To what shall I compare this generation?” So spoke a man in His early thirties about the generation in which He lived. It was occasioned by an expression of doubt by another individual about the same age—one of the finest of that generation, a man specially prepared for a unique posture of service to that generation.
This incident is recorded in Matthew 11. John the Baptist, imprisoned because of his rebuke of Herod Antipas’ adulterous marriage, had begun to entertain uncertainties as to whether Jesus was the promised Messiah after all. In messianic compassion, Jesus responded to John’s inquiries not with a rebuke but with a reminder that His works demonstrated the validity of His messianic office. Then, to those who stood by, hearing the exchange between Jesus and John’s disciples, Jesus asked, “[T]o what shall I compare this generation?” (v. 16). His answer was to point out that the people were like fickle children who could not agree on whether to sing a happy song or a sad song while at play. The people of that generation were critical of John’s austerity and Jesus’ accessibility.
Many of us have asked, “To what shall I compare this generation?” This question is especially asked by the “older generation” (like myself ) about the younger, ubiquitous, vocal generation with which we live. They are a generation like no other. They have been described as confident, affluent, diverse, well-educated, passionate, socially connected, and inseparably attached to a host of cuttingedge electronic devices. They make up nearly half of today’s workforce. To the older generation, much of that is intimidating. We long for the good old days before the technology explosion, when life was slower and less complicated. Things seemed more innocent then. “What are we to do?” we ask. The better question is, “What is the biblical thing to do?”
Above all, we must recognize that God has sovereignly placed us in this precise time and with this specific younger generation. God made no mistake in allowing us to witness these things in our lifetimes and to remain for a while among them.
We also should look for indications from the example of Jesus that could assist us in knowing our role in influencing this generation. He lived among His generation as One who perfectly kept the law of God from the heart. No one could rightly accuse Him of sin. In addition, He had compassion on the people. He was the perfect lover of their souls. The rich young ruler came to Jesus with an apparent desire to inherit eternal life, but as he conversed with Jesus, he told Him that he had kept the commandments from his youth. This avowed law-keeper was in fact a law-breaker. Jesus knew that perfectly, for He knew what was in man (John 2:25). However, “Jesus, looking at him, loved him” (Mark 10:21). As the perfect lover of that man’s troubled soul, Jesus prescribed the solution: “Release your grip on what is holding your soul captive, and attach yourself to Me.” With sadness, the youth walked away from Jesus, and we can be sure that it was with sadness that Jesus watched him go.
The Scriptures make it clear that the older generation has a God-given responsibility to seek to influence the younger generation in the direction of godliness and spiritual maturity. The psalmist wrote: “O God, from my youth you have taught me, and I still proclaim your wondrous deeds. So even to old age and gray hairs, O God, do not forsake me until I proclaim your might to another generation, your power to all those to come” (71:17, 18). In Titus 2:2–3, the older men and women in the churches in Crete are exhorted to be examples of spiritual maturity that will set the right tone for their instruction to the younger to live in such a manner “that the word of God may not be reviled” (v. 5).
How are we, the older generation of Christians, living in the early part of the twenty-first century, to influence this younger generation to not forsake the old paths, the spiritual legacy that was handed down to us?
First and foremost, our lives must clearly demonstrate our genuine attachment to Christ as our Savior and Lord. No one (especially our youth) should doubt our relationship to Christ. The fruit that results from our being savingly joined to Christ must be clearly evident. Inseparably linked to this must be a clear demonstration of progress and growth in our walk with the Savior. When Peter and John were brought before the Sanhedrin because the Sadducees were aggravated at their proclamation of Jesus’ resurrection, they boldly declared that Jesus was the only way of salvation. How did their hearers, who had presided over the condemnation and execution of Jesus, respond? They noted their boldness, seeing that these men were not rabbinically trained. Most importantly, “they recognized that [the apostles] had been with Jesus” (Acts 4:13). Likewise, the genuineness of our walk with Jesus should be evident to all.
Formal instruction in home, church, and school, and the mentoring programs that many churches offer, provide potentially effective opportunities for influencing the younger generation. However, there are some general steps that will prove beneficial in less-formal settings:
1. Love them genuinely and patiently. The younger generation needs to know that the older generation is not estranged from them. The church is a body made up of many members, young and old—all valuable to the functioning of the whole. In Ephesians 4, Paul describes the saints as growing from spiritual immaturity “to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (v. 13). This process is accomplished “when each part is working properly, mak[ing] the body grow so that it builds itself up in love” (v. 16). If we are to have an impact on the young, we must love them, and they must know that we do. “Love one another earnestly from a pure heart” (1 Peter 1:22). Do not be hesitant to tell them that you love them (corporately and individually). To love them genuinely and patiently is to love them as God loves us.
2. Share with them what is most important for you. They should see your passionate love for God’s Word. It instructs you, guides you, encourages you, and convicts you. It is a vital component of every day of your life. “I have treasured the words of His mouth more than my necessary food” (Job 23:12, NKJV). Share specific passages that have gripped your life recently. Also, convey to them that prayer is another essential that the Christian must not live without. Pray with them and for them. Paul’s testimony of Epaphras was that he was “always struggling on your behalf in his prayers, that you may stand mature and fully assured in all the will of God” (Col. 4:12). Urge them to fight on tirelessly in their battle with sin. They must flee youthful passions (2 Tim. 2:22) that wage war against the soul (1 Peter 2:11). Furthermore, challenge them to see God at work in all events, including the details of their lives. Encourage them to be constantly thanking God for this and giving all glory to Him. Are these elements the most important things in your life?
3. Invest in them. Buy them books that have made a spiritual impact on your life, and offer to study these books with them. Offer to take them to Ligonier conferences and other Christian gatherings. The investments we make in their spiritual lives will pay everlasting dividends. “Cast your bread upon the waters, for you will find it after many days” (Eccl. 11:1).
So, “to what shall I compare this generation?” Surely it is a generation like no other. But it is also a generation that needs to know Christ’s redeeming love, and needs to shine as lights in the world in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation (Phil. 2:15)—just as we of the older generation needed to do back in our day (and now). May God help us to be examples and loving instructors to them, and may they do likewise to the generation that follows them.