The Best Graduation Advice Ever!

Dear Graduate,

Long ago, an old missionary wrote something to a young minister that puts all the wisdom any graduate needs into a nutshell, or nugget. The old man did not tell his young protégé to follow his dreams or pursue his passions. Instead, he bid him to “pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, perseverance, and gentleness,” a line-up neglected in many commencement speeches.

Then the old traveler offered this unbeatable two-punch advice:

    Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called when you made your good confession in the presence of many witnesses. (The Apostle Paul, 1 Timothy 6:12).

Actually, this is the best advice ever, period.

1. “Fight the good fight of faith.”

The original imperative verb here was “agonizou.” The connection between faith and agony was not lost on Paul. He knew there is no such thing as a Christian never under fire.

On October 29, 1941, as World War II raged on and his nation’s fate seemed dire, Great Britain’s Prime Minister Winston Churchill famously said to the students at Harrow School:

    Never give in–never, never, never, never, in nothing great or small, large or petty, never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense. Never yield to force; never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.

For Churchill in 1941, the battle was against the Nazis. Paul, two millennia ago, envisioned far more lethal enemies than mere Nazis. He wrote:

For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places. (Ephesians 6:12)

Satan is our public and private enemy number one. Never confuse this adversary with his victims. The good fight of faith pits us less against sinners than against sin, often working from the inside out. Unwisely, our culture minimizes the severity of sin, urging us not to judge it, admit it, fight it or speak the word.

Jesus, by contrast, hit sin head on, knowing how deadly it is. He understood that sin’s first and greatest casualty is love. He said, “Because of the increase in wickedness the love of most will grow cold.” (Matthew 24:12). No wonder real love is hard to find and hold–wickedness is too widespread. No matter how bad you think sin is, it is worse! It’s why Jesus came and put up such a fight against it. Wickedness hides and thrives behind pride. Love, however, grows from the soil of humble repentance. Confession of sin (agreeing with reality) is where virtue and goodness begin to take root, by God’s grace. There’s always a fight when humility stands up to pride.

There is a battle ahead. No, it’s a war and you need to choose sides. The forces fighting to enslave us to sin are gaining strength by the minute. The forces of freedom and decency are on the ropes. Which side will you join?

2. “Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called when you made your good confession in the presence of many witnesses.”

The original Greek verb here was “epilambano,” to seize upon. Paul also used this verb to describe being arrested for preaching truth. Here he tells Timothy to do the seizing believing eternity to be within the young man’s grasp. A guide can open the door, but you must walk through it. Medical science can come up with a miracle drug but you must act to take it. “The good confession” was probably a reference to baptism which finds its transcendent meaning as a godly means of taking hold of eternal life. The act of receiving a gift by no means makes you the gift giver. It doesn’t even make you deserving. Paul wanted Timothy to never lose his grip.

Your time on earth is short. That’s okay because you were not made simply for time but for eternity. Without eternal life, you don’t have much of a future. Without it, might makes right but even the strong go wrong before long. Without eternity, evil terrorists and thugs can get the last word over the innocent and justice remains a joke. Without eternal life, even love at its best is a meaningless flash in the pan. So seize it!


In the end, there is no graduation to eternal life without the forgiveness that Jesus accomplished on the cross. His forgiveness is what makes baptism more than a bath. The apostle John said, “You know that he appeared so that he might take away our sins.” (1 John 3:5). This put Him at odds with the forces of evil. He took them on so that we might take hold of God’s gift of eternal life.

The Art of Freedom

Some leaders use great words to manipulate the masses. “Freedom” is one such word. Nearly every tyrant in history has used “freedom” in promising, glowing and demagogic ways. It is wise to look beyond mere words.

Art can help. It can carry themes like liberty beyond the realm of mere words. Of course, art can also be abused to distort and manipulate but it can also uncover needs and notions that words alone keep hidden. Art can shed a brighter light on the path of culture to reach a wider swath of hearts and enable the forces of good to outshine evil. Art has a power to inspire beyond words.

Liberty has inspired great art over the ages. Great art, in turn, has inspired greater love for liberty. Below are a few examples of art elevating our love for liberty.

“The Death of General Warren at the Battle of Bunker's Hill, June 17,1775” (1786), by John Trumbull (1759-1843). The Boston Museum of Fine Art.

Revolution came to America in 1776 and no painter recorded its events and ideals like John Trumbull (1759-1843). His classic, “The Death of General Warren at the Battle of Bunker’s Hill, June 17,1775” was created eleven years after the event it idealized. Joseph Warren (1741 – 1775) was a citizen doctor who embodied all the idealism of his era. His passion for freedom led to a very real sacrifice—one that Trumbull (an artist with one good eye) commemorated on canvas in 1786. Consider what President Ronald Reagan said about Dr. Warren in his First Inaugural Address (January 20, 1981):

    On the eve of our struggle for independence a man who might have been one of the greatest among the Founding Fathers, Dr. Joseph Warren, …said to his fellow Americans, ‘Our country is in danger, but not to be despaired of…. You are to decide the important questions upon which rests the happiness and the liberty of millions yet unborn. Act worthy of yourselves.

A few years later, revolution came to France. The French Revolution (1789 to 1794) is a classic case featuring the abuse of the word liberty. The road to the Reign of Terror was greased by words like Liberté, Egalité and Fraternité (French for freedom, equality and brotherhood or solidarity). Those words convey noble ideals and often fell on sincere ears, but the overall impact was excessively bloody. Empire-hunger and the monarchy soon returned with the usual oppression through Napoleon and another succession of kings. A generation later, liberty lovers rose up in the July Revolution of 1830 to topple King Charles X. To support this spirit of liberty, Eugene Delacroix (1798 – 1863), personified liberty on canvas as a woman leading Frenchmen forward over the bodies of the fallen victims of tyranny. The bodies served as a pedestal from which Liberty takes her stride. Delacroix told his brother, “If I haven’t fought for my country at least I’ll paint for her.” In 1831, he created, “Liberty Leading the People” (see above) to inspire France for another shot at freedom.

Statue of LIberty

Delacroix inspired Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi’s (1834 –1904) Statue of Liberty which France later gave to the United States to celebrate freedom. A noble lady is again enlisted to carry the torch for freedom. While Delacroix’s painting depicts the advance toward liberty, Bartholdi’s statue stands up for freedom already achieved.

“Ride for Liberty—the Fugitive Slaves” (oil on board, Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, VA), Eastman Johnson (1824 – 1906).

The hard won liberty won in 18th century America did not include everyone. Slavery persisted into the mid-19th century. The American painter, Eastman Johnson (1824 – 1906), spoke for the hunger for liberty in the hearts of countless slaves with his compelling “Ride for Liberty—the Fugitive Slaves” (March 2, 1862). A brave black family flees to Union lines during the Civil War at dawn, risking all for freedom. Father and son focus forward for freedom while mother, with infant, peels her eyes for danger.

“Spirit of '76" (1875), Archibald MacNeal Willard (1836 –1918)

Archibald MacNeal Willard (1836 –1918) is far less known than his most famous painting, “Spirit of ’76,” previously known as “Yankee Doodle” (1875). Willard, a Civil War veteran, was inspired by a parade through his town square in Wellington, Ohio. Notice the wounded soldier at the bottom waving the marchers on.

“The Four Freedoms” (1943), Norman Rockwell (1894 – 1978)

A century later, as World War II raged in 1943, Norman Rockwell (1894 – 1978) looked to a 1941 speech by Franklin D. Roosevelt for the inspiration to craft “The Four Freedoms.” (freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from fear and freedom from want). It’s first exhibition raised $132 million in war bonds. Rockwell’s illustrations were initially criticized as overly idyllic and nostalgic. Art put to positive use often gets criticized but Rockwell knew the heart of the American people too well to be discouraged. His four portrayals carry the case for freedom beyond the word itself to other realms necessary for freedom to thrive, like faith, family, moral conviction and gratitude. Rockwell’s brush declared the co-dependence of freedom and morality.

Margaret Thatcher, British Prime Minister from 1979 to 1990, understood something about liberty that Rockwell captured but many of his critics missed, along with the 18th century leaders of the French Revolution. She said:

    Freedom will destroy itself if it is not exercised within some sort of moral framework, some body of shared beliefs, some spiritual heritage transmitted through the church, the family, and the school.

The New Neutrality

America is passionate about neutrality. This explains the rapid rise of the following fashionable leanings in our current culture:

Aesthetic neutrality: Beauty is only in the beholder’s eye and no one can label things beautiful or ugly. Everything is “equally valid,” including crotch-grabbing, drug-glorifying, misogynistic rap songs about killing cops, hating The Man, or exploiting women.

Moral neutrality: “Sin” is an impolite word to use in polite company. Judgmentalism is one of the few traits we can still judge harshly. You do your thing and I’ll do mine. Preacher-types who object are just puritanical moralists. Of course, this presumes a “do nothing” God who, if he actually exists, does not fret over good and evil.

Political neutrality: Political parties are commanding less loyalty as people run from labels (unless that label is “Independent”). This may have merit but it does not stop there. To appease the new neutrality, our leaders neuter words and rob them of their meaning. Abortion is rendered as “choice,” homosexual becomes “gay,” tax morphs into “investment,” and deficit spending is re-labeled as “economic stimulus.” Moral neutrals even use the word “love” for adultery or pedophilia. The keepers of nomenclature hold great power to manipulate and control us.

Spiritual neutrality: All religions are basically the same. As soon as someone sees me as a Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Jew, or whatever, I am in a box. No boxes please. God is love in heaven but little is particularly sacred here on earth.

Gender neutrality: Men and women are interchangeable. Moms and dads are replaceable. Marriage is fungible. Why limit the definition of marriage by gender or number? How would redefining marriage hurt your marriage anyway? Some school districts have actually begun to dispense with restrooms that “discriminate” between boys and girls.”

Nonsense thrives amid neutrality.

Earlier this month, I attended a class at the 2014 Pepperdine Bible Lectures titled, “Gay Marriage, Zombies, Islam and Liberals.” I can only offer an honest summary of what I heard. We were encouraged to back off gracefully from “anxiety inducing issues.” People under 30 do not care about gay marriage but they do sense the anxieties of those of us who do and it turns them off. Accept the world as it is and focus on that which glorifies God.

As I listened, some questions rose to the top of my mind. Here they are:

  • How high does the tidal wave of sexual chaos have to get before Christians notice it out loud?
  • What toll must it take on children before we take a stand?
  • How long will we play church as if this tidal wave were just a ripple?
  • What rate of babies born out of wedlock constitutes grounds for a healthy reaction from believers? Currently, it is over 50% among women under 30
  • To what extent can marriage be redefined and decomposed before we stop backing off to protect the young from undue anxiety?
  • Should Catholics practice a graceful silence in response to the problem of child abuse by some priests?
  • Should Martin Luther King, Jr. have backed off and accepted the world as it was instead of making millions uncomfortable and angry with pesky preaching on public polies?

It’s hard to observe injustice, ugliness, corruption and perversion and stay neutral. It’s much easier to conform to the changing patterns of this crazy world and make nice. Jesus demanded repentance and preached that the gate that leads life is narrow. Look what happened to Him.

Prepare for opposition if you threaten people’s comfort and neutrality. You will get mislabeled as a hater or bigot by people who claim to hate labels. You will get blamed for things you never said, did or believed. Your efforts will be disparaged as “witch hunts.” Ouch!

My number two concern regarding our current culture is the growing neutrality it promotes for marriage, family and the innocence of children.

Number one is the way it undermines repentance. Neutral minds just don’t roll that way.