One of the most common questions asked as the school year starts is, “Did you have a good summer?” We generally expect the answer to be “yes” and then we go about our business. But unfortunately, the answer is not always actually yes, regardless of what we may say. In youth ministry, we are working with kids that may not have a good home life, and so maybe being home a lot in the summer is not a great thing for them. Perhaps they were dealing with illness, death, injuries, depression or relationship struggles. Where do those fall in under a “good summer”?

It’s so easy for me to set up “good” as the expectation for not only summer, but also each individual day. I find myself not only asking if my youth had a good summer, but also if their day was good. First off, if I ask that question each week, I never get to know the kids any better, which is a true loss because God’s children are remarkable. But even if the question is rephrased to make it more open-ended, generally “good” is the standard expectation for the answer. Our days are supposed to be “good” or at the worst “fine.” Where did this thinking come from? What is the standard of what is considered good?

At some point we bought into the lie that everything is supposed to be good, that everything will be fine and that nothing bad will ever happen to us. Our standard by which we judge our lives has become the feeling of happiness, which is inherently dependent on our circumstances. This way of thinking is clearly contrary to the words of Jesus in John 16:33, “I have told you these things so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” Jesus promises that in this world we will have trouble, yet I seem shocked when someone tells me their day wasn’t good. In churches all around the world, people put on their happy face and act like everything’s fine as soon as they walk into the church building, because it is assumed that’s how to act. We’re not doing anyone any favors by saying or expecting that our circumstances will be perfect, we should always be happy or that God will give us everything we ask in this life if we just ask hard enough. That’s called the prosperity gospel and is a message from the thief who wants only to “steal, kill, and destroy” (John 10:10).

Instead of pretending like everything should be good, let’s follow Jesus’ example and acknowledge the trouble in the world. Acknowledge that our days are not always good, we aren’t always happy, and that’s okay. There is pain, sin and life-shaking trouble that is found in this world. If we ignore that first promise of Jesus in that verse, then the end of the verse becomes less meaningful. If there’s no trouble in the world or if we’re just supposed to fake that we’re all fine, then it doesn’t really matter that Jesus has overcome the world. If there’s no problem, then there’s no need for a solution. If all our days are supposed to be good, then it must be God’s fault when days are bad. You can see how this way of thinking and interacting really impact not only our relationships with others, but also our relationship with God. It’s easy for all of us, but especially young people, to just be mad at God for allowing bad things to happen when we operate under the assumption that we deserve nothing bad to ever happen to us. We must confront this thinking with the truth that even when the circumstances seem dire, God is still at work, He’s still in contro, and He still is more than enough for you. The promise of God’s presence is a much better gift to give than a pat on the back for pretending like everything’s all okay.

Instead of just asking if the summer or a day was good, we need to trade that question in for something much better. Trade “good” in for “real.” Follow up with what was good about the summer, what was hard about the summer, how did you grow, what did you learn, where did you see God at work and other more relational questions. Instead of assuming that everything’s okay with everyone I see, I need to look to what the actual circumstances are in their lives. Building an environment where trouble is acknowledged takes time, but is absolutely worth it in youth ministry. Doing this will strengthen your relationships with the youth, but simply recognizing or listening to the struggles, circumstances, pain, and trouble is not enough. Jesus did not just say “in this world you will have trouble….bummer. Deal with it.” He saw the trouble in this world and He did something about it. He brings peace to even the worst of circumstances, He alone offers hope in the darkest night and He is the only one who is with us through it all. Getting to know your kids on a deeper level than just “my day was good” allows you to wrap them in Christ through your words, prayers and encouragement. Good is not the goal, God is. Let Him and His Word fill your conversations with your youth, families and all you encounter.