A Generation of Debtors

A Gen-Xer reflects on the deficits bequeathed to his generation and on its fear of redemption.

This article originally appeared in Christianity Today, November 11, 1996 (vol. 40, no. 13), p. 31.

Paul sobbed as he prayed, “God, I need to know that you forgive me.” Though he and his girlfriend had ended their addictive sexual relationship several months earlier, he could not quite believe God had forgiven him. Reciting the words from a Graham Kendrick song we often sang—“And now the love of God shall flow like rivers. Come wash your guilt away: Live again!”—he looked into our eyes and confessed, “I need that kind of cleansing.”

Lisa had experienced God’s grace in her life. Even so, she could not escape the sense that she needed to earn God’s approval and that her efforts were never quite good enough. I understood her problem better when she told me her wealthy grandfather, who had paid her older brother’s way through Harvard, had let her know he had no interest in paying for her Harvard education. “If I had been a boy … ” she began, her voice trailing off.

We need God too much, day to day, to live without his real presence, a presence that addresses and transforms our hearts, minds, and wills.

Karen had hated her dad since age three when her father left her mother. Now a college junior, she began to see for the first time the connection between, on the one hand, her cynicism and depression and, on the other, the anger she had carried inside her for years. Looking at me with a mixture of disbelief and hope as I described what it might be like to relate to others with genuine openness and joy, she asked, “But how can I ever forgive him?”

These three conversations took place during one typical week in my work as an InterVarsity staff member at Harvard. In these students I see myself—and a whole generation. Each is bright, likable, and deeply broken. Each shares in a toxic intersection of brokenness and sin—and, I believe, incredible hope. This is ministry Generation-X style.

Conceived in debt

There are many ways to describe the current cohort of college students. My age group (born between 1965 and 1985) has been called “Generation X” by the baby boomer-dominated media, being portrayed variously as slackers and activists, grunge kids and techno whizzes, passive MTV consumers and creative artists. I have come to see my generation, though, as a generation of debtors—both in that we are owed debts that will never be paid and in that we owe debts we can never pay.

The most obvious debt is the national one—$5 trillion and increasing every day by $700 million—an economic cloud that looms over our future. This debt represents vast promises—world security, social security, medical care—made without the resources to keep them, and it fuels much of the economic cynicism of my generation.

In one sense, the national debt is ours: it will fall to us to pay it, if we can. But because we were so young when it was amassed, we also sense that the national debt is owed to us—as promises made to us that will never be fulfilled. Our parents have sowed the wind, and we have reaped the whirlwind.

The national debt symbolizes, though, a deeper emptiness that forms what I would call the “core experiences” of this generation. These experiences of pain are lodged at the heart of who they are, in the innermost chambers of their identities and memories; and like the core of an apple, they contain the seeds of their actions, attitudes, hopes, and fears.

As with Karen, most of the core experiences of pain of this generation have to do with the lack of true family. Many grew up without both parents physically present; even more grew up with at least one parent emotionally absent. A vast number never experienced love and acceptance from their fathers, at least in a way that they could receive it.

Even those of us from healthy families did not escape this pain. My life has been marked by the attempted suicide of a close friend whose parents had recently divorced.

Addicted to “love”

Paul’s sexual involvement with his girlfriend had been part of a pattern of intimate active relationships that he had established and then ended abruptly. He confessed his problem but was at a loss to describe why he engaged in this compulsive habit. Over the course of several conversations, I was not surprised to learn that his parents were busy and successful entrepreneurs who had made little time for him when he was in high school.

With our parents’ absence came the opportunity to make our own boundaries—or not to. This generation largely avoided the promiscuity of the baby boomers’ “sexual revolution” (which Time declared over just as we were getting started). Rather, these young people tied sexual intimacy with “really caring about someone.”

Those seeking one-night stands have no illusions about their purpose: they are searching for sexual enjoyment and exploration, not for long-term commitment. But as teenagers, this generation learned to link sexuality with emotional commitment, creating quasi-marriages called “going out” with someone. In the context of these quasi-marriages, sexual intimacy was considered normal and good.

But these relationships are radically unstable. Thus these young couples have imitated—on an accelerated and adolescent scale—the serial monogamy of their parents’ culture of divorce. Given the nature of such relationships, the emotional consequences of a breakup are often similar to a divorce, fostering the core experiences of addiction and confusion and the seeds of future pain and sin.

Our sin and addiction find other expressions as well. Every day beautiful, compassionate, bright young women eat in the dining halls on my campus, then go home to make themselves throw up. They crave food to fill the emptiness, then crave emptiness to purge themselves of their slavery to food.

When my parents were in college, eating disorders were practically unknown. Today I am not surprised when I get a call like Teri’s, whose roommate is suddenly hospitalized for an eating disorder, and to hear Teri tell me that she herself is trying to resist the temptation to binge in reaction to that terrifying news.

Eating disorders, sexual addiction, drug abuse, alcoholism, and compulsive shopping—all these demonstrate that the core experiences of pain and sin are interrelated and, indeed, feed off one another in an escalating cycle of consumption. Psychiatrist Jeffrey Satinover has written that the only way for people to find release from these addictive patterns that entrap us is to find healing for some core experience of pain that the sin has tried to address.

I have held countless conversations with students about sin and forgiveness, and many of these have ended in prayer for the healing of some deeply rooted experience of pain. For Paul, a key to experiencing God’s forgiveness was to acknowledge the neglect he had experienced from his parents. As he did, he was increasingly able to know the cleansing love of God, forgive his parents, and forgive himself.

The connection goes the other way as well. The reason our pain retains its power to cripple us is nearly always lack of forgiveness. If someone has hurt us deeply, that person’s sin continues to have power over us until we release that person of that debt to us. For this reason, those students’ prayers for healing of core experiences of pain have also been prayers asking for God’s power to forgive those who had done them wrong.

We are a generation in debt, and others are in debt to us. The emptiness under our feet is promises that were not kept and never will be-promises to balance the budget, to attend our violin recital, to have and to hold from this day forward, to teach us the difference between good and evil. We have helped hollow out this canyon, but we have no resources to fill it. Our continued activity will not fill it; our addictions will certainly not fill it; not even resolving to be a “promise keeper” will fill it. The only way for these debts to be settled is if they are forgiven.

No place for church

Like most young adults in the twentieth century, my generation is mostly uninterested in church. What I see from daily contact with secular college students, though, is that X-ers may not return to church when they marry or have children, as did the first post-Christian baby-boom generation. They cannot be satisfied with an abstract, intellectual faith in Christ and the forgiveness of sins. Only if there is forgiveness available for them to feel and experience, not just talk about, will the church have anything to offer my generation.

What does the church have to offer my generation? The Holy Spirit. Forgiveness of sin, healing of pain, adoption into a family—according to the New Testament, these are among the core functions of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is the gracious presence who fills the absences of our lives. And it is not much of an exaggeration to say that wherever effective ministry is happening among my generation, the Holy Spirit is coming in power.

We are not all becoming charismatics—though many charismatic and “Third Wave” churches are effectively reaching my generation. It is simply that we need God too much, day to day, to live without his real presence, a presence that addresses and transforms our hearts, minds, and wills.

I have found in my ministry that the real presence of the Holy Spirit is available when we open the doorways of repentance and forgiveness. One afternoon Karen and a friend met with me to pray. She wept as she remembered the day her father left her house for the last time, promising to return. Later she told us that she had not cried in years. But having wept for the pain her father caused her, Karen was able to move from saying, “Daddy, I forgive you” to confessing her own guilt in giving anger a dominant place in her heart. Then what she later called “a river of love” flooded the room. It was so tangible that no one spoke for several minutes. When we did it was to move the prayer in an entirely different direction, this time thanking God that he was Karen’s Father, that she was his daughter, and that he had been present through all her suffering and wandering.

A generation of the Cross

Jesus said, “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.” The only way to settle unpayable debts is to forgive them. And forgiveness, as the Cross demonstrates, is not free; it causes suffering.

Thanks be to God, we do not have to bear the suffering of forgiveness alone; but as we identify with Christ, we also identify with his suffering that purchased our forgiveness. Hiding from suffering hides us from the gospel, turning forgiveness, healing, and the Holy Spirit into empty abstractions. The gift I believe my generation can bring to the church is a repentance from our culture’s flight from suffering, a turn toward the Cross, and with it, a return to the reality of the good news.

Where will this lead? It is hard to say, but I have noticed that among the students I work with there is an increasing willingness to give up Harvard’s promises of prosperity and influence in order to live among the poor. This past summer, many of our students moved into inner cities and traveled to the poorest parts of the world, not primarily to “help,” but to be where Christ is. They have discovered that he is present in their sufferings, and this has made them willing to suffer with others so that they might know more of his resurrection.

As we enter into suffering before the Lord, we find the gospel. There our emptiness is mysteriously transfigured into forgiveness, healing, and resurrection. I believe my generation is ready for this gospel. We know, beneath all our activism and busyness, that we do not have the answer. We know that no human institution, program, or ideology can fill the yawning chasm gaping beneath our feet.

Could it be that the mysterious, dismissive symbol given to my generation—an “X”—will become, as it was for the early Christians, a symbol for Christ and a symbol for the Cross?