The pain is real. And so is the solution.

The stories I hear are gut wrenching. A high school student whose parents are MIA in her life. A young man who has never been told that he was good enough or smart enough. Accounts of students who spend days and nights alone at home while their parents are out drinking and getting high. In other cases there are students who live with relatives or neighbors because their families can't or won't support them.

While the individual stories may differ, the results are the same. I see teenagers every day who are hurting because they simply do not know where to turn in their lives. Whether it is their parents who have neglected them, friends who have betrayed them, or relationships that have left them feeling dirty and worthless, there is a generation of young people crying out, and their pain is very real.

Yes, I've seen the drama that occurs in the lives of middle and high school students. Many times the bark is where worse than the actual bite. Feelings get hurt all the time, especially when you are at the age where you are trying to figure out who you are as your life (and your body) goes through immense changes. But often the outer drama reveals an inner hurt that has been left to fester for too long.

It's easy to keyhole this generation as one who feels entitled to things and has no concept of hard work. All they've ever known are iPhones and technology, so aren't they to blame for their lack of relationship and coping skills? Maybe they do share some of the burden, yet when their emptiness is real and the voids are deep, they may have no other option than to sink within themselves.

I sometimes substitute teach at the local middle and high schools in my town. Since I am also a youth pastor, I get to see lots of students on their turf that otherwise I may never get a chance to influence. It wasn't long ago when I subbed for a teacher who had one class that was particularly trying. It seemed as if the school rounded up all of the students with discipline problems and placed them in this one class at the end of the school day. One girl in particular stood out as sort of the ring leader of the chaos. She was little rough around the edges and based on what I had heard from some of the other students, her reputation was not so stellar. So, I called her up to my desk so that we could have a little chat.

She sheepishly approached me, perhaps thinking that I was going to give her a pink slip and send her to the office. But instead I began to ask her questions about herself. What do you want to be when you get older? Tell me about your dreams and your goals. Instantly there was a glimmer in her eye and she shared with me that she wanted to be cardiac surgeon so that she could help people. Honestly, I would have never guessed that in a million years based on her behavior and her grades (which she freely shared with me weren't that good). But instead of telling her to be more realistic, I encouraged her to pursue that dream whatever it took. "I can tell by talking to you that you are very smart and that you might be selling yourself a little bit short. I'll bet that if you buckle down and try your hardest, you can reach that goal. I believe in you."

What happened next was so cool. She paused for a moment with an astonished look on her face and then asked, "Do you really think so?" I told her that I did and that I was excited to see how she progressed the next few years of school. This young lady blushed and said thanks, and then walked back to her desk with her head held a little higher. I can't say that she was an angel for the rest of the class period, but I do know that those positive words that I was able to speak to her made her believe in herself a little bit more.

This world is filled with young people (and many older ones) who feel as if no one believes in them or that they are not good enough. One of my goals is to make sure that these people know that they matter, especially to God. Jesus didn't come to die so that we could feel better about ourselves. No, He died to save us from our sins and a future destined for ruin and to connect us with God. It's great to believe in yourself, but it's even better when you believe what God says about you - that He loves you, cares for you, and has greater plans for your life than you could possibly imagine.

So the next time you encounter students who looks like their future is headed nowhere, take some time to talk to them. You might be surprised what their life goals and dreams are. And, you won't want to miss out on an opportunity to speak truth and encouragement into their lives. But most of all, love them as God loves them. They need to know that their lives and their dreams matter.

It isn't all apples and oranges after all

In the beginning of time, there was a garden (Genesis 3). In this garden lived a man and a woman, Adam and Eve, both of whom had been designated by God to tend the garden and all that was in it. All the fruits of their labor - which was really not labor at all - were to be enjoyed. All except for the fruit of one tree, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The moment that they should choose to eat of it was the moment they would begin to die.

Life was utopia for Adam and Eve. They dwelt with God and enjoyed the bounty of His generosity. They were as free as two humans could be. There were no needs that they could possible have that God would fail to meet. They were naked but unashamed, for they were free of the stigma of being exposed. Their relationship with God was perfect and pure for nothing existed that had tarnished it. Yet.

One day, as Eve was tending the garden on her own, the enemy came to her clothed as a serpent. "Did God actually say, 'You shall not eat of any tree in the garden?'" and for the first time in history the seeds of doubt were sown into the human mind.

Eve knew God's command - Do not eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil - but the temptation that lay before her was great. The enemy did not appeal to her physical hunger, for she had more than enough food. Nor did he entice her with the best tasting of all fruits - everything in the garden would have pleased the palate. Instead, the enemy sought to hook Eve with the idea that eating the fruit would make her an equal with God, which proved to be a temptation too much for her to resist.

The rest of the story has a tragic ending. Eve did eat of the fruit and Adam followed right behind her. Sure, their eyes were opened, but not in the way in they anticipated. Instead, for the first time they realized guilt and shame, all because they willfully chose to betray God. At this moment in time, sin was born and death came to town.

When studying the story of Adam and Eve and their subsequent fall, many will say that it was pride or greed that led them to embrace sin that day. But more than that, the real enemy that squared off against Adam and Eve that day - and the primary enemy that we face every day - is the sin of idolatry.

You see, Eve and then Adam chose to push God off of the throne of their lives and chose to worship their own selfish desires instead.

That's what idolatry is. It's forcing God off of His throne in your heart and replacing Him with whatever else you foolishly believe will provide stability, joy, or purpose to your life. All sin is the sin of idolatry, for when we sin we are essentially looking at God and telling Him to step aside so that we can worship the desires of our own flesh.

Every single day, you and I are faced with the same challenge that began in that garden so long ago: Who or what will remain on the throne of our lives? When we seek after anything or anyone other than God, then we have abdicated His throne in favor of a false idol. Look, we may never say the words "God is not enough," but when we put some worthless idol in His place, that's exactly what we are telling Him.

The enemy will whisper in your ear, but he is incapable of making decision for you. May we all be satisfied with our limitations and relish in the fact that our God fills in all the gaps that we may have in our lives so that nothing we could choose could ever overtake what He gives.

Who's got your back?

As I have gotten older I have grown to truly appreciate history. Not that I didn't enjoy history when I was in school, it's just th...