Cultivating Love in My Teenager's Life
Stuart McAllister reflects on the challenges of raising a teenager, and the freedom found in addressing the child’s heart rather than the head alone.
Adapted from Chapter 5, “Cultivating Love” in Faith That Lasts by Stuart McAllister and Cameron McAllister
Despite the waning influence of the church in the United States, the nation still retains a good deal of its Christian heritage. When we moved to the Bible Belt South in 1998, I was unprepared for the challenge of cultural Christianity. Though I remained unmoved by the glossy appeals of Christian celebrity culture and the duplicity of seeing the church as nothing more than a social club, I began to notice some alarming symptoms in my son, Cameron.
As a product of a missionary household, he remained adept at giving lip service to the gospel—the only requirement for many people around us. But I lived with him and didn’t have the luxury of taking him at his word. His attitude had gone from sullen to downright hostile, and his interest in all things outré was now degenerating into a growing fascination with the occult.
Part of me was deeply confused. As someone who had fled the ravages of a life without Christ, I knew firsthand the stark difference between the man I once had been and the man I had become. To carry on some sort of spiritual charade in order to lead a double life made no sense to me. But my son was a master at fooling those around him. Worst of all, he was beginning to fool himself—to believe his own lies.
More on Parenting from Stuart McAllister
Faith that Lasts: A Father and Son on Cultivating Lifelong Belief
"Please fix my kid." Father and son Stuart and Cameron McAllister have heard many variations on this theme from concerned parents. They bring their collective wisdom in this new book.
The fear-protects mindset would have clear protocol here: seize control and monitor all of the child’s actions, confiscate any offending items, and place tight strictures on all future activities. As we’ve seen, another strategy is to replace what’s been erased: fill the calendar with “spiritual activities” like church camps, youth events, and conferences. While these resources have their place, they remain powerless before a hardened heart. The Lord alone has authority in this treacherous region.
So what do we do? Am I offering a counsel of despair? By no means. We may not have control over our child’s heart, but we do have the ability to address the child’s heart rather than the head alone. Cameron wasn’t lacking in information; he was lacking in devotion. He knew all the right answers regarding his faith, but his actions—the underlying motivations of his life—told a completely different story.
In the sobering words of James, “faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (James 2:17). I knew that his heart was not surrendered to Christ, and so I decided to address my question to his heart.
To return to a pivotal morning that comes up repeatedly in this book because it was such a watershed moment, I turned to my son as he was making breakfast before school one day and asked him, “Why do you call yourself a Christian?”
Notice that I didn’t ask him what he thought about Christianity or whether he understood it.
Again, those are important questions, but I wanted to hear why he lived the way he did—I wanted him to deal with his actions, not his words. Though the question angered him at the time—heart questions are prone to do that—it proved instrumental in turning his life around. To this day Cameron names this as one of the most important moments in the recovery of his faith. I must confess that at the time it simply felt like another strained conversation that ended on an abrupt note.
Nothing quite prepares us for the spiritual challenge of seeing our kids flounder in their relationship with Christ. To make matters worse, there is no fail-safe formula, no expert, no conference, no podcast that can preclude or resolve this struggle. There is, however, the vital perspective of recognizing the primacy of love in human life, and we would do well to begin by addressing the heart.
In Luke 18, Jesus encounters a rich young ruler who is eager to learn the secret of eternal life: “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (v. 18). Jesus immediately cuts to the heart of the matter by asking why the man calls him good, since “God alone is good.” The question is testing this man’s actual convictions concerning Jesus. As we’ve seen, it’s one thing to view Jesus as a “good teacher” and quite another to do what he says.
Jesus then gives an overview of the commands, and the rich young ruler affirms that he keeps them all. With penetrating spiritual insight Jesus then addresses this man’s heart directly: “One thing you still lack. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me” (v. 22). Deeply saddened, the man walks away (v. 23). This man’s immense wealth outweighed his devotion to Christ.
The problem was not one of understanding but rather of the heart. Treasure in heaven could not compete with his earthly treasure. We see a marked contrast later in the same chapter when Peter points to the fact that all of the disciples have given up everything to follow Jesus, a clear sign of their authentic devotion. Christ responds, “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, who will not receive many times more in this time, and in the age to come eternal life” (vv. 29‑30).
Our devotion to Christ may well set us at odds with our very family members, but if our hearts belong to him, we must forsake all for his sake.
During these trials of faith within our households, may I suggest that we follow our Lord’s advice by first addressing the hearts of our children? By doing so, we will push them to move beyond what they say they know and help them to deal with what they believe. They may not appreciate it, but addressing the heart removes the luxury of self-denial.
Adapted from Faith That Lasts by Stuart McAllister and Cameron McAllister. Copyright (c) 2020 by Stuart McAllister and Cameron McAllister. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com
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