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Teenagers, Behavior Modification, and the Heart

Sometimes a leader says, “When I hear what some of our church teenagers have been doing, it’s so frustrating. Why can’t they live consistently with their beliefs?”

In reality, those teenagers are living consistently with their beliefs—their true beliefs—and not necessarily with their professed beliefs. How people behave reveals what they truly believe.

The late Dallas Willard said: “We frankly need to do much less of this managing of action, and especially with young people. We need to concentrate on changing the minds of those we would reach and serve. What they do will certainly follow, as Jesus well understood and taught.” Tullian Tchividjian says it this way: “Behavior modification cannot change the human heart.”

How people behave reveals what they truly believe.

Be always precedes do. Or to say it another way, the heart always comes first. According to Willard: “The will, or heart, is the executive center of the self. … It, more than anything else, is what we are. … It is the human spirit, and the only thing in us that God will accept as the basis of our relationship to him.”

When we consider teenage discipleship and the behavior that follows, we first must consider the heart. A foundational issue in the heart is deep gratitude that follows repentance and grace.

Tchividjian says: “The truest measure of our growth is not our behavior … it’s our grasp of grace—a grasp which involves coming to deeper and deeper terms with the unconditionality of God’s love. … Our main problem in the Christian life is not that we don’t try hard enough to be good, but that we haven’t believed the Gospel and received its finished reality into all parts of our life.” Guilty people do not act better; forgiven people do. C. S. Lewis adds, “Legalism says God will love us if we are good, while the Gospel tells us God will make us good because He loves us.”

Believers respond to grace by abiding in Christ.

Believers respond to grace by abiding in Christ. If I talked with my wife for a while every morning but then never spoke to her the rest of the day, my marriage would be empty and dysfunctional. The same is true of my relationship with Christ. If my branch is connected to the vine, I will be in a running conversation with Jesus from morning to night. Scripture uses the most intimate moments shared by a married couple to illustrate the depth of relationship God desires with believers.

We abide in Christ in intimacy, but we never lose a sense of awe at His greatness. Willard says: “The key, then, to loving God is to see Jesus, to hold him before the mind with as much fullness and clarity as possible. It is to adore him.”

Consider these words from Colossians 1: “For by Him all things were created … all things were created through Him and for Him. And He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together. … He is the beginning, … that in everything He might be preeminent. For in Him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through Him to reconcile to himself all things” (Col. 1:15–20).

Concerning those verses, Tchividjian says: “Paul is making giant declarations about the unqualified totality of Christ’s preeminence. He wants his readers to be swept away by the sheer size of Christ, to savor His infinite supremacy and beauty and brilliance and power and trustworthiness.”

We guide teenagers toward loving Jesus with all their hearts—hearts filled with gratitude for grace. We guide them to abide constantly in Him and to adore Him with a double helix of warm intimacy and overwhelming awe.

Then the transforming heart shapes the individual. Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch say: “(It) is God’s unambiguous aim to make us to be more like His Son. In fact, this is our eternal destiny: ‘to be conformed to the likeness of His Son’ (Rom 8:29).”

Dallas Willard adds: “It must be our conscious objective … to bring others to the point where they are daily learning from Jesus how to live their actual lives as He would live them if He were they. That implemented intention would soon transform everything among professing Christians as we know them.”

The imitation of Christ is intertwined with the adoration of Christ.

The imitation of Christ is intertwined with the adoration of Christ. Jesus said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15). And, according to Jesus, this works both ways. Listen to John 15:10: “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love.” John 14:23 pulls it all together: “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.”

According to Willard: “The disciple or apprentice of Jesus, as recognized by the New Testament, is one who has firmly decided to learn from Him how to lead his or her life, whatever that may be, as Jesus himself would do it. And, as best they know how, they are making plans—taking the necessary steps, progressively arranging and rearranging their affairs—to do this. All of this will, in one way or another, happen within the special and unfailing community He has established on earth.”

A teenager who has decided to think and act like Jesus has to know objectively what that means. That comes from Scripture. Speaking to the Father, Jesus said, “Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth” (John 17:17). Teenagers carefully study Scripture to know exactly what it means to follow Jesus and keep His commandments. They follow and obey because they love and abide. Self progressively dies because of the One they adore.

But even if young believers love Jesus and know much of His truth, they still will find it impossible to live out His life on their own. Jesus knew this and provided an amazing way for young believers to live His way. God has come to live in us—by giving us His Holy Spirit. According to Kyle Idleman, “Jesus says, ‘It’s better for you if I go’—because while God with you is good, God in you is better.” In reality, the believer does not live for Christ. Christ lives His holy life through the believer.

  • A teenager begins with a heart filled with gratitude for forgiveness and unconditional love.
  • He rests in the finished work of grace.
  • He abides in Christ, continually experiencing deep intimacy and also awe at the grandeur of the King.
  • He so adores Christ that he willfully chooses to be a follower of Christ.
  • He searches the Scriptures to discover all that it means to think how Christ thinks, to see as Christ sees, to go where Christ goes, and to follow Christ’s commands.
  • He invites the Holy Spirit to fill his life.
  • He dies to self, and he invites Christ to live through him.
  • Because Christ is living His life through the teenager, what the teenager does brings Christ’s kingdom more on the earth—which can only serve to bring great glory to God.
  • In so doing, the teenager fulfills the reason for his existence.

What makes it most probable that a teenager will discover that life? When he or she is connected at the heart with parents and church leaders who live like that. And that begins with you.

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Richard Ross

Richard Ross

Professor of Student Ministry.

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