I like mottos. Here are a few of mine:
- “Be joyful in hope.” (Romans 12:12)
- “If you love to learn, you’ll learn to love.”
- “It is good to be smart, but it is better to be good.”
- “Love the sinner, not the sin.”
If you don’t have a life motto, take any of mine! Better yet, come up with your own. Or borrow one from a historical hero. Just make sure it is one worth carrying to your grave. Mottos are handles for holding on to our principles. Good ones keep us focused and on track. Yet, a motto does not make a man (or woman). First, we must have a mission. Without that, a motto is just a “muttum” (Latin for utterance).
The most famous motto ever may also be the best. Jesus said, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” (Luke 6:34). Similar golden sayings are found in the ancient writings of Isocrates, Aristotle and several religions. Jesus simplified it: “Love one another.” (John 13:34).
Mottos motivate! In 1775, Patrick Henry gave the American colonies a motivating motto: “Give me liberty or give me death!” Many carried it to their graves in our War for Independence. John Paul Jones uttered some famous fighting words in 1779 when he replied to a British admiral, “I have not yet begun to fight.” The U.S. Marine motto is, “Semper Fidelis (always faithful).” The old Navy motto, “Don’t give up the ship” is taken from the dying words of Captain James Lawrence in 1813 after a skirmish with a British frigate. “Remember the Alamo!” inspired Sam Houston’s troops in 1836 fighting for Texan independence. “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead,” harkens back to Admiral Farragut’s orders at Mobile Bay in 1864. “Hit hard, hit fast, hit often” was the Halsey cry, inspired by Admiral William F. Halsey in World War II.
Where there is a mission, we usually find a motto. To better educate pastors, Harvard College was founded in 1636 with the lofty motto “Veritas” (Latin for Truth). Believing that Harvard was getting lax in her mission, some New Haven citizens founded Yale in 1701 under the expanded motto, “Lux et Veritas“ (Light and Truth). Here are a few more educational institution mottos:
- Azusa Pacific university: “God First.”
- Brandeis University: “Truth even unto its innermost parts.”
- Brown University: “In Deo Speramus” (In God We Hope).
- Montreat College: Esse Quam Videri (To Be, Rather than to Seem).
- Pepperdine University: “Freely ye received, freely give.” (Matthew 10:8).
- University of Oregon: “Mens Agitat Molem” (Minds Move Mountains)
- University of Oxford: Dominus Illuminatio Mea (The Lord is My Light).
Living up to our mottos is another matter. The official motto of the United States of America is “In God We Trust.” How are we doing? Here are a few good state mottos:
- Colorado: “Nil Sine Numine” (Nothing Without Providence).
- Idaho: “Esto perpetua” (It is forever).
- New Hampshire: “Live Free or Die!”
- Ohio: “With God All Things Are Possible.” (Mark 10:27).
- South Carolina: “Dum Spiro Spero” (While I breathe, I hope).
- Virginia: “Sic Semper Tyrannis” (Thus always to tyrants). John Wilkes Booth allegedly shouted this after shooting President Lincoln.
Mail carriers work long and hard under the motto of the U.S. Post Office: “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their chosen rounds.” The U.S. Supreme Court motto is, “Equal justice under the law.” The CIA looked to Jesus for their motto: “Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” (John 8:32). The Boy Scout motto is, “Always be prepared.” The Salvation Army marches to the motto, “Blood and Fire.” Even the media have mottos:
- “Be Silent, or Say Something Better Than Silence.” Pawtucket Times (RI).
- “Once a week but never weakly.” The Capital Reporter, Jackson, MI.
- “Where There Is No Vision the People Perish.” Newsday (from Psalms).
- “All the news that’s fit to print.” New York Times.
- “What the People Don’t Know WILL Hurt Them.” Johnson City (TN) Press-Chronicle.
Back in the 1960s, the motto, “Don’t trust anyone over 30” was popular, as if nothing could be learned about life and goodness from experienced people–as if trusting one’s own heart was enough. It’s not. Bad mottos can carry you to an early grave.
Parents teach timeless truths through simple mottos kids can grasp. My mom quoted such gems as “If you don‘t work, you don’t eat” (2 Thessalonians 3:10), and “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” When things got silly, she threatened; “The rod will drive your foolishness far from you!” When frustrated, she sighed, “This too shall pass.” Forrest Gump’s mom had a good motto: “Stupid is as stupid does.” I also like, “Love is as love does.” Jesus said that “wisdom is proved right by her actions.” (Matthew 11:19).
I like Jesus’ mottos best, but He did not live and die to give us mere mottos. We can take a motto to our grave but it cannot take us any further. Beyond all His inspired mottos, Jesus had a higher mission which He carried it to His grave. In fact, his mission was that grave! In three days, however, He rose from that lowly grave so that we too could have a mission to take to our graves, and beyond.
That’s why I can “be joyful in hope.”