My prayer for you graduates is that you will be mature, responsible, hardworking people of conviction. God will empower you to do it. He will use you for His glory and that will be the best life you could have.
This address was given at the 2020 graduation of the Augustine School in Jackson, TN.
I want, first of all, to congratulate you graduates, as well as your parents, family, and friends. This is a momentous accomplishment for which you should be justly proud.
I have long thought if ever I gave a graduation address, I would speak about what I call “the graduation lie,” which shows up in many commencement addresses. I believe the graduation lie is at the heart of much of today’s culture. And you can tell that it is so central because it is the basis or the key theme for many Disney movies, which is the canon for our culture. The lie is this: “You can be whatever you want to be.” It is not true.
The fact is you have been created as a unique and particular individual with specific gifts, as well as distinct limitations. The family into which you were born, the place you were born, and the era in which you were born all shape and limit who you are. Therefore, we cannot be whatever we want to be.
My prime illustration for this assertion is that no matter how hard I worked, I was never going to be a better basketball player than Michael Jordan. On my best day, at the peak of my ability, I would never beat him one-on-one, unless he had a broken arm and a broken leg, and I was incredibly lucky. It wasn’t going to happen. I had some success as a baseball player in high school, but I wasn’t going to be a premier basketball player. I simply did not have the basic gifts and abilities. We are limited, or directed, by our genetics, our interests, our opportunities, and even the era and area of our birth.
But the idea that we can be whatever we want is repeated again and again and has gained status as an unquestionable truth. Why are we surprised when a man decides he wants to be a woman or a Caucasian ‘identifies’ as an African American? Can’t we be anything we want to be?
The fact is God, the Creator of the universe, made you for something. You are not an amorphous entity ready to be shaped into anything you desire. God has given you certain gifts. And there is a lot of potential in those gifts, but you are not self-determining to create your own realities. If that’s the case, then we’re gathering today to say, “Oh, look at our little deities. Isn’t that impressive? I wonder what they will create out of nothing.”
We are created beings under a loving Creator who has made you to add something to this world, for you to invest in His kingdom. Without Him, you can do nothing. With Him, you can accomplish all He has planned for you.
The following four exhortations will help you make the most of your God-given potential.
First, in a world of Peter Pans, dare to grow up. Peter Pan appears in his story as the boy who never grows up. This is portrayed as something appealing: “Wow, he gets to stay a child his whole life.” Our culture is infatuated with perpetual youth and seeks to push you to pursue adult-level privileges with child-level responsibilities. But that is always disastrous. We see the disaster around us frequently. There are a lot of pressures around you to stay a child. But don’t linger in adolescence. Dare to grow up to God’s potential for you.
Many people see college as your last time to ‘play,’ to be unencumbered by responsibility. I think that’s sad and can be wasteful, hurtful, and even destructive. Your deepest joys are going to come when you seize the responsibilities, live those out, do them well, and discover this is the life well-lived. As you go on to college or work, this will mean taking responsibility, because no matter where you go, it will be costly to play. Instead, take responsibility. Handle the things you have to do. Go to class or work, be on time, and grow into the adult God intends you to be, because then you can make the impact He intends you to make.
Secondly, in a world of whiners, take responsibility. Again, there’s a push around us to avoid responsibility. The common refrain around us is, “Someone is responsible for this, but it’s not me!” Or someone will say, “Let me give you all the reasons I’m not responsible.” There are pressures around you that you don’t even see right now that are seeking to mold you into this way of thinking. But that is not the kind of teaching you received at the Augustine school. That’s not what your family desires for you. And it is not what God intends for you.
You can see this approach to life around you. I see it often in college settings. Around the time mid-semester tests and projects are due, you will hear somebody say, “I have such a hard week. I have one paper and two tests.” But, hold your breath, it will only be a couple of seconds until someone replies, “Oh yeah? I’ve got two papers and three tests.” And then another says, “Well, I’ve got three papers, four tests, and I have another issue as well.” What’s going on? They are throwing a pity party for themselves instead of seizing what God has put before them. As believers, we need to own our failures and have the freedom to admit our mistakes because we know you can be forgiven in Christ. Take responsibility, face it squarely, take the consequences, make amends, learn from it.
There are challenges. There are difficulties. Share those difficulties with people who can encourage you and pray for you, of course, but don’t act like they’re a surprise. God has put you here to encounter challenges, to face adversity, to overcome them, to stumble under them from time to time, to learn, and to come back at it again. Don’t find an excuse; find a way. So in a world of whiners, take responsibility.
Third, in a world of slackers, work hard. You’ve heard this along the way, I know, but it’s a key point. It’s one of the main points I always come to when I talk to new college students, so I want to say it to you now. You’ve had to work hard to get to this point today. Don’t just continue working hard, but grow in it. In the scriptures it is clear that laziness is sin, and diligence is godly, but that’s not the view of the world around us. I’ve seen recently various people on social media saying their hobby or their gift is relaxing. That sounds odd to me. There’s nothing to relax from until you work. Rest is sweet to the one who works hard. Relaxing isn’t a goal. Relaxing isn’t a pastime. Relaxing is the fruit of labor.
God has called us to hard work, and we work hard not just when we think we’re going to succeed or we see what we’re going to get out of it. Hard work is the task. What people mean, at their best, when they say we can accomplish anything, is that we can accomplish much if we work hard and stay at it. Now, even if we work hard, sometimes we’re going to fail. Along the way in life, I have told myself when facing a challenging task, “I may fall on my face in this, but at least I will be falling forward, and that’s progress.”
You are going to struggle. There are going to be some failures. Fall forward, and then get back up and keep going. When you fail, don’t be embarrassed and back away from challenges. Don’t think you’re the first one ever to fail, so you’re entitled to whine about it. Welcome to the rest of humanity. Learn from failure, then keep going. I tell my students, especially those training for ministry, if you will work hard, I’ll do everything I can to help you succeed. But if you are lazy, I’ll do everything I can to prevent you from succeeding, and I will do both for the good of the church. The best students aren’t necessarily the most gifted but are the ones who work hard.
Those are the ones who are going to make it somewhere. Those are the ones who are going to have an impact. This is why the Scriptures are full of calls to hard work and perseverance. The great baseball theologian, Babe Ruth, once said, “It’s hard to beat a person who never gives up.”
A key element of hard work is perseverance. If you’re going to succeed in what God has for you to do, if you’re going to make a difference, you’re going to have to persevere. Things aren’t going to line up just the way you want them to, but you’re going to have to stay at it. I really like what one person said, “Be like a postage stamp. Stick to one thing and stay there ’til you get there.” That’s pretty good. The great English preacher Charles Spurgeon once said, “By perseverance, the snail made it to the Ark.” Stick to what you’re doing. Work hard at it. Things don’t come naturally and easily. We live in a fallen world. You know that because here we are with your graduation later than normal due to a global pandemic which completely altered your last semester. That also reminds you that we can’t do everything we want to do. You didn’t want it to go that way, but it was outside of our control. And so we work with it. We persevere.
My fourth exhortation to you is, in a world of compromise and cowardice, live by conviction. This, after all, is at the heart of the education you received, really. You’re going to be pressed to compromise. We all are, in our fallen state, prone to fear and cowardice, but God tells us in Second Timothy 1:7, “God has not given you the Spirit of cowardice, but of power and of love, and a sound mind” (author’s translation). And when Paul says Spirit there, he’s referring to the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit who dwells in believers is the Spirit Who empowers, Who gives courage and strength, not confidence in ourselves.
This again is where our culture goes astray. Culture says, “You just have to believe in yourself.” I’ve had a hard time with that since I was a kid, because I thought I didn’t have a good enough track record just to believe in myself. Maybe I thought about it too deeply, but in my senior year in baseball, we were in the heat of the game. It was tight. We had men in scoring position. I was up to bat, and Coach called me over to the third base coach’s box. He said, “Van Neste, I just want you to know you’re going to hit it. You just go up there and know you’re going to hit it.” I had a decent batting average, but I meandered back to the batter’s box thinking, “How on earth am I going to know I’m going to hit it? I don’t think that is actually possible.” I frankly don’t remember how the at-bat went; all I remember is my confusion! Uncertainty and confusion are all that is generated when the culture tells us, “Just believe in yourself.” You need something much better, Someone much better, to believe in.
It’s not about believing in yourself. God doesn’t exist to be your magic genie to make you everything. God exists for His own glory. And He will empower you to be a part of that. God doesn’t need us, and yet He has graciously offered us a role in the advance of His kingdom. You can be a part of his glorious work, and you can trust Him. He is reliable. He is faithful. He will see you through, and, rooted in Him, you can have courage and conviction.
You have been around teachers, family, and friends who are people of conviction. You might think that’s commonplace. It’s not. In the world you’re going into, it’s actually kind of weird. But be weird! Have courage and conviction. God will use you as you stand on those principles. I’m not telling you those principles will always win the day. What I am telling you is stand by the principles of God’s words, whether you win or whether you lose. You don’t have to get that A. You don’t have to get that job. You don’t have to win that argument. You don’t even have to keep that friendship, or get that promotion, or keep your job. You don’t have to survive, but you do have to please God by obeying Him. Better to die nobly than to survive ignobly. Make that a settled conviction of your soul.
God has used people of conviction like this throughout the ages. He will use you as well. That’s my prayer for you, that you will be mature, responsible, hardworking people of conviction. God will empower you to do it. He will use you for His glory and that will be the best life you could have. May God bless you to this end.
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