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When Teens Rebel

School administrators are on edge these days. The shooting rampage in Littleton, Colorado, has spawned threats of violence in schools all across America. A segment of rebellious teenagers has created such havoc in schools that they've had to dismiss for a day or two or step up security. Many experts are trying to analyze the problem—why such rage and brutality among teenagers from the inner city to rural areas? Some blame student cliques, uncensored Internet information, availability of guns, vulgar rap music, gothic philosophy, value-neutral education, or the removal of Bible reading and prayer in the school.

Since this issue is on the minds of many people, I would like to focus on our greatest void: godly parents. Proverbs 22:6 says, "Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it." Parents of little children need to know how to train children so gross rebellion can be avoided.

The desire for independence is instinctive in every child, and every child is going to rebel to a degree. But that resistance can be controlled and minimized. Parents of teenagers in severe rebellion need to know how to react to dissident behavior so there is not a total loss of control or permanent spiritual damage. The current unrest alerts us to three biblical principles ignored in the last 20 years. Mothers and dads, I plead with you today, listen to these basic philosophies of parenting for your child's sake, for your sake, and for this nation's sake.

Principle 1: Children are inherently sinful.

Number one, we need to understand the inherent sinfulness of humanity. We've been told people are basically good, that a human being is the product of billions of years of evolution and is getting better and better. We have been told, given the right environment and a good opportunity, people will ultimately choose what is good. According to this philosophy, a parent's basic task is to build up a child's self-esteem.

On Larry King Live, the vice-president of the United States was asked why he thought teens in America were so attracted to violence. He said, "It's because of our evolutionary heritage, the nature of tooth and claw." In other words, we're reverting to our past animalistic instincts and need to press on to our positive future of evolution.

On the same program, a liberal minister said, "We have got to build up kids' self-esteem. The teens in Colorado rebelled," he said, "because they had been put down by the more popular kids as outcasts. It doesn't matter what religion you are. You need to tell your kids they're good and wonderful and beautiful."

But the popular kids who ridiculed the outcasts had good self-esteem. Their problem is pride. Now, a child needs to know he or she is loved and important. But the truth of the Bible and the beginning point of parenting is not that humans are basically good; they are inherently evil. Listen to these three verses of Scripture: Jeremiah 17:9: "The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?" Proverbs 22:15: "Folly is bound up in the heart of a child. But the rod of discipline will drive it far from him." Romans 7:18: "I know that nothing good lives in me, that is in my sinful nature, for I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out."

A developing apple that harbors a tiny worm at the core will eventually produce a fruit that is totally corrupted, regardless of how impressive it may appear on the exterior. And the most innocent, beautiful-looking baby is a tainted creature, having inherited the sin nature of Adam. If that sin nature is not restrained and eventually regenerated, the child will soon be capable of horrendous behavior.

Several years ago the Minnesota Crime Commission released a report that sounds harsh to some today:

Every baby starts life as a little savage. He is completely selfish and self-centered. He wants what he wants when he wants it—his bottle, his mother's attention, his playmate's toy, his uncle's watch. Deny these and he seethes with rage and aggressiveness, which could be murderous were he not so helpless. This means that all children, not just certain children, are born delinquent. And if permitted to continue in the self-centered world of infancy, given free reign to his impulsive actions, every child would grow up to be a criminal.

Dr. Albert Siegel also said recently in the Stanford Observer, "When it comes to rearing children, every society is only 20 years away from barbarism. Twenty years is all we have to accomplish the task of civilizing infants who are born into our midst each year."

Mothers and Dads, understand the inherent sin nature of your child. Your child is created in the image of God and has an awesome potential for good, but your child is also stamped with the sin of Adam and has an innate craving for evil.

When I was a teenager my mother had a rule: Don't ever bring your girlfriend to our house when no one is here. And I'd always say, "Mom, why? Don't you trust me?" And she always had the same standard answer. "No. That's too much temptation." She did not say, "It looks bad to other people. I don't trust her; I do trust you." She said, "No, that's too much temptation." I would act like I was really hurt. My own mother doesn't trust me. That's terrible. I'd walk away and deep inside I would think, My mother's pretty sharp. She knows what I'm thinking. My mother believed in the sin nature—that it needed to be restrained more than my self-esteem needed to be boosted. Otherwise maybe I wouldn't be here today.

Principle 2: Parents must teach respect.

The second principle we need to restore is the absolute necessity of respect. In recent years there has been a breakdown of respect for all authority figures. Some child's rights advocates insist that children be given the same rights as adults, and there are movies about children divorcing their parents, and school teachers in many places have had all the leverage taken away from them. Many parents see themselves as their child's friend, and as a result, a number of children have no authority figure in the home.

CNN reported that the mother of a 15-year-old girl allowed a male stripper to appear at her slumber party. CNN said, "Although she claims her daughter hired him without her knowledge, she said she only let him continue his act to avoid embarrassing her daughter."

Parents have abdicated the moral leadership in the home in a futile attempt to identify with their kids. Listen, Mom and Dad: If your children don't respect you, they will not love you. The Bible teaches the first essential in all relationships is respect. Solomon said, "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom." Before we can love God, we first have to respect God. Parents need to teach children to respect God's Word and to reverence God's house of worship and to respect God's name. They need to know about God's love, but teach them to first reverence his authority. Proverbs 19:23 says, "The fear of the Lord leads to life: Then one rests content, untouched by trouble."

Respect for parents. The first step to teach your child to respect God is to teach them to respect you as a parent. Ephesians 6 says, "Children, obey your parents in the Lord for this is right. Honor your mother and father, which is the first commandment with a promise." First Timothy 3 says, "The leader of the church is to see that his children obey him with proper respect."

Parents are the child's first encounter with authority. How they will later relate to God and other authority figures will be determined by whether or not they respect you. That is why it is so important children learn first-time obedience.

Mom and Dad, let's say you say to your toddler, "Time to pick up your toys. Time to go to bed." And you look over three minutes later, and he's still not picking up his toys. You say a little louder, "I said, 'Pick up your toys.'" A little later he is still not doing it. You begin to shout. "I said, 'Pick up your toys.' " That still doesn't do it. So finally you get up out of your chair angry and start toward him, and then he starts picking up his toys, and you help him and mumble all the time.

Now what have you taught him? You've taught him the action line is when you get up out of your chair. What you say doesn't mean anything. And even when you get up out of your chair, he's still going to be okay as long as he cooperates. You don't have control over your child.

But with first-time obedience, when you say, "Pick up your toys," if he doesn't pick up his toys, when you get up out the chair and he scrambles to do it, it's too late. You use the leverage God has given—whether it's his going to bed without a snack or a spanking or whatever. The next time you say, "Pick up your toys," he knows the action line is first-time obedience. You do what you say you're going to do. By teaching children to respect parental authority, we're teaching them to respect the authority of God. God wants us to obey the first time.

Respect for civic authority. We also have a responsibility to teach our children that God has delegated authority to government officials. (See Romans 13:1-7)

We're to teach our kids that the police and military personnel and schoolteachers are our friends. They're to commend us when we do good, but if we disobey, we're to fear them. They are to be respected.

My mother and dad had a rule in our home. If you get a spanking in school, you get one at home. Now, they knew teachers were fallible, but they sided with the teacher first. That is rare today. Schoolteachers will tell you about parents who march to school in anger every time their child is corrected, and they protect their kids. The kids sneer in the teacher's face and ridicule their parents behind their backs.

Respect for church leaders. Our senior high ministers do an excellent job of leading a spring break trip to Florida for our teenagers every year. They begin with basic rules, and one of the rules is "Don't bring any secular CDs on this trip, because if you do they will be confiscated and destroyed." Now there's a reason for that. If the youth sponsor said, "They'll be taken from you and given back at the end of the week," it would just be a game. Nothing lost if you get caught.

Well, the first year they found a lot of CDs and took them from the kids, broke them up, and threw them away. The next year they didn't find any. You know why? Because word got around. You know who objected? The parents. "That's extreme," some of you said. "Those CDs were expensive. They should have taken them and given them back."

Parents, please, get some backbone. Teach the necessity of obedience. You ought to appreciate sponsors who set basic guidelines and do what they say they're going to do. We have a responsibility to teach a law of sowing and reaping. You sow obedience; you reap blessing. You sow disobedience; you reap punishment. Train your child to respect adults.

Principle 3: Don't quit parenting early.

The third principle is to accept the ongoing responsibility of parenthood. There are a lot of parents who quit too early. If you go to a Tee-ball game of seven-year-olds, all the parents are there. But if you go back when the kids are 15, you will not see many parents. We're involved in the lives of our children in the early years, but when they get to be teenagers, we phase out.

And I can understand. It is a hassle to be a parent. You keep saying to the 11-year-old, "No," and they keep whining and nagging. It's tough. It's a lot easier to say, "Yes," and look the other way when your 14-year-old wants to roam the mall. It is easier to ignore what your 16-year-old is doing rather than have an unpleasant confrontation.

Many parents give up and disengage when the teenage years come. And we ask, How in the world could parents not know when their teenagers are building pipe bombs in the garage? But a lot of parents have released their children so early they don't know what kind of music they are listening to or what they are watching on the Internet or who their friends are. Christian Moms and Dads, you are responsible for your child until they leave home and are completely financially independent. God holds you accountable. (See Deuteronomy 21:18-21)

As a child grows your role as a parent changes, but stay involved in the life of your teenager. Much rebellion is a cry for attention: How much are you going to let me get by with before you draw a line? And they will tell you they don't want any rules, and they don't want you around; but they do need and want guidelines. And they want you there at the ballgames and recitals, and they need your praise and love.

I love this line of philosophy from Josh McDowell: "Rules without relationship lead to rebellion." You've got to be close enough that you have a relationship or the rules aren't going to mean anything. The opposite is true too. Relationship without rules will lead to rebellion. Stay involved with your kids. Be savvy about what's influencing your child.

I met with our junior and senior high youth ministers this week. They said, "Would you tell the people that no child, no teenager, should have a computer in his or her room? The computer needs to be in a public place so that others see what's going on."

Oh, you say, "We got a program that blocks all the raunchy stuff on our computer." The kid can bring home a pornographic disk or CD-Rom and you may not have a clue. And don't say, "My child would never do that." Remember the first principle—the inherently sinful nature of people.

You can reclaim lost ground.

Some of you may say, "This is probably too late for me. My teenager is so rebellious. I've lost all control. What should I do?"

First, you need to pray and ask God for wisdom. You have a difficult circumstance and need divine help. Secondly, sit down with that rebellious child and repent. Admit you have made mistakes as a parent. You've been hypocritical, you've been too strict or too lenient, and you are sorry.

Then announce an immediate change of strategy. From this point on you are going to be the leader of the home. And you'd like the child's cooperation, but you're going to do it regardless. I guarantee that your child is going to react angrily or cynically because sin nature will always resist authority.

Fourthly, communicate clear guidelines and reasonable consequences. Gary Smalley suggests we give children the opportunity to assist here. Perhaps so, but God has given you the authority, and there are appropriate leverages. Make church attendance a requirement. School is non-negotiable; going to the doctor when you're sick is non-negotiable; so church attendance should be non-negotiable.

Then, follow through with consistency and courage. It will be a hassle. It will be unpleasant. It will be risky, because they may run away. But that's their decision. Your child has to have an authority figure in his or her life, or you must release them and say, "God, you bring an authority figure into their life, because I can't."

Be willing to practice tough love if necessary. Say up front, "If you resist these guidelines, here are the steps we're going to take. Your privileges will be removed. We'll go to Christian family counseling. If we still can't control you, we'll send you to the child correctional facility where you can be brought under control."

I got a touching letter from a mother in our church who became alarmed about the behavior of her 15-year-old daughter a couple of years ago. The daughter was increasingly rebellious, wore dark clothing, ran with the wrong crowd. They suspected drugs. Finally, the mother discovered a folder in the girl's room, and the folder read "Leave this blankety-blank alone. This is my life." With trembling hands she opened it. She found a series of the most disturbing letters she'd ever seen, and she is not naïve. One of the notes had a poem from a boy smeared with blood around the edges, and they discovered that this girl, even though she'd grown up in the church, was involved with witchcraft and the occult.

The parents were devastated, and they realized their daughter was rebellious beyond their ability to control. They took drastic action. Within 24 hours, they whisked her away to her aunt. They said, "We needed to get her out of the city for her protection, but also out of the house for the protection of her younger brothers and sisters." The aunt, a dedicated Christian, insisted the girl go through a program called "Bondage Breakers." She took her with her to Precept Bible Studies. She home-schooled her. One day, this young girl devoted her life to Jesus Christ. She was gone for three months, but she came back a new creature in Christ. Today she's active in youth group, and recently gave her testimony. Her mother wrote, "Bob, encourage the people to be obedient to God even if it's embarrassing, even if it's drastic. We are thankful we did."

If you practice tough love, continue to extend gestures of love. First Peter 4:8 reads, "Above all, love each other deeply because love covers a multitude of sins." Ruth Graham in her book Prodigals: And Those Who Love Them says, "Keep the channels of communication open at all times. Permit them collect phone calls so they know that they're loved and welcome back home anytime."

J. Wallace Hamilton tells about a preacher's son who rebelled. They couldn't control him. One night in the wee hours of the morning, he staggered in dead drunk, fell on his bed, and passed out. The preacher went to sleep. An hour later he awakened, but his wife not by his side. He tip-toed into his son's room, and his wife was seated at his bedside, where the boy was asleep. The mother stroked his matted hair. With tears streaming down her face she said, "He won't let me love him when he's awake."

Can I say a word to teenagers before we close? Chances are there's no one in this world who loves you the way your mother and father love you. Long after your friends are gone, chances are your parents will still be there. And if you have a parent who practices these principles that we talked about today, be thankful, because they really love you. And if you're rebelling, would you understand God holds you accountable? Other people may look at you as a little innocent child, but you know deep in your heart you're responsible. Maybe today there's a mother praying for you that you need to respond to. You would please your parents in great measure if you would respond in humility to Jesus Christ.

For Your Reflection

Personal growth: How has this sermon fed your own soul? ___________________________________________

Skill growth: What did this sermon teach you about how to preach? ____________________________________________________________________________

Exegesis and exposition: Highlight the paragraphs in this sermon that helped you better understand Scripture. How does the sermon model ways you could provide helpful biblical exposition for your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________

Theological Ideas: What biblical principles in this sermon would you like to develop in a sermon? How would you adapt these ideas to reflect your own understanding of Scripture, the Christian life, and the unique message that God is putting on your heart? ____________________________________________________________________________

Outline: How would you improve on this outline by changing the wording, or by adding or subtracting points? _____________________________________________________________________

Application: What is the main application of this sermon? What is the main application of the message you sense God wants you to bring to your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________

Illustrations: Which illustrations in this sermon would relate well with your hearers? Which cannot be used with your hearers, but they suggest illustrations that could work with your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________

Credit: Do you plan to use the content of this sermon to a degree that obligates you to give credit? If so, when and how will you do it?

Bob Russell is a speaker, chairman of the board of the Londen Institute, and author of When God Builds a Church (Howard).

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Sermon Outline:


Why the rage and brutality in schools?

I. Principle 1

Children are inherently sinful.

II. Principle 2

Parents must teach respect.

III. Principle 3

Don't quit parenting early.

IV. You can reclaim lost ground.


Continue to extend gestures of love to rebellious children.