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FIRST-PERSON: A graduation lie and four truths

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JACKSON, Tenn. (BP) – It’s graduation season, and I’d like to congratulate all 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 to what I call “the graduation lie,” which shows up in many commencement addresses. 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. We are all limited, or directed, by our genetics, our interests, our opportunities.

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. There is a lot of potential in those gifts, but you are not self-determining to create your own realities.

To make the most of your God-given potential, I urge you to do the following four things:

First, dare to grow up. 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. Don’t linger in adolescence. Grow up to God’s potential for you.

Many people see college as your last time to “play,” to be unencumbered by responsibility. 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.

Second, take responsibility. There’s a push around us to avoid responsibility. A common refrain is, “Someone is responsible for this, but it’s not me!”

I see this too often in a college setting. Around the time mid-semester tests and projects are due, someone will say, “I have a hard week with one paper and two tests.” Someone quickly replies, “I’ve got two papers and three tests.” And another says, “I’ve got three papers, four tests, and 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. Take responsibility for the tasks before you; face them squarely.

There are challenges and difficulties. Share those 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, and to learn and to come back at it again. Don’t find an excuse; find a way.

Third, work hard.

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.

A key element of hard work is perseverance. The great baseball theologian, Babe Ruth, once said, “It’s hard to beat a person who never gives up.” Things aren’t always going to line up the way you want them to, but you’re going to have to stay at it.

Last, live by conviction. Throughout your life you will be pressured to compromise. Instead, stand by the principles of God’s words, whether you win or lose. You don’t have to get that A or win that argument. You don’t have to keep that friendship, or get the promotion, or keep your job. You don’t even 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.

That’s my prayer for all graduates this season: 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.

Ray Van Neste is dean of the School of Theology & Missions and professor of biblical studies at Union University in Jackson, Tenn.

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  • Ray Van Neste