One of the most underrated experiences of human life is the adolescent journey of self-discovery. If you think about it, we really long to relive those years of human life. Our pop culture primarily focuses on these years in our storytelling.
Think of our generation’s (Gen X) “classic movies” Back to the Future, Star Wars, the Breakfast Club, ET, or our most recent movie loves of Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Twilight, Spiderman, etc. You see a common theme of youth discovering their true self, and this story is the turning point of their life.
“Art imitates life, and life imitates art” as the old saying goes, we love these movies of self-discovery because we identify with them. So let us consider the youth to which we are parents, mentors, or youth pastors in their lives. If we look back on these years as significant in our development, then that means each day is a significant turning point in creating their identity in their present everyday life. This thought probably overwhelms you, as it does me, especially when we see their struggle in the search for identity.
Let’s face it; personal identity is at the forefront of every teen’s mind, even more so than ever before. Struggling with developmental identities such as sexuality and gender, navigating cultural identities such as race and ethnicity, and social identities of what ideology to follow or what job to have after college. This is a lot of stress for a young mind. Significant adults in their lives must be in tune with what they need to develop into strong spiritually, emotionally, and physically healthy adults.
Since these are important years for youth to develop their identity, we as mentors, parents, and Youth Pastors must help them to recognize the base of every identity is their “Imago Dei.” Also known as the “Image of God.”
The Image of God is the metaphysical distinctiveness that God gave us in the creation that connects us to Him in a distinctive way. In other words, God is the source that gives us the ability to think, create, feel emotion on a deep level and the ability to ponder the purpose of life. This is a gift that connects us to God, to each person, and all of humanity. (See Genesis 1:27) It is the defining aspect of humanity that gives us real value.
When students understand that they have value because they are the “Imago Dei” (a special creation of God), it helps them know they were built with love, purpose and are connected to a community. They are not a mistake regardless of how they feel and are never truly lost even when they struggle with “who and what” they are. Understanding the “Imago Dei” also protects them from the lies their environment tells them, whether it is social pressure or simply an unsupportive or abusive family.
Too often, as adults, we focus on the wrong thing first when youth make identity claims. We panic and overreact to their claims of their sexuality, type of music, gender, dress and hairstyles, their choice of friends, or choice of significant other. Then when we reject their claims, they believe we rejected them as a person. We might even inadvertently reinforce an identity claim that they would have eventually abandoned if we would have just walked with them through it.
I’m not saying we shouldn’t have conversations, discussions, or directly address the issue, especially if their course of action could be destructive. I am saying that we need to take every opportunity to teach or reinforce the “Imago Dei” in our students first, then let these conversations take place. By starting with the base identity of the Imago Dei, even if your student struggles with “who they are,” what they will not struggle with is their value as a human being, their place with you, and their place with God.
Pastor Joseph Valenzuela is the Executive/Family Pastor at New Life in Scottsdale, Arizona.