Where Do You Go From Here?

A Letter to Those Graduating

Will Ryan / 5.18.22

Dear You Who Are About To Graduate,

You did it! You made it to the end. Somehow, someway, the end of your studies is nigh (unless of course, you made the dubious decision to apply for still more schooling). If you check the rear-view mirror, you’ll see the long nights spent pouring over notes, the never-ending lectures given whether digital or analog, and the inept TAs dolling out advice. They’re long gone, never to be seen again. I hope you soak in the culmination of all that work, proving, and striving on that day you don your tassels.

You’re going to remember walking across the stage as people cheer you on even though they were asked not to. You’re going to remember posing for pictures with your fellow graduates, your classmates who hung around, and your family and friends. You’re going to remember the suffocating feeling of black polyester “robes.” As much as you’ll remember anything, in particular, you’ll remember the sense of satisfaction that the diploma is yours, the elation in achieving your goal (even if it is just a step toward something else), and the joy of being able to throw your hat up in the air. You’ll remember that feeling like nothing can bring you down. Glory, in other words, you’ll remember glory.

So I want to be as clear as I can here at the outset. I was taught you’re not supposed to do this type of thing, you’re not supposed to use your thesis within your essay, your underlying message in your speech, but we’re done with school so I don’t have to listen to those stuffy ol’ traditions. So here goes — you don’t have to do anything different or be anything different than you already are to win God’s grace, mercy, and love, it has already been given to you on The Cross, Jesus’ death and resurrection. I’ll say it another way — what counts in God’s eyes is not our accomplishments, however grand or pitiful they may be, but Jesus’ action on our behalf.

Now, this can sound like really bad news, particularly when you are about to be handed what might be seen as your greatest accomplishment thus far in life. And if not #1, then I’d wager in the top 5. This accomplishment you’ll remember for the rest of your life, graduating, isn’t important to God in the sense that it will not make God love you, accept you, or want you any more than God already does. As good as finally being done and having “arrived” as a graduate, and I hope it is an absolutely wonderful glory moment you bask in and celebrate, it won’t change how God views you.

God doesn’t care about your studying, your pushing, your striving, your proving. It’s blatantly clear in the Parable of the Vineyard workers in Matthew. The laborers, the day hands, the guys who jumped into the back of the pickup at Home Depot, the ones who worked all day are downright angry that they’re paid the same as those who waltzed in 15 minutes before the dinner triangle rang out across the fields. It doesn’t make sense. It’s not just. It’s not fair.

They put in the time. They did more than anyone else. They were first. Shouldn’t they receive their just desserts? Shouldn’t they be privileged for their merit? Shouldn’t they be honored above everyone else?

Robert Capon has a great line about this: “The last may be first and the first may be last, but that’s only for the fun of making the point: everybody is on the payout queue and everybody gets full pay. Nobody is kicked out who wasn’t already in; the only bruised backsides belong to those who insist on butting themselves into outer darkness.[1]” The only people excluded from God’s love and grace and mercy are those who continue to try and show they can rely on themselves to earn it.

So our good works don’t change God’s view of us, but the flip side is true too—there’s nothing, and I do mean nothing, you can do that can take away what God has already done for you or change how God already feels about you. Paul says it pretty clearly in his letter to the Romans While we were still weak, at the right moment, Christ died for ungodly people. (Rom. 5:6) While we were weak, while we were unimportant, while we were unaccomplished, that’s when God showed God’s love for us. But God shows his love for us, because while we were still sinners Christ died for us. (v.8) God does not abandon us when we are at our lowest, our moment of disrepute, or when we feel ashamed of who we are or what we have done. No, that’s the way of the world.

How many people are defined by their lowest moment, their greatest mistake, their mortifying act? I need only say their name — Tonya Harding, Kanye West, Judas. What they’ve done, the harm they’ve inflicted, the notoriety attached to their name becomes their entire identity. It is who they are. But it’s not just for esoteric people “out there,” but for people in our everyday lives — the girl who broke your heart, the friend who left you to go party when you were sick, the father who walked out on you and your mom when you were a kid, the teacher who told you you’d amount to nothing, the coach who sent your ass to the bench. They’re all frozen at that moment, forever locked in place. We do this as a coping mechanism, a way of dealing with the all too real pain their actions inflict upon us.

But we don’t want to be defined by the worst things we’ve done — no. We want to be remembered for being a college graduate, for contributing to the good of society, for helping make the world a more loving and accepting place. We want the resume we’ve carefully cultivated to show how important and impressive and hirable we are to be our identity. That’s not how it works, though. No matter the good you do, the awards you win, the accomplishments you accrue, including graduating, someone out there defines you by a particular interaction where you hurt them, shamed them, wounded them. It’s just the way of the world.

I suppose that’s why I find the prophet Isaiah’s words so comforting:

Seek the LORD when he can still be found; call him while he is yet near. Let the wicked abandon their ways and the sinful their schemes. Let them return to the LORD so that he may have mercy on them; to our God, because he is generous with forgiveness.

My plans aren’t your plans, nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD. Just as the heavens are higher than the heart, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my plans than your plans. (Isa 55:6-8)

God’s plans aren’t our plans and God’s ways aren’t the ways of the world. God doesn’t abandon you when you’ve done something wrong, when you’ve failed, when you’ve been made to feel ashamed. God does not pack up and go off to the greener pastures of the elite, or successful, or impressive. God’s office isn’t at the top of the ladder but the end of your rope. God’s ways are ways of love, and grace, and mercy, and forgiveness, and peace, and hope. God’s way is the way of The Cross—where Christ loved an underserving world, including you and me, to the end.

So where do we go from here? As I said, I hope you soak in the experience. I hope you treasure every moment. I hope you realize that what you’ve done is a major accomplishment. It is important. It is good. It is worthy of celebration.

But it will not make God love you more. And the failures, sufferings, and pain you encounter out there in the “real world” won’t make God love you less. Again, you don’t have to do anything different or be anything different than you already are to win God’s grace, mercy, and love, it has already been given to you on the cross. Living with that confidence, with that hope, with that good news, you can take on the world. I hope you do.

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