Graduation season is in full swing, and with it comes the flood of future-directed conversations—where a student will be going to school, where he will live, what degree she might pursue, and even whether or not he will continue to date his significant other.
Worrying about the future is innate to human beings; which means graduation is not an anomaly, but instead a highlighted caricature of reality. We are taught at a young age that there are specific moments in life worth celebrating more than others, milestones toward which we should strive: getting a driver’s license, graduating high school and college, getting engaged and married, buying a home, getting a promotion at work, having a child, retiring — the list can go on and on. It is often assumed that our lives will be built on the foundation of these particular life events, and we experience a sense of security as long as the foundation lays a clear path to follow. Yet, the moment one of these stones is missing or misplaced, we feel as if our foundation is crumbling.
I grew up believing life was measured by my proximity to the next milestone moment. And I simply expected that my life would follow the path these significant events laid, which is why I still remember the first time those expectations were threatened. At age 15, I went to take my driver’s permit test—and failed. This cultural rite of passage I had imagined for so long suddenly came crashing down. I thought: “What if I cannot get my permit in time to get my license? What if I turn 16 and can’t drive? My family will be so disappointed. My friends will laugh.”
So I buckled down, studied, took the test again and passed. My trajectory was no longer threatened. Life was back on track.
And for a while, that is exactly what I experienced. As long as I reached these expected life markers, I would be okay. I graduated high school and went to college. I graduated college with honors and got my dream job. Everything was on course. The path was being laid stone by stone, and it made for a nice walk.
However, if I could say one thing to my expectation-filled, teenage self it would be this: Life is not built on the milestones of man, but the promises of God.
The widespread use of popular graduation Bible verse, Jeremiah 29:11, shows us this truth so well:
“‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord. ‘Plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you a hope and a future.’”
If misplaced, this verse can become a false hope that life’s path will inevitably work out because God’s plan is to prosper us and give us a future. This is a foundation built on the promises of man, not God.
Instead, take this verse in context as its original hearers would have understood it. This promise of prosperity and hope was given to exiled Israelites. God’s message to His people was to tell them that their exile would not end soon—the current generation would never know anything but captivity. Those who had families and homes and jobs before the exile had lost everything, yet God’s plan was not to immediately restore their path. In place of personal prosperity, He actually commands them to seek the prosperity of their captures, in the city of their captivity (Jeremiah 29:7).
God’s primary concerned was not with the temporal prosperity of Israel. Because they were the heirs of God’s promises to Abraham, God was most concerned about the eternal prosperity of Israel—the rich inheritance of restored life with Him. Their lives would not go according to their plans, but instead, God was using their sufferings and disappointments to prepare in them an eternal glory that far outweighs all else, just as He does for His Church today (2 Cor. 4:17). He would not forget Israel, nor His promises to them. Through them He was building the foundation of hope in His unfailing promises fulfilled in the coming Christ.
I learned this myself when I was 24. Not only was I unmarried with no children, but I lost my job and with it, my home. My pretty little life path was no longer simply threatened, but being ripped up, stone by stone. These are the moments we must prepare our students to face in life—both the expected joys and the unforeseen sufferings.
It is far too easy to spend our whole lives striving to fulfill cultural expectations, inadvertently encouraging our students to do the same. We unknowingly begin to build our lives on a foundation that is rocky at best. We distort our true identity in Christ as we seek fulfillment in the promises of this world over the promises of our God.
As we prepare our students for their next phase of life, our aim must be to point them to the promises of God—the only expectation that will stand when all else fails. This is not a simple or light task because in Christ we are given a double expectancy. Jesus told his disciples,“I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).
In the final moments Christ would spend with His disciples before heading to the cross, He chose to leave them with the truth that there will be trouble in this life. (Great graduation speech, right?) Still, He told them of another truth in which they could take heart: the joyful fulfillment of a victory that is already won! This is the greatest expectation we could ever give our students—that the promises of God have already been fulfilled in the death and resurrection of Christ! “For all the promises of God find their Yes in Him. That is why it is through Him that we utter our Amen to God for His glory.” (1 Cor. 1:20). Now, that is a graduation speech!
As youth ministers in this graduation season, with all its conversations about the future, may we take care in our language and our actions as we celebrate this time with our students. It truly is a joyful time and should be celebrated as such. Yet may we also help our students to guard against placing their identity in what they have or will achieve, instead of wholly on the gospel of grace—what Christ has already achieved for them on the cross.
May we seek to train our students in a theology of hope in the promises of God in such a way that even when their lives do not follow the path the world expects, they do not sink in shifting sand. May we be cautious not to focus on their yet unfulfilled dreams and future plans, but instead may we remind them of what they have already—the mercies and kindness of God’s saving grace through Christ!
The promises of God are not temporal or fading ones, but eternal ones of sustaining hope and coming restoration, a guaranteed inheritance for His children. Oh, what a sure foundation!