Spiritual Formation in an Age of Entitlement
By Dan Egeler, EdD
Association of Christian Schools International
Christian School Comment, Vol. 44, No. 6, 2012–2013
During a discussion with Josh McDowell a few years ago about unbiblical values, he proposed a provocative idea for an elective course for Christian schools. What if we taught students to identify the top 10 cultural lies being taught by American culture and then equipped students with the skills to debunk those lies?
One lie I would identify in American cultural is the primacy of comfort and wealth. In The Overload Syndrome (1998, 43), Dr. Richard Swenson says the new American dream is “more possessions—more quickly”; and because most of us are already saturated with abundance, this is a problem.
I believe that this value system has also infected our Christian schools; it is an insidious threat to the healthy spiritual formation of our young people. Too often, those held in high esteem are people who have succeeded in terms of comfort and wealth. It’s not that comfort and wealth are inherently bad, but a person’s wealth should be of far less importance than his or her character. The book of James has a lot to say about judging a person on the basis of outward appearance. Why do our Christian kids want to grow up to be like our cynical and ungodly celebrity musicians, athletes, or even businesspeople rather than like the godly janitor, educator, or neighborhood pastor? The reason is that we live in a celebrity culture that values comfort, wealth, and image.
One of the negative by-products of a focus on comfort and wealth is the disease of “affluenza.” The authors of the book Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic define affluenza as “a painful, contagious, socially transmitted condition of overload, debt, anxiety, and waste resulting from the dogged pursuit of ‘more’ ” (De Graaf, Wann, and Naylor 2005, 2). By any economic indicator, our American Christian families are the wealthiest in recent history, and our kids have become infected with this disease. Affluenza’s costs and consequences are immense, although often concealed. Untreated, the disease can cause permanent discontent. This discontent leads to a sense of entitlement—and the accompanying rejection of self-discipline, a deep repugnance for delayed gratification, and the embracing of self-indulgence.
The fallout is that indulged children are often less able to cope with stress in an increasingly complex world because their parents have created an atmosphere in which the children’s every whim is indulged, and the children then believe that they are entitled to a life of comfort and wealth. This indulgence promotes a lack of frustration tolerance and produces an inability in children to persevere in the face of difficulties.
How do we, as parents, combat affluenza? One way is to teach children to persevere and not to accept the option of quitting. Athletics is one arena in which children can learn those characteristics. My second son wrestled during high school, and he competed in a number of topflight wrestling tournaments. For the first two-thirds of the season, he did not win a match, and he was being pinned consistently in the first period. He was competing against nationally ranked wrestlers; I helped him set some realistic goals. The first goal was just to make it through a match without getting pinned. This goal wasn’t very glamorous—he ended up spending six grueling minutes fighting while on his back. I celebrated the first match in which he did not score a point and was beaten badly but did not get pinned. He learned to persevere, and that lesson was far more important than what he could have learned from winning. The sport of wrestling was one of the few avenues I had to teach my son the importance of learning to persevere.
A second way to teach our children to combat affluenza and pursue Christian character is through gratitude. In his book Cultivating Christian Character, Dr. Michael Zigarelli writes, “Growing one’s gratitude has a radical and transformational effect on character, because gratitude is one of God’s primary vehicles for inducing other Christian qualities” (2005, 27).
Both Christian schools and parents have a considerable task before them if they’re going to be serious about fostering spiritual growth. We need to help our kids
• resist the consumptive lifestyle
• identify and counter the cultural lie that wealth is the measure of a person
• cultivate a heart of gratitude
• learn to persevere—never to accept the option of quitting
• become self-disciplined—embrace and celebrate delayed gratification
• overcome the temptation of self-indulgence
As Christian parents, we should not just throw up our hands and accept the way our culture is, deciding we can’t do anything about it. We can raise young people of great character who have the skills they need to debunk cultural lies.
De Graaf, John, David Wann, and Thomas H. Naylor. 2005. Affluenza: The all-consuming epidemic. 2nd ed. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.
Swenson, Richard. 1998. The Overload Syndrome: Learning to live within your limits. Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress.
Zigarelli, Michael A. 2005. Cultivating Christian character: How to become the person God wants you to be and how to help others do the same. Colorado Springs, CO: Purposeful Design Publications.