It has often been observed that “ambiguity breeds anxiety.” As noted in an April 2020 article published by the Association for Psychological Science, “Decades of scientific research show that how we make meaning out of situations can leave us vulnerable to unhelpful, out-of-proportion anxiety. When our environment is inherently ambiguous — open to interpretation and unknown outcomes — our interpretations matter. They matter a lot. Ambiguity breeds anxiety; more so when the ‘facts’ change hourly.”
Anxiety Out of a Gnawing Sense of Uncertainty
The article was titled, “Human Behavior in the Time of COVID-19: Learning from Psychological Science,” and it addressed some of the unique psychological challenges that arose during the COVID years, a time that was exacerbated by a gnawing sense of uncertainty.
What is coming next? Will I get sick or die? Will someone I love get sick or die? Where did this thing come from? Do the vaccines really work? What about wearing masks? When can we go back to school? How can I pay my bills? Does the government really know what it’s doing? And on and on it went.
A lack of clear boundaries breeds anxiety. An uncertainty about the future breeds anxiety. The absence of absolutes breeds anxiety.
Even in the little details of life, when we have reliable information, be it good or bad, we can handle that much better than not knowing at all.
For example, if you’re on a tight schedule and your flight is delayed, you are anxious until the plane finally arrives. Will I make my appointment or not? The not knowing is what causes the stress. The moment you have definite information (the plane will be on time; the plane will not be on time), you can take concrete action.
What Happens to Young People in a World With Fewer Absolutes?
But what happens to a generation that is faced with ambiguity at every turn? What happens to young people born into a world with fewer and fewer absolutes?
Kids today wonder whether global warming will destroy the earth during their lifetimes. They are faced with an increasing polarizing political scene that also breeds uncertainty. They don’t know if they’ll have a job waiting for them after college. They even wonder whether they are actually who they are (meaning, are they boys trapped in girls’ bodies, or vice versa). And when they look to “progressive” religious leaders, the situation is no better. “We don’t want to be too dogmatic!”
More than a decade ago, as the “emergent church” was becoming trendy, I pointed to what I called the celebration of ambiguity. Pastors and Christian leaders in this movement were applauded for their spiritual uncertainty, as in, “No one can be sure that the Bible really means what it says. I’m not sure about it either!” And for this, they were celebrated for their open-minded, humble spirit.
My question was, “If you’re not sure, why are you leading? How can you lead? Where are you leading?”
No Room for Ambiguity, Christian Leaders
And remember: We weren’t talking about the interpretation of a notoriously difficult, somewhat obscure verse in the Bible. Or about a minor, tangential point of doctrine. We were talking about fundamentally important issues Is there is salvation outside of Jesus? Is the Bible truly the Word of God? Did Jesus literally rise from the dead and is He literally coming again? There is no room for ambiguity or uncertainty here if you are a Christian leader.
These emergent church leaders also stated that “the journey is more important than the destination,” as if an exciting journey to hell was more valuable than a dull journey to heaven.
With all respect to the importance of the journey itself and of learning from the journey, if we don’t end up in the right destination, especially eternally, then we have badly, tragically missed the mark.
In light, then, of the spiritual and natural uncertainties that this young generation is faced with, coupled with the 24/7 bombardment of the latest news, often in sensationalistic terms, it is no wonder that depression rates have increased dramatically.
In the year 2000, psychologist David Myers could point to, “Soaring rate of depression — to ten times the pre-World War II level by one estimate.” For him, this was the fruit of the counterculture revolution of the 1960s, because of which, even during times of economic prosperity, our wallets were fat but our souls were empty.
Fast forward to 2017, when a Pew Research survey reported that 13% of U.S. teens ages 12 to 17 (or 3.2 million) said they had experienced at least one major depressive episode in the past year, up from 8% (or 2 million) in 2007.” So, the “soaring” rates of depression back in 2000 were more of a baseline before things got even worse.
As of 2022, it was reported that “15.08% of youth (age 12-17) report suffering from at least one major depressive episode (MDE) in the past year.”
The numbers continue to rise — and those numbers represent people, precious, hurting, young people, all of them the objects of God’s love and potential objects of redemption.
The Certainty of the Gospel
How does all this tie in with the presentation of the gospel?
Commenting on the recent spiritual outpouring at Asbury, Ruth Graham noted that, “The campus setting has helped define the revival for many observers as one driven by Generation Z and speaking to their needs.”
In the words of Madison Pierce, a student at Asbury Theological Seminary, which is across the street from the university, the revival is “marked by overwhelming peace for a generation marked by anxiety.”
He continued, “It’s marked by joy for a generation marked by suicidal ideation. It’s marked by humility for a generation traumatized by the abuse of religious power.”
These are words of wisdom, words that hit the nail on the head. And just as there was a massive spiritual harvest of young people during the Jesus Revolution of the late 1960s and early 1970s, a time marked by great uncertainty and instability, so also today there is about to be a massive spiritual harvest of young people.
In Jesus alone will they find lasting peace for their troubled souls and a certainty that will banish anxiety. In Jesus alone with they discover that inexpressible and glorious joy that chases suicide away.
Let us remember this as we share the Good News with them. It will cost them everything to follow the Lord, but it will be worth more than they could ever imagine.
Dr. Michael Brown (www.askdrbrown.org) is the host of the nationally syndicated Line of Fire radio program. His latest book is The Political Seduction of the Church: How Millions of American Christians Have Confused Politics with the Gospel. Connect with him on Facebook, Twitter or YouTube.