“Already, but not yet”: Living in the tension with young people

Photo by Christopher Sardegna

A vital part of our Christian faith is remembering and retelling the stories of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. Whether through stained-glass windows or performances on Easter weekend, scenes of Jesus on earth weave through the fabric of Christian life.

This past Holy Week season I watched an elaborate Good Friday play. It began with scenes from Jesus’ teachings and reached its climax with Jesus bloodied, hanging on a cross. As I grappled with Jesus’ brutal crucifixion, I wondered at what point in the story this production would end. Would it end on Good Friday with gruesome death, or would it end with Resurrection Sunday, even though resurrection was still a couple of days away? Ultimately the production concluded with Jesus’ rise from the dead.

While the conclusion was admittedly powerful, I also left wondering, do we as Christians—as humans—struggle with the unresolved? Do we struggle to sit in the uncertainty of a story that has not yet reached its conclusion?

Despite knowing the end of the Good Friday story, it can feel like there is something inherently wrong with any depiction of the story that ends on Friday rather than Sunday.

We crave resolution.

Yet as Christians, we must learn to live in the tension of the unresolved. It is in these unstable, unsettling spaces that deep faith and spiritual maturity often emerge and develop.

It is also in these unresolved spaces that young people need us most.

[Related: Holy Week Reflections on Loss]

“Already, but not yet”

Even on this side of Resurrection Sunday, we live in a period of salvation-history known by theologians as the “already, but not yet.” We live between what has been promised to us and the complete fulfillment of these promises. We know in part, but one day we will know fully (1 Cor. 13:12). We can say both that we are saved now (Rom. 10:10) and that our ultimate salvation from death and suffering is yet to come (Heb. 9:28). We learn to be content (Phil. 4:11), yet we press on to lay hold of the prize Christ has set before us (Phil. 4:14). Jesus has risen, but he has not yet returned.

In this age of the “already, but not yet,” we learn to live with a holy angst, trusting God in the present, but also hoping in his promises for the future. This is part of what it means for us to walk with Jesus.

Yet, most of us desperately seek resolution in our lives and the lives of others. It is uncomfortable to sit in the unresolved space of tragedy, and often we want to bring resolution before it is possible. The temptation to fix or explain away pain is ever present.

Our urge for quick resolution may be even stronger when it comes to leading and parenting young people. We may be like Job’s “miserable comforters,” offering answers when we do not truly understand. Or, as in the story of Jesus, we may feel compelled to skip from Friday to Sunday, assuring young people that things will get better. We forget to sit with them in their present angst and pain.

Unfortunately, our impulse to bring resolution probably serves us more than the young people we serve. When we try to bring untimely resolution to young people’s present realities, we may be more motivated to relieve the awkwardness and powerlessness we feel than to walk with them in empathy.

Living in the tension with young people

To serve young people well, we must become better at living in the tension of the “already, but not yet.” Teenagers live with numerous longings and few fulfillments. They long for romantic relationships, dream of achieving career goals, and desire to live out their purpose in the world—but they also live in a season of life when nearly all their longings are yet to be fulfilled. Young people experientially live in a season of the “already, but not yet” and desire the presence of mature adults in these unresolved spaces. Our presence is most effective when we learn to offer them the gracious and unhurried presence of Christ.

This requires a lot of trust on our part—trust that the Holy Spirit of God will work to resolve what we cannot resolve, in timing we cannot predict.

The young people in your church or home may come to you with a variety of tough situations. Whether they wrestle with relationships, vocation, or the loss of loved ones, try to sit in the tension with them rather than jumping to solutions. Here are 4 steps you can take:

1) Listen without giving answers.

At first, a young person may simply need your presence, so avoid offering an answer prematurely. By listening, asking questions, and simply being present, we can create a safe space for a young person to feel authentically heard and known. We become a physical reminder of Jesus’ presence as we are present to each other. Our colleague Steve Argue reminds us, “If young people can’t find these kinds of spaces, and adults who are willing to be there, they will go someplace else. They’ll have to.”

2) Engage, don’t dismiss.

As adults with more life experience, it can be tempting to view a young person’s struggles as trivial or immature. But rather than dismiss a young person’s feelings, recall a time when you felt similarly. When have you felt worried? When have you felt pain? Identifying with the young person’s emotions can help you empathize, regardless of whether you think he or she should feel that way.

3) Ask the Holy Spirit for guidance.

As you listen, attend one ear to the young person and the other ear to God. Ask God what he might want you to say or not say, share or not share. Ultimately, it is more important that the young person gets in touch with God than our personal opinions.

4) Ask, “How can I be here for you?”

Young people may not know the answer to this question, but asking it demonstrates your care and desire to be there for them in a way that matters to them. If they do give you an answer, be honest with whether you can provide what they ask for or reflect back what you might be able to offer instead. And it’s also okay to say, “I don’t know, but …” followed by what you do know to be true about God, or simply affirming that it’s okay to wonder, struggle, and even doubt.

By staying attuned to the voice of God and implementing these strategies, we may learn to live in the tension of the “already, but not yet” and to reach young people where they need us most.

[Related: Stuck in a pit: helping young people through struggle and failure]

What are other ways you choose to live in the tension with young people?