We call them Millennials; another name might be Generation Awesome. One of the most extensive polls of young adult attitudes is the Freshman Survey, which since 1966 has queried roughly 9 million students about their self-image.
In intellect, leadership ability, congeniality, ambition, and writing skills, today’s students are exceptional—according to them. Self-confidence has risen by 30 percent in the last 40 years.
But the Freshman Survey, as well as the National Study of Youth and Religion, indicates that community involvement and concern for others have declined. Teens and 20-somethings are less involved than ever in political activity, military service, and volunteerism.
Why? Plenty of reasons, from self-esteem training to social-media preening. But essentially they get it from us, as we got it from our parents, all the way back to Adam.
I take you now to the first century AD and the thriving city of Ephesus, which the apostle Paul calls home. Spring has come to Asia Minor, but his heart is stormy as he contemplates the news from that troublesome church in Corinth. Calling for a scribe and a pen, he paces through the customary greetings and thanksgivings, pounding a fist into his palm as he begins to lay out some home truths: “For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to earthly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise” (1 Corinthians 1:26-27).
The trouble is, once the ordinary and feeble are elevated by God’s grace, they start acting like the exceptional and the powerful, as if the purpose of God’s grace were to make them Somebody. Welcome to Corinth, where all the believers are above average.
But you can’t be Somebody until the multitudes that surround you are somehow inferior. The Corinthians have cut and tailored the gospel into competing schools of theology: “I follow Paul.” “But Apollos’ teaching is the only biblical view.” “Yeah, but Peter is the real apostle—” “Why are you even talking about mere mortals? We go directly to Christ himself!”
There’s nothing wrong with theological debate; what’s wrong is the use to which the Corinthians have put it: going beyond what’s written to make judgments about other believers and strut their superior faith. This, Paul reminds them, is not the mind of Christ (2:16). It is the way of the world.
The world tells us to think well of ourselves, love and forgive ourselves, “actualize” ourselves, exalt ourselves—but that almost always happens at someone else’s expense. You’ve become kings, have you? Paul asks. Well, look at us, mocked and persecuted, harried from town to town, bringing up the tail end of the procession. Yet we are your teachers, and I am your spiritual father. And even I (he might have added) never reached the depths of degradation that Christ did. “And you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s” (3:23).
There is only one way we can burn with passion about the gospel, and yet not be puffed up with pride about the gospel, and that is to match our footsteps to the Lord’s. They are bloody and faltering; they go down and down and down before they go up and up and up. There’s no way we can leap that valley, though we continually try. The way is down. But that’s where He will meet us, and often (usually? always?) the only place He can meet us.
That’s how God works: at Cross purposes with the world. It will go on its way until that way is ended. Meanwhile the Spirit will be at work below the surface, confronting and convicting, converting and conforming. And all the while, perhaps, sighing with holy patience as Jesus “sighed deeply” before opening the ears of the deaf.
Bring us to grief, Lord, open our ears to Your sighs, open our eyes to make out Your footsteps—and trample our self-centered ambition and our stubborn hearts.