Several years ago while teaching at a small religious college I had an experience that perfectly captures the spirit of the age. I was in the college library doing some research. A few minutes into my work, one of my students joined some friends at the table next to mine and proceeded to talk with them – loudly. There was no effort to whisper (which we were barely permitted to do when I was a student at the same school). This was a boisterous conversation!
At first I just made eye contact with the kids and glared at them. That had no impact. A few minutes later (and a few decibels louder) I looked over and gave them the “SHHHHHH.” That momentarily broke the chatter, but in no time they were as loud as ever. Finally, I just blurted out, “Will you please be quiet!?!” That finally made the point, and they stopped talking.
Later that same day back at my office my student secretary came in with a concerned look on her face.
She asked, “Are you having a bad day?”
I said, “Not at all – I’m doing great! Why do you ask?”
She replied, “Well, I ran into _______ and he said that he thought you might be having a bad day because you yelled at him in the library.”
Now, just consider this from the point of view of the student I reprimanded. In the range of possible reasons why I called him down, the notion that he had done something wrong did not even appear on the radar screen! The only explanation he could envision was that I was in a bad mood. It certainly could not be the case that he had done something wrong.
That student’s response reflected an underlying belief that is symptomatic of where we are as a culture – there is no objective standard of right and wrong, only subjective personal experience. A generation ago, everyone knew that you weren’t supposed to talk out loud in a library. Think of the “Marian the Librarian” scene in The Music Man. But this student was oblivious to any standard of decorum. In its place he substituted subjective personal experience – my mood.
I wish this was an isolated incident, but it is not. And it reflects the deeper cultural climate. This student obviously had very high esteem – so high it was unimaginable to him that he could be at fault. Studies show that the self-esteem of American students is rising while at the same time performance is declining. This paradoxical reality makes sense once you understand that the overwhelming majority of millennials believes that right and wrong are a matter of personal experience. This sort of relativism breeds emotionalism – what counts is not what is true but how you feel. And if someone criticizes your behavior and makes you feel bad, they are wrong (or having a bad day!).
And remember, my encounter in the library took place at a school built on Christian principles. I wish that Christian kids were immune to these broader trends, but they are not. And this combination of narcissism, relativism, and emotionalism is going to wreak havoc on families and churches – unless those of us who follow Jesus are aware of just how insidious these trends really are and consciously, intentionally, and aggressively resist them.
It is crucial to hold our kids to standards, to teach them that the world doesn’t revolve around them, and that how they feel is irrelevant to what they should do. Recently while preaching about responding to correction I encouraged our kids to embrace discipline rather than resent it. After the sermon, one of my favorite little kids came up to me and said, “You know how you were talking about when our parents get after us? I don’t like that!” He was honest! And I was honest as well when I said, “Well, I didn’t like it, either – but SO WHAT!”
It isn’t just kids that need to learn this lesson. As he pointedly rebuked them for their flirtation with heresy, Paul asked the Galatians, “Have I then become your enemy by telling you the truth?” (Galatians 4:17). We cannot allow ourselves to be swept into the babbling, incoherent waters of our culture’s self-centered and irrational rejection of truth. Holding each other accountable is what the love of Christ is all about.
Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. (Galatians 6:1-2).
The antidote to self-centeredness is humble Christ-centeredness. The counter to relativism is the truth of the gospel. And the answer to emotionalism is the critical evaluation of conduct.
In a word, the solution to all of these problems is repentance.