taking the words of Jesus seriously

In my day job, I work as a therapist in a high school brimming over with talented, resourceful and intelligent adolescents.

Yes, some of them are in poverty.
Yes, some of them are failing Geometry.
Yes, some of them say curse words and punch things (or humans) when they’re angry.
Yes, some of them show up for class after trying (and failing) to sleep off whatever happened last night.
Yes, some of them know that they are “problems.”

When I first met one of these adolescents the other day, he greeted me with an extensive list of his previous diagnoses from other clinicians “in the system.” Once I was finally able to sneak in a question about whether or not he found these helpful for navigating life on Earth, I still quiver with joy at his response:

“S____, no, I just thought you would cause you’re a therapist.”

The longer I work with “high-achieving” or “problematic” or “depressed” or “exceptional” kids in churches, high schools, and in private practice, the more I’m struck with just how much sense the Christian doctrine of Incarnation makes. According to adolescent theorists and clinicians over the past 50 years or so, this population is the perfect incarnation of a particular family and society’s values, beliefs, hopes, and bad behaviors all squeezed together into a pair of gym shorts. Adolescents are the living, breathing “symptoms” of our family units, and they manifest these symptoms with a similar panache, creativity, and guttural wordlessness that echoes our own Lord and Savior’s ability to clear a room with obfuscation on the one hand, and cutting clarity on the other. It’s their trademark lack of filter that makes adolescents so very much like Jesus.

If we’ll let them, “the teens” can teach us a great deal about the kind of world we have built around them, its values and beliefs, hopes and bad behaviors, and what living in this kind of place does to a person before he or she learns to more appropriately swallow the pain of existence with home renovation shows and arguments about identity politics on Facebook.

One of the things I’m learning about our world from these incarnate symptoms is that we are (all of us) in desperate need of liberation from sin, which, frankly, is not a sentence I really expected to type. In another life, I was a Baptist minister performing lock-ins and ski-trips professionally (Christian Cruise Directing®, as it were). One of the expectations of caring for the souls of everyone between the ages of 12-18 is the annual summer trip to hear a man (always) in ripped jeans yell at you in a small-college auditorium about how much God hates premarital sex and Internet pornography. In one of these very auditoriums I heard the phrase:“God cares more about his own glory than he does about any of us.”

There is a clinical term psychologists and therapists use for moments like these: “Bummer”

This man went on to say it is only because of Jesus’ death that God can even bear to look upon our inherent and inescapable “sinfulness.” From that point on, I concluded that if there’s one thing that takes the edge off of growing up in the powder keg of anxiety and self-loathing we call adolescence in America, it’s knowing that God had to kill the kid he really loved in order to remember to pick us “problems” up from soccer practice.

So I quit talking about sin, about substitutionary atonement, because it seemed like piling on, and I’ve noticed many of my contemporaries have done the very same thing. But, as I see more and more adolescents whose “normal” anxiety baseline mirrors what clinicians would have hospitalized people for in the 1950s; or who constantly refresh their phones in search of updated GPAs on the school’s online grade book,; or who cook, clean, and care for siblings because both of their parents work 60 hours a week just to pay the mortgage, and who feel like failures “constantly” (as one recently put it) for not being able to survive in this kind of world, I struggle to find a more apt term for what we’re all living under than sin.

Philosopher Alain de Botton noted in his book Religion for Atheists that the concept of sin is due for a resurgence among the non-religious, precisely because it provides people across the religio-cultural spectrum an opportunity to externalize their pain and frustrations onto a scapegoat. Which, from an atheist, borders on revivalism.

What if we’ve been misunderstanding the point of sin? What if this concept, instead of inviting normal people with long commutes and weird family baggage to blame themselves on a cosmic scale for coming up short, is actually about giving people a way of externalizing their failure and pain onto something we can universally struggle against, together?

What if sin, rather than sinners, is our problem? And, what if the cure isn’t to talk less about it and take more responsibility for its reign on Earth, but to talk more about it and struggle against it with every fiber we have left?

Sin is why elementary school kids know what the phrase “active shooter drill” means.
Sin is why health care isn’t an unalienable right for humans in America.
Sin is why corporations have more power over our political process than actual communities of humans.
Sin is why our political dialogue reads like the bathroom wall at the high school where I work.
Sin is why religion always has a cut list.
Sin is what forces moms back into the workforce almost immediately after giving birth to their children.
Sin is why Taco Bell has a breakfast menu.

What if in our reticence to harken back to the bygone eras of sweaty revivals and tearful altar calls, we have lost the ability to demonize the demonic? It would seem that reclaiming a way of talking about what this kind of environment does to people created in the image of God — those with a cellular propensity for great beauty, selflessness, humor, and generosity — without turning the people themselves into the problem (into sinners) is the whole purpose of atonement.

Because in the absence of sin-talk, we haven’t done away with the demonization entirely, we’ve just transferred it to the living, breathing humans we have bound to the altar atop Mt. Moriah. In my experience, we’ve all got somebody we’re trying to sacrifice for the good of everyone else.

Yes, some of them are in poverty.
Yes, some of them failed geometry.
Yes, some of them say curse words and punch things (or humans) when they’re angry.
Yes, some of them are trying to sleep off whatever happened last night.
Yes, some of them know that they are “problems.”

Mercifully, before Abraham plunged the knife into his son Isaac, the divine screamed “Stop!”
Mercifully, before the world turned on itself, Jesus took up his cross and walked the lonely road to his death.
Mercifully, when the world needs a scapegoat, God volunteers so we don’t have to find an alternative.

You could say God is willing to die for us, because God cares more about us than God does about God’s own glory.

About The Author


Eric is a writer, pastor, and therapist in East Tennessee.

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