As a Generation X pastor, I love watching the Millennial generation come of age. They are a talented group, and it’s a joy for me to be their pastor, neighbor and friend. Lately I’ve been intrigued by three biblical characters who embody the possibilities and temptations of Millennials. Let’s start with a young man who’s brimming with potential from an early age.
1. Joseph: the self-absorbed visionary. Young Joseph strikes me as a “special snowflake.” He’s so enamored with his dreams that he alienates his whole family (Genesis 37:1-11). There’s no doubt that Joseph is talented, but it’s not useful to the world until he’s also humble and empathetic.
God uses suffering, injustice and years of waiting to refine Joseph’s character. And by the time he turns 30, Joseph is operating with true spiritual power, steering Pharaoh toward a global hunger relief program (Genesis 41). His story resolves, not with grandiosity, but with reconciliation as he forgives his brothers and provides for them (Genesis 44-50).
Millennials blow me away with their Joseph-like vision. Many are giving their lives to end poverty or to start new expressions of God’s kingdom. In the beginning, their vision might be clouded by the need to be validated or considered extra special. This makes it hard to see their need for God and the ways they are alienating people. But God can be trusted to mature their souls as they take on responsibilities, learn their limits and endure the suffering that comes their way. When this happens, the vision of Millennials will become clearer, sharper. And like Joseph, they just might change the world for the good.
2. Elijah: the daring yet easily discouraged prophet. Elijah had a finely tuned radar for corruption, and he was not afraid to speak up about it. He confronted the status quo with a holy impatience, calling out political cowards (1 Kings 18:1-19) and religious hucksters (1 Kings 18:20-40). Elijah was incensed by the injustice he witnessed and wasn’t going to take it anymore.
So he stepped onto a national stage and called down fire from heaven with aplomb. But as soon as Queen Jezebel threatened him, fear overtook Elijah and he spiraled into self-pity. It took a gentle yet firm whisper from the Lord to restore Elijah’s soul and make him useful again (1 Kings 19).
As a member of cynical Generation X, I admire the courage of Millennials to speak truth to power. Like Elijah, Millennials will put their bodies on the line for the sake of the oppressed. They will move into the toughest neighborhoods, confront the deepest issues and join the most dangerous protests. But some of them also share Elijah’s fragile emotional center and are ill-equipped to metabolize negative feedback.
Like a pin-prick nudging an overblown balloon, unkind words or even constructive criticism can devastate a Millennial’s confidence. They crave approval, even from the powers they confront. But as we can see in Elijah’s story, it is ultimately the approval of the Father that will give Millennials the ballast they will need in the long-term fight against evil and corruption.
3. Mary, the mother of Jesus: mystical and ready for a holy pilgrimage. The angel Gabriel had scandalous news for young Mary: The favor of God was upon her. The Spirit of the Lord would overcome her. She would carry the Son of God inside of her body! Mary replied, “[L]et it be to me according to your word,” even though her life would never be the same (Luke 1:26-38). Mary went on a lifelong journey of prayer, pondering and suffering. Her calling to be a mother to Jesus exacted a deep and costly sacrifice.
The Millennials I know yearn for a living connection with God that animates them spiritually, intellectually and personally. And this spiritual hunger presents Millennials with a difficult choice. Which word will they receive? They will be tempted to ingest the half-truth of Moral Therapeutic Deism that “God loves you and just wants you to be happy.” This will send them on the misadventure of Eat, Pray, Love before it rots inside of them.
Or like Mary, they can feast upon the living and active Word of God by the power of the Holy Spirit. It will satisfy their souls and send them on the way of the cross and the resurrection. This joyful pilgrimage will be harder than they ever imagined, but exactly what they need.
Who Will You Be?
Dear Millennials, I know you get picked on all the time. I hope these three exemplars from Scripture encourage you instead. Your dreams, talents and high callings are not new to you — they are all familiar threads in the great story of redemption.
The greatest temptation you may face — whether you’re feeling invincible or falling apart — is to operate independently from God’s grace for you in Christ. Joseph needed God’s correction, Elijah needed God’s encouragement and Mary needed God’s living Word. No doubt, all of them were tempted to go it alone. But all of them needed to rest in the hands of a loving God. So do I. And so do you.