What Our Graduates Really Need To Hear

So my daughter graduated from elementary school the other day. And – yes – I understand that any graduation ceremony at 5th grade means about as much as the prize tickets at Chuck-E-Cheese. But it’s cute and Instagram worthy, so cut me some slack here.

What was easily the most fascinating part of the ceremony was the graduation speeches from the kids. As I listened to rambling words of advice from kids with little life experience, I noticed how closely their words mimicked the graduation speeches of higher education. Aside from a healthy slice of “we did it,” there was also a healthy slathering of “follow your dreams” and “be true to yourself.” And as I really processed what the kids were actually trying to say, I actually winced.

If we’re honest, most of the stuff spewed out in graduation speeches is self-help gobbledygook worthy of an episode of Dr. Phil. And it’s got very little grounding in Scripture. Instead, much of what passes for solid graduation advice actually resembles an instruction manual for prodigals to run away from home. As Christian parents, I think it’s important to parse for our kids the well-intentioned advice that they’ll hear around graduation to turn their nose up at narrow gates of the Christian life. Our job is to point our kids higher as they leave the nest.

So let’s examine some of the common cliches heard at graduation ceremonies around the country:

  • “Follow your heart”: Ugh … For crying out loud, just don’t do this. If you follow Christ, you can’t follow your heart, your desires or your instincts. Jeremiah 17:9 says that the heart is “deceitful above all things, and desperately sick.” Proverbs 28:26 says that “whoever trusts in his own mind is a fool” (some translations say “heart” instead of “mind” (ESV)). Indulging in our own desires is a mark of a unbeliever (Ephesians 2:3). Once we know Christ, we crucify our old selves along with our passions and desires (2 Corinthians 5:17; Romans 6:6). Following Christ inherently involves admitting our desires and heart motivations are evil and submitting to a greater glory.
  • “Follow your dreams”: Probably not what Jesus had in mind when he talks about taking up your cross and willingly dying (Matthew 16:24). In the very same verse, Jesus tells his disciples to “deny yourself.” Self-denial is virtuous … Self-indulgence not so much. Self-denial doesn’t mean that you’ll be miserable following Jesus. To the contrary, tremendous joy and true satisfaction are found when Christ is glorified (to butcher a John Piper-ism). Bonhoeffer states: “The cross is not the horrible end of a pious, happy life, but stands rather at the beginning of community with Jesus Christ.” In short, following Christ is where your small worldly dreams die and gigantic Christ-centered dreams are birthed.
  • “Believe in yourself”: Pride is a wicked sense of self-importance that leads to certain destruction (Proverbs 16:18). Not only does Scripture say that pride is sinful, but also that God OPPOSES prideful people (Proverbs 3:34; James 4:6-8). C.S. Lewis states: “A proud man is always looking down on things and people; and, of course, as long as you’re looking down, you can’t see something that’s above you.” As believers, our goal is to clothe ourselves in the humility of Christ instead of becoming puffed up, selfie-obsessed blowhards (1 Peter 5:5).
  • “Be true to yourself”: But what if you’re a dimwitted, nefarious jerkface?!? Who wants to be stuck like a statue devoted to selfishness? Christianity is change (2 Corinthians 5:17). Being conformed to the image of Christ is the essence of the Christian life (Romans 8:29).
  • “Live life to the fullest”: The carpe diem philosophy is grounded in Roman poetry and Robin Williams movies instead of Biblical theology. If the resurrection were not true, we’d have good reason to eat, drink and be merry … Because #yolo (see 1 Corinthians 15:32). If we’re not just destined to be worm food (a/l/a The Dead Poets Society), then we have a far greater glory for which to live. We have purpose and meaning outside of selfishness. So live your life well to the glory of God, but understand that your fullest life, which is free from sin, death, pain and regret, is found in the next life.
  • “You are the future”: I hate to break it to you guys, but the future does not revolve around you. No matter what OneRepublic and our fragile egos say. Quite literally, the future is centered around Jesus (Revelation 4). If you are a believer, YOU will be eternally focused on Jesus. Every tribe … Every nation … Every tongue will encircle the throne of Christ and worship Him forevermore. That’s pretty exciting.
  • “Today is the first day of the rest of your life”: And then you die. And what happens then?
  • “Dare to be different”: Turns out that being weird, strange and self-absorbed is pretty easy. Just ask Dr. Seuss: “I am weird, you are weird. Everyone in this world is weird. One day two people come together in mutual weirdness and fall in love.” But being different is as simple as a wardrobe change. Being weird is as easy as a peanut butter and pickle sandwich. On the other hand, being daily conformed to the image of Christ … THAT takes a huge miracle. Not everyone can follow Christ or imitate Christ … It takes the Word of God and the power of the Spirit. And that’s what the world really needs. Dare to be like Jesus.
  • “Make a difference”: To a generation of slacktivists and hashtag warriors, changing the world behind a keyboard seems like the highest calling. However, we’d do well to remember Jesus’ words: “Apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). In Jesus’ extended metaphor about the vine and branches in John 15, Jesus makes one simple but powerful point: Dead branches don’t grow grapes. Similarly, people apart from Christ can’t accomplish anything … Nothing … Nada … Zip … Not even a teensy, little bit. Consequentiality comes from Christ. While we can’t accomplish anything on our own, Christ in us can accomplish great things. Surrender and let him work through you.

But let me address one more fallacy that Christian parents believe that’s not found in any graduation speech: “My kids will stay in church after they’ve graduated.” While I think that most Christian parents understand the abysmal dropout statistics regarding kids in the church, they don’t think that it’ll happen to their own kid. I think that Christian parents need to understand that their role as disciplers moves into an arguably more difficult (and frustrating) phase in the teenage years. Our kids that used to run to our arms at the slightest skinned knee now seem content to shoot down Biblical advice with the precision of Katniss Everdeen. As our teenage kids gain independence, freedom, attitude and – most importantly – car keys, this phase of parenting requires new parenting skills: Exhausting levels of patience … Self-control to not respond in anger … Wisdom to speak God’s truth … And an understanding ear when heartbreak occurs. While not every teenager will abandon Christ, every teenager is theologically a sinner at their core and will poke, prod, question and even doubt their faith during this phase of life. So always stand ready to explain the reason for your faith to the discerning young adults in your home, because you can’t force them to follow Christ.