“Wherewithal shall a young man cleanse his way? Even by ruling himself after thy word.”
So says the Psalmist. So what words do we find in the Bible to give young people guidance as they set out to find their way in life?
First of all, that God uses young people. Samuel received his call when he was only six years old. Joseph was still young when he was sold into slavery. David was “only a youth” when he overcame Goliath. Jesus was impressing the doctors of the law in the Temple as he pursued “his father’s business” at the age of twelve—and in fact, was hardly out of his twenties when he was baptized and started his ministry as the Son of God. St. Paul tells Timothy “Let no one despise your youth” as he puts him in charge of much older people in the church at Ephesus.
Secondly, that the decisions taken in youth can last a lifetime. “Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it” says the Book of Proverbs. This means that parents have an enormous responsibility, to teach children the way to live. “These words which I command you this day shall be in thy heart: and thou shalt teach them diligently to thy children, and shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thy house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up.”
Thirdly, that children, in their innocence, are particular objects of God’s love, and are especially close to the heavenly kingdom. “Suffer little children to come unto me” says Jesus, “for of such are the Kingdom of God.” Terrible penalties are laid on those who cause them to stumble. They are not to be despised, “For I say to you, that in heaven, their angels do always behold the face of my Father which is in heaven”.
But fourthly, that there are only too many temptations placed in the path of young people. Worldliness. Wastefulness. Self-indulgence. Disrespect. Sexual temptations. Irreligion. Anger and violence. As we grow spiritually, we become more able to confront these. “I write to you, little children” says St. John “because your sins are forgiven you for his name’s sake… I write to you, young men, because you are strong, and the word of God abides in you, and you have overcome the wicked one.”
What part of God’s word? Everyone will have their preferences, but for me, there is a marvellous store of practical advice in the Book of Proverbs, on staying away from crime, on listening to parents, on avoiding drunkenness, on “the way of a man with a maid”—none of which will lead anyone astray.
And I recall also, when I was twelve years old, and World War II had not yet come to an end, that the first book of the Bible that really ‘spoke’ to me was, surprisingly enough, the Book of Job, about which my dear great aunt Ida had sent me some Bible Reading Fellowship notes. So much Sunday School religion is of a kind of pretty sanitized sort, with the idea that we’ll get to the tough stuff later on, and it didn’t cut much ice with me. Job dealt with the world as I saw it around me in the middle of a world war, with a lot of innocent people getting hurt, whether they deserved it or not. There was something in the magnificent language of Job that resonated—and still resonates—with me: an honest facing up to the undeserved trials we all face in life, and God’s inscrutable answer, which at once is and is not an answer, to the problems of suffering.
A passage in John Irving’s book A Prayer for Owen Meany struck me when I read it. Describing Dan, a schoolteacher, Irving says:
“He was not only a spirited, good teacher, but he believed that it was a hardship to be young, that it was more difficult to be a teenager than a grown-up—an opinion not widely held among grown-ups.”
I agree. Growing up is not easy, especially in those teen years when we are adult in size, but still have to learn and accept the rules, responsibilities and often the hypocrisies of the adult world. In the church, we adults do our best to point to the Way, the Truth and the Life—but it’s hard for us to do anything more than that. Every one of us, young and old, still is set the task of finding and adopting for ourselves the treasure of Jesus’s love, each in our own individual way.
God bless you on your journey!