As parents, we teach our children not to lie. Perhaps less discussed and more difficult to identify is when your child believes a lie, especially one that consumes their thoughts and actions. In today’s culture, a common lie that many youth buy into concerns body image. They believe they have to be a certain size or body type, or achieve a certain “look” to gain attention and be respected. Pop culture, media, and the beauty industry add to the pressure by endorsing unattainable and arbitrary standards based on what is popular at the moment.
Those who struggle this way feel they are constantly being measured and judged by others. It is as if everywhere they turn there is a mirror in front of them. Worse, the mirror is a carnival mirror, distorting their real appearance. They see elongated arms, shortened ankles, a widened waist, a huge forehead. The image they see is not only distortion of who they actually are, it is a distortion of where their true value lies.
This creates a unique challenge, but also opportunities, for parents to minister to their kids. We are all easily consumed and influenced by the world around us. Yet, this is not how God calls his people to live. Instead of taking our cues and standards from the world, it is our Creator who gives us meaning and identity. God says we are his beloved children, a chosen people, and he delights in us (1 John 3:2; 1 Peter 2:9; Zeph 3:17). These descriptions of our identity are much richer and truer than how the world sees or defines us.
More specific to body image, consider 2 Corinthians 4:7:
But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.
This passage identifies us as jars of clay with a treasure inside. Somehow, this shows to the world “that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.” In contrast, those who struggle with body image aspire to be like a beautifully painted oriental vase. They want to be attractive and admired and have the world to look at them and say, “Look how successful, beautiful, and smart you are.” However, the Bible paints a very different picture. Instead of being a beautiful vase, we are like plain clay jars with cracks and holes, and yet, somehow, this enables the treasure within us to shine all the more brightly.
This image puts the focus on the Creator, instead of us. When anyone (child or adult) tries to have a perfect body or be the most attractive person, other people cannot see the real power or beauty within them. External adorning gets in the way of the gospel (1 Peter 3:3). Not only that, nobody can sustain the desired image (Eccles 3:11), and any time there is a crack or hole there is a desperate grab for the paint to try to hide weaknesses and shortcomings. But in Christ, we are given freedom from the lie that we need to conform to the standards of the culture. We are free to be broken people, to be imperfect, and to have failings. We have this freedom because we know that in our weakness, Christ is strong.
We can approach our children as fellow strugglers. Though all of us try to hide our cracks and imperfections to some extent, revealing our weaknesses and shortcomings to our children might be what helps them to open up. Start the conversation with your own confession and remember that even your presentation of these truths will not be perfect. As a broken vessel, allow Christ’s light to shine brightly through you as you seek to be your child’s wise counselor.
I remember hearing a pastor of a fairly large church saying—at a counseling conference no less—that he wasn’t going to hire any more pastor-counselors for the church pastoral staff. What he meant was this: he had hired fine pastoral counselors whose schedules quickly filled with counseling, but they didn’t have time to equip the body to counsel each other. Given that equipping is a critical part of the pastoral mission, his decision made sense.
He gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ. (Ephesians 4:11-12)
Although individual counseling is a priority for the pastoral leadership–the leadership of the church has been commissioned to equip the congregation in caring for each other’s souls.
This lay ministry is an extraordinary happening. No longer do people need a special, though temporary anointing, to offer a prophetic word of direction and wisdom. Now we are part of the new covenant in which the Spirit has been given to all who have put their faith in Jesus. Lay ministry is one of the premiere blessings of Pentecost. If you feel a little inadequate, God is pleased to have the church mature through the ministry of weak people who seem unqualified in the world’s eyes (1 Corinthians 1:27-29).
Most likely this is already happening in your church. People share their struggles with each other. People pray with each other. This is certainly happening with the women in the church; sometimes it is happening with the men. You want it to happen more, and with growing love and wisdom.
The word counseling can distract you in the task. It connotes something professional and could bring legal exposure to the church. What you hope to encourage are increasingly wise and helpful conversations—that is counseling. We all need this and need to give it.
As you set out to further equip your church community, here are two questions to consider. First, how can you grow a church culture in which people are open about their struggles? This has implications even for the way you preach and how the leadership engages with each other. The mutual care of souls will only happen in a church that assumes we all have struggles and invites people to be open with them.
Second, what are the basic skills that everyone in the church should be growing in? Here are some possible essentials you could consider. Speak less and listen more. Follow the person’s feelings because they will usually lead to what is especially important to them. When you don’t know what to say—pray. And make meaningful connections between the struggles of life and Jesus.
This era is full of personal struggles. Some of these are struggles that humanity has always had, such as anxiety, depression, addiction, shame and anger, yet this era has added some of its own, such as internet addictions and its resulting isolation, and some of the psychiatric diagnoses. All of them can be helped by meaningful engagement by a wise and loving church community.
This is one of the most frequently asked questions by our students. And, like most questions, context matters. Here are just a few possible reasons for the question.
Each of these situations has its own unique challenges.
Here is an example.
An atheist husband was willing to see me because I was somewhat known to the family. He had no interest in becoming a Christian. His wife pushed him to see a counselor with her, and he was willing. During our first time together, he was friendly, upbeat and engaged. We went right into talking about the marriage. Though quite calm, his actual words were filled with disdain. He regretted being married and could recall very few pleasant days in the last twenty-five years. After about ten minutes, I briefly interjected.
“Do you hate your wife as much as it sounds?”
My first response was not exactly deft but he was a straightforward, unflappable fellow, so I spoke openly with him. He responded as if I had given him an intriguing new theory. The wheels were turning. Perhaps he did hate her. Hate is usually evidenced in anger and more florid displays of contempt, which he never demonstrated. But the observation made sense to him.
Then we spoke of the need for radical change. He was committed to staying married but he was not committed to love and humility. So we talked about those things and what they might look like in the home. The next time we spoke, he had acted on most of what we discussed. Over time, our relationship flourished and I had great respect for him.
Please don’t take this as a reason to lead with blunt words about a person’s wrongdoing. Instead, this is one illustration of how Scripture might guide us with those who don’t want Scripture. Two related biblical teachings guided me. One is that to be human is to distinguish between right and wrong. The other is sometimes called the third use of the law. From this perspective, the law identifies what is good and beneficial. It shows how we are intended to live. My initial question was a short version of calling him to recognize that his heart attitude toward his wife was wrong. Behind that terse question was something like this:
“I know that you are committed to your marriage, even to the point of being open to receive help. I so admire that. I also know that pride and disdain are not going to help your marriage, and you know that too. So, we will head toward what is best—humility and love. This actually heads us toward Jesus too. It can be a hard path but it is the best path. You will like it.”
What was important was that I wanted to offer him something that was very good, and, once he considered it, that goodness would be obvious to him. Then we could savor the possibilities together, and I, too, would be inspired to grow in that same love and humility.
God places loving authority in the hands of parents. It is a responsibility to lead, oversee, and direct a home in a wise, godly manner. Loving authority is trustworthy; acting on behalf of those it governs and does what is right. It is judicious and benevolent and understands the need to direct, and instruct, and establish rules. It models Christ-like influence and points children to a God they can trust and follow.
But children often rebel, rejecting parental authority. Sometimes this is due to defiance within the child. Other times, it may be due to the influence of their peers, or reflect the strong aversion to authority found in our culture. When this happens, we often attempt to reinstate our parental rights by quoting Scripture and demanding that children comply. But most children do not bow their heads and humbly repent of their ways when parents do this. Rather, they respond with a readiness to battle for control and independence.
I believe the responsibility for much of this lies at the feet of parents. In the way we structure our lives, we repeatedly, though maybe unconsciously, give up our role and unwittingly give it over to others. Much of our time is spent occupying our children and reacting to them, rather than engaging them in relationship. Our kids are in school all day and then involved in sports, lessons, hobbies, and even church activities. When kids are home, they are doing homework or chores, or are occupied by the internet, or gaming. In short, we have become irrelevant to much of their daily experience. Given our absence from so much of their lives, why would our kids continue to accept our authority?
Activities and busy schedules limit our opportunities to influence our kids. Active lifestyles are not wrong, yet we must be aware of how much time we are engaging our kids in meaningful relationship versus keeping them happily occupied. One fosters intimacy, the other fosters passive detachment. Do not be mistaken, kids do look for guidance and authority, and when they need it they will likely turn to the influence that has captured their admiration and trust, often their peer group.
Parental powerlessness is difficult to face. Sometimes we minimize and excuse it but we cannot just accept it as inevitable or chalk it up to “teenage attitudes” or “kids these days.” Though our role and influence do change as our children grow, we still need to be a voice in their lives. But regaining that impact does not come about through coercion, or bribery, or threats. It comes through relationship and time spent together.
So, to fulfill our parental responsibilities, we need to prioritize building devoted relationships with our children that display care, sacrificial giving, genuine compassion, and being for them. The more gracious and godly authority we exhibit, the more our children will desire to follow and submit to it.
A strong, godly relationship serves in many ways. Here are a few:
Fostering these qualities in our kids imparts an integrity to daily life and prepares them to thrive in the world they will live in.
Parental authority is not about force, or power, or dominance. It is about wise influence. It is about relationship and Christ-like leadership that values the good of those being led. So, instead of becoming more authoritarian with your kids, invest in your relationship with them. Show them you care and are committed to their good. It may not be well received at first, and it may take time. You may need to limit activities, time with their peers, and the multitude of ways your family gets pulled away from each other—but the results are well worth the effort.