To the graduates in the Trinitas class of 2019, congratulations. To all the faculty at Trinitas Christian School, to all the parents of the graduates, and to the Trinitas Board— among whom I count many dear friends— well done.
This is the first time I have given a commencement address, but not the first time I have heard one. By this point in my life, I wager I have been present for nearly 40 commencement addresses, and I am familiar with all the cliché slogans American audiences have learned to expect from commencement speakers.
Don’t be afraid of failure.
Never stop learning.
You are the future.
Commencement speakers often talk of the future and when they do, they say to graduates, “You’ve got your whole future in front of you.” Graduates, perhaps people have begun saying this to you lately.
As strange as it might seem, though, people have not always believed that the future is in front of us. Until the late 18thcentury, most men would have told you that the past is in front of us— and that it is the future which is behind us.
The longer you consider the idea, the more sense it will make. The past is certain, the past is definite, knowable. We can consider the past. The past is like a solid object that sits on a table, right under our noses. We can study the past. Turn it over. Shake it. We can learn from it.
In observing the past, we can observe what has made men happy and what has made men miserable. We can learn what habits of life lead men to thrive and what habits bring ruin. We can see how queens tend to behave, how crusaders tend to behave, how monks tend to behave, and in studying the past, we can learn what usually happens and we can learn what has worked.
Unlike the past, however, the future is uncertain, and there is really no telling what exactly will happen a week from now, a year from now. Nonetheless, most people now believe the future is in front of us and that we move forward into the future. We can see the future, choose the future we like and move toward it the same way a man chooses a destination on the horizon and walks toward it.
Many hundreds of years ago, though, the average man thought the future was behind him and that he stepped backwards into it— which is to say he moved blindly into the future. Of course, if a man is moving backward into his future, he takes his steps slowly, for it would be mad to run at a breakneck pace backward into unfamiliar territory. You don’t know what’s coming, you might trip on a fallen tree or fall off a cliff or into a pond. This is the reason why the world used to change so slowly. This is why the life of a Christian farmer in the year 700 AD wasn’t so different from the life of a Christian farmer in the year 1700 AD.
However, if a man believes the future is in front of him, he is free to move as quickly as he likes toward whatever destination he chooses. This is why the world now changes so rapidly. Graduates, this is why your lives so little resemble the lives of the class of 1919.
The change between believing the future is behind us to believing the future is before us might seem like a small inconsequential shift but let me assure you there have been few new ideas over the last thousand years which have plagued and bedeviled us quite like this one.
When the past was before us, men were governed by the concept of nature, for you learn the nature of a thing by observing it. A thing’s nature is really just the conditions under which it tends to thrive. We learned the nature of women by observing women. We learned the nature of children by observing children. We learned the nature of kings and the nature of priests.
But when men believe the future is in front of them, they simply quit observing how things work. When the future is before us, we are no longer governed by nature, but by our desires, and unlike nature, our desires are boundless. Our natures limit us, rule us, and confine our success to a fairly narrow set of actions. The concept of human nature teaches us what is normal, but having abandoned the idea of nature, we have abandoned the idea of normal, as well. To be honest, we are just a little offended by the idea that anything or anyone is normal, because it implies some things are abnormal.
And so, as the great conservative theorist Thomas Sowell wrote in 1993, “Much of the social history of the Western world over the past three decades has involved replacing what worked with what sounded good.” A lot of the advice you are apt to hear from a commencement speaker sounds pretty good.
Follow your heart.
Be true to yourself.
You are enough.
Be who you are.
Shine in your own light.
What makes you unique makes you beautiful.
These kind of slogans are deeply appealing to us because they ask little of us and promise a world ungoverned by anything but our own wants.
However, as a teacher of virtue, I have not come to speak “smooth words,” as Solomon says, but to ask you, graduates, to consider for a moment what has worked well for you. Tonight, I would like to put the past in front of you.
At no point in your life will you have more freedom than when you are at college. Oh, you might have more money when you enter your maturity and enjoy success in your career, but if you think of freedom purely in terms of discretionary power, nothing matches the freedom of your college years. You will leave your parents house and go to a place where few people know you. Without a mother or father to answer to, without children to care for, without a spouse to tend to, you may go where you like, watch what you like, date who you like, stay out as late as you like, rise as late as you like. If you wake at three in the morning and want to drive to New York City, who will stop you?
I don’t need to tell you that the dazzling, disorienting vastness of such freedom proves the undoing of many young men and women. You have certainly heard a few stories by now.
What I would like to offer you, then, are three rather simple rules for keeping your head in college— three rules for not getting swallowed up by your new freedoms.
These rules are nothing new, but reflections on what has worked well for you so far— the same habits which brought you to this stage and dressed you in these robes will also carry you through college. The three rules are quite simple: Go to church, go to class, call your dad.
Before I go on, I should acknowledge that you are, perhaps, already a little disappointed by how straight-forward and unglamorous these rules are. If so, recall for a moment the story of Namaan from 2 Kings. When the Syrian general Namaan contracted leprosy, his servant told him an Israelite prophet could cure him, but when Elisha told Namaan to bath seven times in the Jordan and he would be healed, Namaan scoffed that the medicine was too simple. When Namaan’s servants saw their master refuse the prophet’s instruction, one of them asked, “My father, if the prophet had told you to do some great thing, would you not have done it? How much more, then, when he tells you, ‘Wash and you will be cured’!” So Namaan took the simple, unglamorous advice of Elisha and he was healed.
It is true that God sometimes asks His people to do very difficult things— to bring the Gospel to savages, to confront oppressors, to not complain when they are cheated— however, from day to day, what God asks of us is not particularly difficult. In fact, we are often insulted by just how easy and simple God’s commands are. When His yoke is easy and His burden is light, our pride is wounded.
I have a great many students who believe that faithfulness to God at the age of 14 or 15 primarily consists of sharing the Gospel with the Lost, like St. Paul did at Mars Hill or St. Patrick in Ireland. Such evangelical work requires a brave and heroic spirit, of course, but nearly all the students who tell me their primary Christian duty is sharing the Gospel also admit they rarely read their Bibles and that they do not even really know what the Gospel is. They cannot name the Apostles, they do not know the events of Holy Week or what happened “on the night in which Christ was betrayed,” they are wildly unfamiliar with the parables of Christ, and when they hear passages from the Sermon on the Mount quoted, if they are not told in advance they are hearing the words of Scripture, they often suspect it is Catholic superstition.
I tell these students that what God requires of them at the moment is actually far more mundane. Read your Bibles, pray, meditate on the Word of God, obey your parents, don’t complain about school, sing in church, be willing to confront your classmates when they pull out their phones in the men’s room between classes, get your parents to help you with temptations you can’t overcome on your own, be willing for other Christians to mock your devotion to Jesus Christ.
When you are young, this is what God calls you to do. It is repetitive work, like washing the dishes, and it is tedious, like pulling all the pills off an old sweater, and so there is no fame to be had in it. So, when you’re in college, and you go to church, and you go to class, and you call your dad, there will be no one to praise you for it. No one will be impressed. And this is fine. These are not heroic things to do. They are common things. These are things everyone is supposed to be doing. They are common things, natural things, but they will work— which is to say God works through them.
In case you are skeptical that holding to these three rules will be sufficient to keep you on the straight and narrow in college, I really ought to explain myself. The most important of the three rules is, “Go to church,” but I would like to start with, “Go to class.”
For students brought up in classical schools, there is something really novel about showing up in college and discovering that some classes do not require attendance. Even better, you will find that most of the classes wherein attendance is not required are not worth going to in the first place but are nonetheless required in order to graduate.
The first time you skip class, nothing bad will happen, which will embolden you to do it again. Skipping class is slippery, though, and will quickly become a habit that gets away from you. Take note of why you skip class, or why others do so, and you will find your reasons typically boil down to, “I just don’t want to go.” Skipping class is a good way of forgetting why you’re in college in the first place— which is either to learn virtue or to get a job. Students who skip classes often tell themselves, “I can still pass this class,” but I’ll let you in on a little secret, which is that in and of itself, getting good grades in college is nearly worthless. Droves of students graduate from college with decent grades, then go on to low-paying, unsatisfying jobs right beside people who never went to college. If you want to get something out of college, you need to go to class every day, sit in the front row, and know something about the professor’s career outside the classroom. Read his book, follow his column on the American Spectator, listen to the lecture he gave at Biola last month. This is how you earn the sympathy of the professor, and that’s how you get nominated for departmental prizes and small grants. That’s how you get letters of recommendation, introductory emails to the First Things editor, and the kind of contact info which opens doors. The real value of your time in college will likely be established by no more than three teachers and no more than six classes.
When you forget why you’re in college, your friends will quickly become your reason for being in college and you tell yourself, “Community is important. A real friend mourns with those mourn, laughs with those who laughs, and takes pointless trip to the beach on Monday with those who take pointless trips to the beach on Monday.” There is probably nothing in the world which will get you out of the habit of going to Church on Sunday morning quite like overvaluing the importance of your friends in college.
All of which leads me to the next rule for surviving college. “Go to church.” At this moment, I doubt you have plans to quit going to church in college. I suspect that very few Christian kids plan on quitting church in college, nonetheless, a staggering number of them do. This simply means that it is much harder to go to church in college than you presently think. What you need is a plan.
If your family currently attends a PCA church and you are moving to a new city for college, when you get to that new city, begin attending a PCA church. If your family currently attends a Southern Baptist church, go to a Southern Baptist church in college. If your family currently attends an Anglican church, go to an Anglican church in college. If you currently attend a PCA church, when you move away for college you should commit yourself as quickly as possible to whatever PCA church there is in town, even if they don’t have a singles group, even if you don’t like the music, even if the pastor is too stuffy or too hip for your taste.
Students who go to college and begin trying out a bevy of new churches, looking for one they like, often fail to quickly land in any particular church, which makes it far easier to stop going to church altogether. There will be a temptation to simply go to the church where most of your friends go, but if you merely attend a certain church because your friends go there, it will be far easier to skip church when your friends skip and quit church when your friends quit. Besides this, it is not wise to imitate people who are your own age. They are just as blind as you are. At very least, imitate people who are doing well in the stage of life which comes after yours. Occasionally my daughters come home from school and tell me about the kind of jokes and hobbies and clothes which have social purchasing power among 4thgraders, and I tell them, “Do not try to impress the other students. Their opinions do not matter. You try to impress the teacher. The opinions of the teacher matter.” All this to say, don’t go to a church just because your friends go there.
Many college students quit going to church for entirely understandable reasons. Very few college-aged Christians quit Church in protest against the teachings of Jesus Christ. Rather, they take weekend road trips. What is more, there is a narrow range of jobs available to college students, you need a job, and the only job you can get has Sunday morning hours. Or you stay out late with your friends Saturday night, or the worries of this life overwhelm you and you tell yourself you “just need a break.” But very few people renounce God all of a sudden.
We are often tempted to think that Christians who abandon the faith do so suddenly— as though, in the midst of a lifetime of steady church attendance, their doubt steadily grows to the point that they tell their friends on a Saturday night, “I don’t think I’m coming to church tomorrow or ever again.” I suppose this kind of thing happens occasionally, but I’ve never actually seen it happen. It is simply not the usual way in which Christians come to reject God.
Much like skipping class, the first time you skip church, nothing really bad happens. If you believe that abortion is wrong and that Jesus died for you at 7:30 on Sunday morning, you’re still going to believe those things when you turn off the alarm and wake up well-rested four hours later. And you can tell yourself that you’ve missed church before— because you were sick or your family was on the road, and you can look in the mirror and tell yourself you’re still a Christian. Because you are. But all these things will be true next week when you skip church, as well, and the week after. And if you’re not committed to any one church in particular, no one is going to expect to see you, and if you don’t show up, no one will miss you. Very few Christian college students give themselves over to vice the second their parents drop them off in August, but it is far easier to do things Pastor Steve doesn’t approve of when you haven’t seen Pastor Steve since October, and then shame keeps you out of church. When Christian kids finally admit to their friends, “I used to be a Christian,” it’s because they’ve run out of the evidence they used as children to prove they were Christians.
Going to church reminds you who you are, and it’s easy to forget who you are in college. New mailing address, new friends, new routine, new powers. Even grown men, old men, commonly forget themselves when they go out of town for just a few days. But going to church reminds you who you are and what God requires of His people and what your family expects of you. It will be a great boon to your soul if something as important as your church home is decided before you even show up at college, for a great many other things will require immediate attention and this will prove disorienting.
I am not suggesting you are bound forever to the denomination you were raised in, but if you want to look at other churches than the one you were raised in, do so on Wednesday nights. Your attendance on Sunday mornings should be predictable, though. You should be a known and expected face on Sunday mornings, so if you ultimately decide to make your Wednesday night church into your Sunday morning church, as well, that move should be formal and forthright. You are not a rogue individual, bravely making it on your own. We are weak and we need one another to keep us accountable.
The final rule for keeping your head in college is “Call your dad.” Ladies, you should call your mother. Call your mother or father often. Call them once a week. When I say “call,” I mean “call,” I don’t mean text or email. There are secrets of the heart revealed in the human voice which can remain dangerously hidden in typed messages.
Going to college tends to create an illusion that leads many students to believe they have become far more self-sufficient and autonomous than they actually are. The illusion is a little understandable. In college, you have to feed yourself, dress yourself, take yourself to the doctor if you get sick. At the same time, this isn’t really self-sufficiency. You will continue to depend on your parents for money, for the underwriting of loans, for cell phone bills, for emergencies, for Christmas presents and birthday presents which substantially contribute to your well-being, and for room and board three or four months out of the year. Nonetheless, when a college student feeds himself and dresses himself, he will be tempted to also say, “I take care of myself, so I should think for myself, too,” and feel it necessary to begin disagreeing with his parents on politics, which will quickly lead to disagreements about morality, as well.
However, regularly calling your mother or father will prove helpful in breaking you of the illusion that you’ve become entirely independent. Talking with your father every week will be a good way for you to keep tabs on the number of things you’re doing that you have to hide. There is little chance you will have to hide these things from your friends, and so you will be tempted to say there is nothing wrong with anything you’re doing. But your father is another story and let me assure you that anything you must keep secret from your father, even in college, will bring you to ruin if you let it go on for very long.
So go to church. Go to class. And call your dad.
Allow me to suggest that living by these three rules is simply what got you this far. These rules are nothing new, but reflections on what has already worked well for you. As you go off to college, you don’t need a radically new plan for living, but fidelity to the old way of living. The less you change over the next year, the better.
In high school, you did not have a choice about going to class, and neither, really, did you have a choice about going to church or talking with your parents, because you lived with them. The only real change which you must make when going to college, then, is this: you must begin voluntarily doing what was required of you before. Such a change demands not only tremendous will-power, but a willingness to live by habit, by standards.
Going to church, going to class, and speaking regularly with your parents— and not just speaking with them, but living with them, serving them, obeying them, depending on them— got you this far because doing those things provided you with an identity. You’re a Christian. You’re a scholar. You’re a son. You’re a daughter. Those identities were given to you. You didn’t really choose them. What is more, those identities provided you with a creed and an agenda to live by. You were raised to believe that Christians and scholars and sons and daughters are not free to do whatever they like but must behave according to certain rules. Christians love their enemies, sing God’s praises, meditate on Scripture. Scholars study wisdom and virtue. Sons obey their fathers. These things are non-negotiable.
Living according to these identities has given your life stability and a sustainable life is a good life. Unhappy people on the path to destruction are constantly claiming they will change their ways in the future. In the future, I will drink less. In the future, I will go to bed earlier. In the future, I will tithe. In the future, I’ll spend more time with my family. In the future, I will read my Bible more and pray more and go to church more.
No, you won’t.
In the future, you will simply be very good at not doing these things. You will be very good at inventing excuses for why you cannot do those things.
College is a time when many people begin writing themselves IOUs to be righteous and moral and responsible in the future. I don’t need to tell you how few people ever repay those IOUs. These IOUs are often written in the midst of a frantic search for new identities, because one of the most dangerous lies of our age— a lie powerfully preached on many campuses, but broadly believed by many Christians, as well— is that the only identity worth having is one that you make up entirely on your own.
For this reason, fewer and fewer men want to be men, fewer and fewer women want to be women, and we have invented a thousand genders, each more unique and special and unnatural than the last. It is for this same reason so many Christians only state their political affiliations or church affiliations with a host of caveats: I’m Republican but… I’m Presbyterian but… I’m Baptist but… I’m Catholic but… We are embarrassed by the idea that any institution holds power over us, that we are obligated to obey anyone or anything but the dictates of our own hearts. All of our loyalties are highly qualified. Our devotion is conditional. Our dedication tenuous, guarded, cautious.
But the man who does not know who he is does not know what he should do, and so he will do ill and wash his hands and say, “I’ve done no wrong.”
And so I say, “Go to church. Go to class. Call your dad.”
Your identity is simply a list of all the ways God has been gracious to you.
Don’t let the world swindle that from you.
Mr. Gibbs teaches great books to high school students at Veritas School in Richmond, Virginia. He is a popular author and speaker in the realm of classical Christian education and also a former Trinitas faculty member.