I understand the desire for a personal soundtrack. I’ve often wished for one. To have Mark Isham’s “A Really Good Cloak” playing softly as I tucked in my children would bring profoundly happy tears. To have Trevor Jones’ “Elk Hunt” in the background as I exhorted students to fight for the souls of their friends would be deeply inspiring. But in each of those scenarios, the music would be in the background of a relational context.

Therein lies the trouble. As I walk across campus, I am taken aback by the fact that many, if not most, of the students I pass have their headphones in. When I exercise at the rec center, I am one of the only people in the entire place who’s headphone-free. While headphones during a workout may seem more reasonable, consider this: one of our staff recently went to exercise with a student (in order to develop a relationship in the context of a normal daily activity), but she was rebuffed by the little earbuds that girl put in before their workout began. It was unashamed individualism on display. What we have are thousands of individual soundtracks, with each student obliviously going about his/her individual business. While the headphones may be consciously intended to bring beauty and inspiration to the person wearing them, they are actually building walls.

The headphones are a microcosm of the entire relational culture. The relational contexts in which we are used to operating are eroding, and they are doing so at the subtle behest of sin. After all, a pure, godly desire of the human heart is to be known. But there is a competing, fleshly desire to keep one’s deficiencies from being exposed, and it is this desire that far too often wins. The headphones are covering up more than just ears. They are the fig leaves of the 21st century, covering the shame of sin.

So how do we fight this? First, we maintain a steady resolve to build relationships. We tear down the cultural walls by asking questions, deepening friendships, even getting our workout partners to remove their headphones in order to connect with a friend. It seems like the primary battle we have in equipping Christian students isn’t even to get them to share their faith anymore. It’s to get them to make friends. Now, I would say that this commitment to building and deepening friendships is an example of giving people what they need, not what they want, but it is what they want. They long to be known.

But they don’t just long to be known. They long to be safely known, which brings me to the second weapon in this battle. We must exude safety. We must ooze forgiveness. We must demonstrate with our words, our attitudes, our facial expressions, and our time commitments the inexplicable acceptance of our Father in the face of our sin. There is not one area of our lives, not even a single thought, that is hidden from Him. Before a word springs from our lips, He knows what’s coming (Psalm 139:4). That is terrifying to the unforgiven sinner, but it is life to the one who knows the unwavering embrace of Jesus. Let’s set our faces like flint toward knowing and embracing those who right now just look like sinful strangers.

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