claiming these are the rules. You do not have to see your parents as obstacles, although a great many teenagers do, even teenagers who are relatively well-behaved. I suppose it is a little hard to say which comes first— viewing your parents as obstacles, or growing closer to your friends. Regardless, when I was sixteen, my friends meant everything to me.
Many teenagers feel as though there are important subjects which they cannot honestly speak about with their parents, and so they discuss those important subjects with their friends, and the importance of your friends only grows when you speak with them about important things. When I was sixteen, there was no subject more important to me and my friends that the matter of who you had a crush on. Obviously, speaking with your parents about that is useless.
When you are a teenager, you also feel an intense longing for people to like you who do not have to like you. Your family is obligated to like you, love you, take care of you. However, your friends choose to like you, which means that the affection of your friends seems more real. From the time I was 14 until around the time I was 24, my friends were basically a surrogate family to me. I was amazed that my parents were not as close to their friends as I was to mine. My father did not speak to his friends on a daily basis. However, even though I was a slacker, I still didn’t like missing a day of school because I didn’t want to miss anything my friends saw or heard. I didn’t want to come back a day later and for my friends to have experienced something that I missed. My father’s friends didn’t mean the world to him. He had friends, saw them occasionally, chatted with them, but he was his own person. At fifteen, though, I knew that my friends and I would always be inseparable. I knew we would grow up together, live near one another, and not simply keep in touch, but never fall out of touch. It struck me as a profound deficiency in the character of most adults that they were not as committed to their friends as the young were. I was also baffled by how few friends my father had. He had two friends. When I was fifteen, I had a dozen friends. The bond I shared with these friends— just in eating with them, going to school with them, and aimlessly walking all over town and talking together— was deep and dramatic. At fifteen, there were really only two things in the world that interested me: music and my friends.
My friends and I often spoke of friendship itself, and in the shifting loyalties of various friendships in our class, and in our school. Who liked who? Who was hanging out with who? Who was becoming more like who? My friends were very nearly a kind of religion to me, because they determined the shape of my life, where I went, what I did, what I wanted, how I consoled myself. My parents did not have friends the way that I did, though, and so it was almost like they practiced a completely separate faith.
As I passed through high school, my friends and I became increasingly insulated from our parents. This happens naturally enough. At thirteen or fourteen, we had no money, we could not drive, and so we relied upon our parents for everything. However, when I became a sophomore, I got a job and I got a car, and then I could go where I wanted, and I could buy what I wanted, to a certain extent. Once I got a job, I could buy my music, and drive myself to see my friends, which meant I didn’t really need my parents for the things I cared about the most. When I say my friends and I became more insulated from our parents, I mean we spent more and more time alone, by ourselves, away from our parents.
Now, to this day, I don’t remember if we started spending more time by ourselves, and then found mischief, or if we wanted to get into mischief and so we started spending more time by ourselves. Either way, when I was sixteen, a whole bunch of my friends and I started smoking cigarettes. Obviously, none of our parents knew about this, and none of them did for quite some time.
I don’t know how scandalous a secret you think smoking cigarettes is. Perhaps you are unimpressed, and cigarettes do not seem particularly rebellious, and perhaps you think smoking cigarettes at sixteen is really disgraceful. I suspect that nearly every little circle of friends and every little high school click has something they keep secret from the adults, and we tend to rationalize such secrets on the grounds that “the adults wouldn’t understand.”
The thing about secrets shared by groups of high school students, or even by adults, is that it often very quickly becomes necessary to lie in order to keep secrets secret. For this reason, it does not really matter what the group is keeping secret— it could be cigarettes, could be a lot less, but could also be a lot more, could be gossip, theft, your own whereabouts, drugs, could be about ten thousand things which have to do with the internet and cell phones. As soon as a group of friends begins lying to adults in order to keep their secret, that group has opened itself up to the very cruel logic which goes with deception.
You see, the older you get, the more you can get in return for a lie. When you’re a little child, a lie can’t get you very much. A lie might get you out of a spanking, or it might get you an extra slice of cake. But when you’re fifteen or sixteen, the right lie might get you a lot. Mostly what a lie will get you is time. Time by yourself. The right lie might get you an hour to do what you want, but it might get you four or five hours, as well. Once you’re willing to lie to cover your tracks, your tracks can get bigger and dirtier.
Lying to your parents only makes you less inclined to spend time around them, because when you’re around your parents, they like to ask questions about your life, and see how you’re doing. Depending on how many lies you’ve got going and depending on how many stories and secrets you’re trying to keep hidden, just having a simple half hour conversation with your parents might be kind of anxiety-inducing.
Over the course of sophomore, junior, and senior year, I found myself increasingly desensitized to telling lies. While my conscience would have been troubled about lying to my parents when I was nine or ten, by seventeen or eighteen, lying to my parents was simply the price of being left alone. Lying to my parents was part of the standard operating costs of being a teenager.
During my junior and senior year, the things my friends and I were keeping secret from our parents went from unsavory to illegal and dangerous. I was not part of the worst of it, but I was telling lies for other friends so they could keep various cons running. I spent the better part of high school worried that I would be found out. I came home from school nearly every day nervous that my mother would meet me at the door with a scowl and say we needed to talk.
Perhaps you also have some sin which weighs heavily on your conscience. Perhaps this sin is becoming a habit. You want to deal with this sin, but you want to do it on your own. So you tell yourself, “I will confess this sin, but I will confess it a year from now. I will not commit this sin for a year, and I will do this on my own. Confessing a sin I committed this morning would be mortifying, but confessing something I have not done in a year will hardly be embarrassing at all. In a year, I will confess I formerly had a problem with a certain sin, and the people whom I confess this to will be impressed that I have done so well on my own. They will see my commitment to goodness. I will look forward to their praise, and this anticipation will make it easy to keep from temptation for a year. In fact, I have already defeated this sin, I simply need to wait a year before I tell anyone I have defeated it.”
Of course, if you make yourself this promise once, you simply keep on committing the sin, whatever it is, and whenever your conscience gets the better of you, you give yourself this little speech and thereby forestall the moment of truth, the moment of confession.
We were really not so much friends as co-conspirators. We did not build one another up, but patiently and methodically tore one another down for several years. We started small, but, like I said, as soon as we had all agreed to lie on one another’s behalf, the worst of it was fated. We enjoyed one another’s company, but only because we had all agreed to be a safe haven for one another’s sin.
In the end, some of my friends were discovered, some of us made confessions, and there was a massive scandal. To this day, sorting out our various motives would prove difficult. Suffice to say, the fallout of our sin was very unpleasant, very embarrassing, and it took many, many years for the echo of the thing to really fade.
In Proverbs, Solomon says, “Faithful are the wounds of a friend; but the kisses of an enemy are deceitful.” What this means is that a good friend cares more about your soul than your feelings. Feelings are unreliable, feelings change, but your soul is eternal, and the resting place of your soul is eternal, as well. A good friend sees beyond the delusions of high school and knows that fake friendships are formed around agreements to not tell. A good friend does not want to cut you off from the greatest love you know on Earth, your parents. Be leery of friends who are leery of their own parents, or yours. The bond you feel with your friends grows out of the fact that they don’t have to love you, but have chosen to; of course, such friendships are also fragile, because if they do not have to exist, then they might cease to exist, and if you confront your friends on their sin, they might simply quit talking with you. Or, even more painful, if you confront them on their sin, they may confront you on yours; if you let the sin of your friends slide simply because you do not want them to confront you on your sin, you’re not actually friends. Rather, you are enemies who have deceived one another about the true nature of your relationship, as Solomon says.
I will conclude this little talk with a charge to you to be good friends to one another.
First, keep your parents involved in your friendships. Don’t look for reasons to leave the house and go off where no one can see you and no one knows who you are. Keep your friendships out in the open.
Second, be honest with your friends. If you have entered into a cycle of aiding your friends in their sin, stop, and stop asking them to help you hide your sin.
Third, take a long view of friendship. Of the inseparable group of friends I had sophomore year, the group of friends which were my religion, the group of friends with whom I was so close that I couldn’t take adults seriously who did not have such close friends, today, I talk with one of them on the phone every two years or so. We have a nice chat for an hour. Remember that the spiritual good you do one another, as well as the spiritual harm, will probably outlast the friendship itself. So take good care, while you have these friends, to do as much good as you can for them.
Fourth, pray for your friends and with your friends. Long ago, a pastor of mine suggested that young people ought to conclude evenings of hanging out with singing the doxology. He asked, “Would it seem strange to sing the doxology at the end of the evening? If so, what are you doing that the doxology seem an unfitting conclusion to the evening.” When you are with your friends, commit your time to activities that would not make prayer seem unfitting.
There is something very beautiful about the intensity of feeling, and the verve and liveliness, which is shared between young friends. Use that liveliness in the service of God.