There’s a picture I keep in my dresser drawer that elicits tears every time I look at it. Cardboard columns and twisted crepe paper make up the background. The camera is focused on four middle school girls wearing wrist corsages and hot-rolled hair.
I’m the one wearing a blue flowered dress and white slingbacks. I look like I’m playing dress up, because, of course, I was. The year was 1993. It was my first junior high dance.
I had been raised in and out of the church (mostly in), but did not yet understand the gospel or know Jesus personally. That means I was navigating puberty without the Holy Spirit. It was the worst kind of combination. My parents had divorced three years earlier, and I simply couldn't stop my heart from hemorrhaging. Add in middle school drama (the worst!) and some first-born achievement hangups, and the result was a girl who checked all the boxes: Good student, good athlete, good daughter, good friend—and yet, I had no idea who I was.
But God (and others he strategically put in my life). God sought and saved me. He saw the fatherless, fearful girl and adopted me as his own. Then, he gave me the church, full of other orphans willing to tuck me under their wings. And he did it, at first, through two of my friends (more on them in a moment).
A different kind of ending
While you’re still picturing that awkward 13-year-old me, I’d like you to consider another girl. Her name is Alexandra Valoras. She ended her own life at the age of 17 last fall. Though her story is certainly jarring, my goal isn’t shock and awe. Instead, I need us to look reality in the eye when it comes to young women and refuse to blink for a moment. When she made her bed and walked to a highway overpass to end her own life, she became a poster child for a real-deal crisis happening right now among the young women you know.
I dearly love young women and consider it a calling on my life to disciple them intentionally. Through dozens of conversations in coffee shops, I’ve noticed a trend. We’re not talking about boys any more. Somewhere along the line, the anty got upped. Young women talk to me frequently about their declining mental health. They describe debilitating anxiety. More than one has confided that she often struggles to function. One college-aged woman shared that she is in counseling for the effects of PTSD. (Her words, not mine). I see a pervasive paralysis among them.
Young people are not the “future of the church.” They are the church. Right now. And these trends should put us on high alert:
- Teen suicide is now at a 40-year high for young women.
- It is now the second leading cause of death for 15-24 year olds of both sexes.
- Anxiety disorders affect 25.1 percent of children between the ages of 13 and 18. Yes, you read that number right. It’s more than one in four.
- Psychological distress in women age 16-24 is at an all-time high, with record numbers admitting to harming themselves to relieve their distress.
The reasons why a 17-year-old honor student from a happy home would choose to end her own life are complicated. I wouldn’t dare try to trace that thread back to the spool in a single blog post, but the stakes are too high not to ask: What can we know and do?
The enemy hates young women
In Genesis 3, we see the serpent slither up to young Eve, hellbent on deception. His attack on young women hasn’t stopped since.
I can tell you from personal experience and from years of discipleship, that if the enemy can deceive a woman in her teen years, he wins a great victory. It is during those years that her thoughts on marriage and home and family and ministry are formed. Even if she simply spends a few years wandering from the Truth, there are often disastrous consequences that last a lifetime.
Teen angst may be normalized, but we are wise to ask ourselves, should it be? Was it really God’s plan that the hormones that are an inevitable part of growing up result in depression, anxiety, and hostility? Should we continue to downplay young women’s (and men’s) collective struggles as “just a phase”? Or, instead, can we take up arms against the enemy who is coming at the Body of Christ by picking on our youngest members?
Let’s look at the messages that are trickling down and identify where there are toxins. Specifically, I see three alternate gospels that are strangling young women.
1. The gospel of performance
After Alexandra jumped, her family found her journals filled with pages and pages of despair. One entry stands out to me, “I am stretched too thin.”
The struggle is alarmingly real. Several years ago, I was teaching at an event for young women. During the response time, a middle schooler came down and collapsed on the altar. I scooted over and asked how I could pray for her. Through tears she sobbed, “I didn’t finish my math homework.” Sure, there was a part of me that wanted to respond wryly, “Let’s talk when you have the pressure of four kids and mortgage,” but the Spirit stopped me. The anxiety and sadness she was feeling was real. To her, an unfinished assignment equated to a wasted life.
In many ways, life for the average middle school and high school girl has started to resemble a pressure cooker. As I mentioned in my book, My Name is Erin, here’s why:
Because of the pressure to get into a good college, most girls take Advanced Placement (AP) classes. Experts say each AP class will likely result in 45 minutes of homework each school night. Many students take multiple AP classes and can expect to spend almost two and a half hours doing homework after an eight-hour school day.
- 23 percent of young women spend two to five hours per day practicing a sport or musical instrument.
- 21 percent of young women spend at least 10 hours per week working for pay.
- Most young women spend two to 10 hours per week hanging out with friends.
School, sports, and friends eat up 80 hours of an average young woman’s 168-hour week. Add in time for sleep, and 133 hours are gone (though many are not sleeping well). Factor in time with family, involvement in church, and an average of seven hours a day looking at screens, and the numbers quickly start adding up.
Many young women are slowly suffocating under the weight of the idea that they have to perform in order to be loved and accepted. This false gospel has a tentacle in the church. When we teach that the Christian life is about doing certain things (reading your Bible, going to church, serving others), the enemy twists that into a message about salvation earned through performance.
2. The gospel of perfectionism
Another entry in Alexandra’s journal echoes a cry I’ve heard from many. She wrote, “I have to be perfect. Anything less is failure.”
I’ve heard high achievers have the highest rates of eating disorders. They are the most likely to battle with the two-headed beast of depression and anxiety. In Alexandra’s case, the pressure to do “all things” robbed her of the motivation to do anything at all.
This thinking cannot stand up to the true gospel which states, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). We are not and can never be perfect on our own. That is why we need Jesus so much. Are we proclaiming this to young women often enough? Or are we, the women of the church, polishing up an image of Christian perfectionism that is binding them in chains?
On Sunday mornings, when we get to the “shake a hand with someone” section of the service, I want to cry out, “I’m not perfect. You’re not perfect. Let’s run to Jesus together.” I don’t, but in quieter settings, when I am talking with women one-on-one, I hope I am declaring the gospel of grace, not of perfectionism. They simply cannot bear the weight of my impossible expectations.
3. The gospel of reverse providence
Providence is a term that has gone out of vogue, but mercifully, it’s an attribute of God that never will. Providence is simply divine guidance. It’s God’s ability to work out our futures for our good (Rom. 8:28). Our young women, however, are being discipled through Instagram, and they’re hearing a much different message. It’s a message that screams:
You decide the outcome.
You choose your path.
You take care of you.
You must make it happen.
What sounds empowering is actually debilitating, because instead of resting in God’s divine care, young women feel the pressure to make everything work out on their own. Since they are not the God of the universe, this puts them in an impossible position. Self-sufficiency is a killer. In contrast, dependence on Christ’s sufficiency leads to life.
It starts with hello
As I think back to that angsty, lost version of me, I know my story could have ended much differently. I too, worshipped at the altars of performance, perfection, and self-sufficiency. I felt the noose of these half-truths slowly tighten around my own neck.
But God used two people, Barry Smith and Dannah Gresh to escort me toward freedom. Barry was the youth pastor at a church my family visited. He crossed the room to introduce himself. He invited my sister and I to pizza and then youth group. Then, he faithfully taught the Bible to us. Dannah is now a well-known and loved author to young women, but 20 years ago, she held high the banner of Truth for just one girl—me. She took me to lunch. She opened her Bible. I’m forever changed by their examples.
Church, young women are on the ledge. They are poised to jump. We are their safety net. Young women need the Truth desperately—let’s give it to them faithfully and relentlessly.