This is the season for graduations.
Speeches, diplomas, and congratulatory cards are showered on the graduates. And their potential—the promise open before them—is a common theme in these cards, speeches, and toasts. The grads are told they have the potential to touch lives for good—perhaps to start an amazing tech firm or a worldwide charity. And even the potential to become President. Nothing is ruled out!
But is it true?
Well—without wanting to rain on any graduation parades—let’s be honest: it’s a misleading sentiment.
In the real world every person’s potential narrows very quickly from birth onward. Like a small descending rivulet that leads into a valley, that leads into a tightly descending draw, which finally reaches the Colorado River at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, we all find boundaries in life. Our natural gifts, our circumstances, and our early and often mundane life choices set up most of our life options. Early steps start to preclude a host of once-possible opportunities in life.
There are two main features of potential. The first is personal and the second is circumstantial. These overlap with nature and nurture distinctions.
Circumstances are critical: they set up channels for most of the personality-based features of the graduate’s potential. A child born in Peru, for instance, has a different range of options compared to a child born in Poland. And a farmer’s daughter raised in Nigeria will have options that differ markedly from those of a pastor’s son raised in Norway. Both will enter life with a certain range of educational, social, and economic circumstances already in place. And some settings will offer greater potential for personal initiative than others.
A child’s freedom to explore their unique personal interests will also narrow very quickly depending on their nurture. A child raised in a Christian school or homeschool environment will have a matrix of values and vision very different from what most public schools offer today.
The point is that any graduation discourse about personal potential makes about as much sense as a bowman telling his arrow about the wonderful potential the arrow has in deciding where to land!
Yet let’s avoid cold determinism. My arrow analogy is useful but it has limits—as does our probing of personhood and life placement. Each soul does, indeed, have freedom. Not the traditional “free will” of Adam’s fall but the freedom of a heart-response to love. And God’s love is offered to all: divine predestination, while biblical, isn’t a prison made of some sort of eternal concrete. Instead it’s a promise, based in God’s love (as in Ephesians 1), that his plans for good aren’t overruled by our Enemy’s ambitions. His love is still offered to all even if, after Adam’s Fall, it draws only some to salvation. As Jesus reminded us, many are called but few are chosen.
What, then, would I say if I happened to be a graduation speaker this coming weekend? What sort of potential can be promised, properly, to our happy graduates?
I would start with God. He created all of us for the good works he prepared beforehand for us to engage and enjoy. The fountain of this plan is his triune being: he is a God who lives in love. His love consists in the eternal relationship of the Father and the Son, facilitated and sustained by the Spirit. Both creation and redemption display the spreading goodness of God’s love.
So in the great analogy of marriage, the Father wants his beloved Son to have a bride. But the bride is not coerced or bribed to respond. Instead she, despite any initial doubts or fears, eventually finds her Pursuer to be captivating: one whose truth, creativity, and faithfulness are unsurpassed.
While his love is offered freely to the world, the world has loved darkness rather than his light. And in the end we will find a pattern was in play. From the beginning God determined that only those who recognize their need for this love would respond and become the collective male-female spiritual bride. They are, mainly, the poor and lame and weak—the lowly rather than the proud. He knew ahead of time—before the creation—whose hearts he would draw to become the bride. Figures like Paul and the woman at the well in John 4 stand out—both, though conspicuous sinners, were pursued and captured by divine love.
So the question in front of each graduate revolves around love: whom—or what—will they love? It makes all the difference for what follows. If they respond to God’s love in Christ they have the opportunity—the potential—to discover life in Christ. But if they dismiss God’s love they also dismiss that potential. Instead they take on for themselves all the demands and responsibilities of trying to function as independent, self-directed agents: as little gods.
I would end: “And so, dear graduates, here’s the potential that lies before you: God invites you to taste and see how good he is. And once you come into his embrace—if you aren’t there already—you will have the potential to become all he’s made you to be. Go for it!”