A quick Amazon search reveals that there are currently 2,047 self-help books available to parents of teenagers. Titles include: How to Talk So Teens Will Listen and Listen So Teens Will Talk (these people must have girls), Have a New Teenager By Friday: From Mouthy and Moody to Respectable and Responsible in Five Days (good luck with THAT), Yes Your Teen Is Crazy! Loving Your Kid Without Losing Your Mind (too late), and, my personal favorite, if you will pardon the language: Don’t Be An Asshat: An Official Handbook for Raising Parents and Children.*
Parents, do you think we have some issues?
Sometimes, though, parents don’t need teen-specific resources to help us out. After all, our teens are young adults (we hope they’re almost adults) and we are not-so-young adults who face pretty much the same issues kids do, with the perspective that experience brings. One of the most helpful principles I have found is CS Lewis’s “law of undulation.”
In his classic on spiritual warfare, The Screwtape Letters**, CS Lewis imagines what shrewd demonic strategy might look like in the life of a Christian. Uncle Screwtape, a senior devil, writes to his nephew Wormwood, a junior devil who has been put in charge of a newly converted Christian man. Wormwood’s goal, of course, is to undermine the unnamed Christian’s faith by any means necessary, and his “affectionate” Uncle advises him in a series of witty and insightful letters. Screwtape spends a couple of letters outlining what he means by “undulation.”
Humans, he explains to Wormwood, are “amphibians- half spirit and half animal.” This means we exist as both spirits in eternity and as animals in time. The spirit of the Christian can stay steady by the power of the Holy Spirit, but his mind, body, will and emotions are subject to change, and so human life is a series of “troughs and peaks.” These highs and lows are inevitable- hence, the law of undulation.
Screwtape shows Wormwood how this works “in every department of his (subject’s) life- his interest in his work, his affection for his friends, his physical appetites, all go up and down. As long as he lives on earth periods of emotional and bodily richness and liveliness will alternate with periods of numbness and poverty.” Of greatest interest to Wormwood is how this law applies to his Christian’s faith in God. If the demon can catch his man in a “period of numbness and poverty” with God, he might succeed in damaging the fellow’s faith.
When I read Screwtape’s description, I know exactly what he is talking about. Some highs are higher and some lows are lower, but there is undulation in the course of my day, my week, my year, and certainly across seasons of my life. But my teen, going through these things, has no experience with natural fluctuations. Younger children aren’t really aware of these highs and lows, but as teens experience undulation as a roller coaster, alternately terrifying and exhilarating. They veer unpredictably from the depths to the heights and back again, and they seem determined to take your whole family with them for the ride.
Looking back across my life, I can empathize with my teen. I know the ups and downs of mood, energy, emotion and well-being in every aspect of my life, especially in my walk with God. I can see the seasons when God seemed very near and real, and the seasons when I wondered if I had made Him up in my head. Maturity means recognizing that while some of the lows have been very long and very low, God has never changed. He has never left me to fend for myself, and He never will. The key to stability, or, as the Bible calls it, rest, is to trust that no matter how high the highs or how low the lows, God holds me steady, firm, constant and true. Furthermore, He is making me as steadfast as Himself.
Screwtape begrudgingly admits that this is what God teaches us in our “dry seasons,” those low points in our faith and in our circumstances. The “troughs” are about learning to live by faith, not by sight. (2 Corinthians 5:7) God behaves like a parent teaching a child to walk: “[God] wants [humans] to learn to walk and must therefore take away His hand; and if only the will to walk is really there He is pleased even with their stumbles. Do not be deceived, Wormwood. Our cause is never more in danger than when a human, no longer desiring, but still intending to do our Enemy’s will, looks round upon a universe from which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.” (emphasis mine)***
I trust, therefore I obey, even when I cannot see or feel Him. Obedience lines me up with the Spirit, and the Spirit holds me. No mood, condition or circumstance has any power over me unless I let it. “For [I] will trust the Lord, and through the lovingkindness of the Most High [I] will not be shaken.” (Psalm 21:7)
See below: the wavy lines represent all the changes I go though. Those can be anything: emotions, circumstances, beliefs, moods, all of life. Because of Jesus, my fluctuating self is now intersected by His steady Spirit. So how do I master my tendency to undulate? Obedience steadies me. Staying as close to that Holy Spirit line as possible will ease my mind, focus my will, and soothe my emotions. Because I ACT in close harmony with the Holy Spirit, I will not have to REACT to bad news or external pressures. I will never be able to control what happens to me or what other people do, but by the gracious gift of the steadfast Spirit, I don't have to ride every tidal wave that comes.
Even more good news: If I will allow the Spirit to free me from this law of undulation, I can serve my family better. And maybe, just maybe, if I am free, then my child will seek God to make him free too.
The triple-loop roller coaster of emotion, circumstance, and hormones is real but it doesn’t have to control my teen, or me, or our family. God's consistent love overcomes the law of undulation: “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails.” (1 Corinthians 13:7-8)
* I ordered the ***hat book. It is written by a veteran pastor and his wife who have three teenage daughters. Came out in June 2016; it looks to be fun. I will let ya’ll know.
** Incidentally , there is also a Screwtape study guide for teens on Amazon, released this month in fact. Would love to read those chapters on undulation.
*** C. S. Lewis. The Screwtape Letters. Touchstone, New York, 1961. p.40-42. See letters 8 and 9.