A young listener of the podcast, named John, writes in to ask: “Hello Pastor John! I am in high school. At school I want to be well liked — even thought of as cool — but I’m also very scared that wanting to be popular will lead me into sin. How can I live godly and be well liked?”
I am glad he feels that way, because that is right. I think being driven by coolness is deadly. The problem with wanting to be cool in our culture is that cool is almost always defined by the fool. So, it is almost always: Cool = Fool.
If you want to know what a fool is, read the book of Proverbs in the Bible. In fact, I think every teenager, especially boys, should read Proverbs over and over and over again, because of how clearly the Proverbs expose the stupidity of much that is considered cool. They make the cool guy who is getting a different girl every weekend look like an ox going to the slaughter, which he is (Proverbs 7:22).
It is not cool. It looks cool. Everybody thinks it is cool. TV is going to tell you it is cool. Movies are going to tell you it is cool. Your friends are going to tell you it is cool. It is clearly not cool to regard him as not cool. God says he is an ox going to the slaughter, where his throat is going to be slit — and that is not going to look cool in the end. You can be smart. God is very smart. And you should trust what God says about what is cool.
Now, what about letting Jesus define what is cool? I mean, really, really cool — eternally cool, viewed as cool by the smartest, strongest, wisest people in the world. Here is what an example would be of cool:
“Jesus called them to him and said to them, ‘You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them,” thinking it is cool. “But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you” — now, substitute whoever would be cool among you, because I think great is just as good or ten times better than cool — “must be your servant, and whoever would be first” — or cool — “among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:42–45).
So, the essence of cool — cool before God, cool before the wisest, smartest people in the world — the essence of cool is being so poised and so content and so peaceful and so satisfied and so mature and so confident and so joyful and so courageous in Christ that you are freed, you are set free from the insanity of the fool who thinks that being cool comes from your clothing. I mean, this is insane. Or your hair. Come on. Or what movies you go to or video games you have watched or what phone you carry. This is insanity.
You are a human being created in the image of God almighty, destined to live forever and ever and ever in hell or in heaven. Nothing could be more stupid than to think that your significance, your worth, your greatness, your coolness is in what people think about your outward appearance instead of what they think about your inner reality that is going to live forever and ever and ever. So, be one of those teenagers who wakes up from the lunacy of the cattle drive mentality where the whole herd of cattle is going right over the cliff because some cool bull or some pretty heifer is out there leading the way right off a cliff.
Here is the problem usually as I see it: Most teenagers in general — oh, I hope you are an exception to this. I hope everybody who is listening is an exception to this. But most teenagers in general are doing nothing of any real significance. They are playing sports. They are going to parties. They are watching movies. They are playing video games. They are cleaning up the room. They are hanging out. They are dinking around on their computers. They are doing a little homework. And since nobody is doing anything of real significance, cool has to be defined in silly, superficial, stupid things like looks or cleverness or swagger. Good grief. But what if Christian young people began to do things that are really significant with their lives — began to be like Jesus, serving other people rather than thinking that coolness is in how you look, making a difference in the world?
Let me give you a crazy example just to help you feel what I feel when I talk about real service, real significance, real cool in this world. The year is 1945. World War II is raging. Thousands of teenagers wanted to fight, and they are too young. Jack Lucas fast talked his way into the Marines at age 14 in 1942, fooling the recruits because he is just big. And he stowed away later on a transport out of Honolulu heading for Iwo Jima, and he survived on the boat by sympathetic leathernecks passing him food.
Now, he is 17. He has been doing all of this for three years. He is 17, stowed away, and on D-day when they went ashore — and you have to remember that 6,800 American soldiers are buried on this tiny island of Iwo Jima, and many of them, maybe most, were teenagers: 18- or 19-year-olds. He landed without a rifle, because they didn’t even know he was on the boat. He grabbed one lying on the beach and fought his way inland.
It is D-day plus one. Jack and three comrades are crawling through the trench when eight Japanese sprang up in front of them. Jack shot one through the head. His rifle jammed. As he is struggling, a grenade lands at his feet. He yells the warning to the others, rams the grenade down in the soft ash, and immediately another one rolls in. Jack, 17 years old, falls on both grenades. “You are going to die,” he remembered thinking.
Then, aboard the ship afterwards, the Samaritan ship, the doctors could scarcely believe it. This is a quote — sorry for the language: “Maybe he was too damned young, too damned tough to die,” one said. He endured 21 reconstructive operations and became the nation’s youngest medal of honor winner — the only high school freshman to receive it. Now, when I read that, my spine tingles. I am 70 years old, and my spine tingles. I don’t want to waste my life on cool — 10,000 times more cool than having your hair twisted just so that nobody thinks you are so yesterday.
So, my simple challenge to John and thousands like him is: Don’t try to be cool. And don’t try to be uncool — that is not the goal. Neither is. Try to be free from the herd mentality, and be a radical servant. Focus not on what you are not going to do or not going to be, but focus on what you are going to be — the things you are going to do for the good of others. He who would be great, cool, Jesus said, must be the servant of all, like Jesus who died for others that they might live. What would that look like at your high school, church, neighborhood? It would turn your whole focus around. How can I serve somebody today? Not, How can I get somebody to like me today? What a crazy, radical, wonderful, revolution. And I just say: John, lead the way in this.
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John Piper (@JohnPiper) is founder and teacher of desiringGod.org and chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary. For 33 years, he served as pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church, Minneapolis, Minnesota. He is author of more than 50 books, including A Peculiar Glory.
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