This is a transcript of Joe Rigney's graduation address delivered at NSA's 2017 commencement ceremony on May 11. You can listen to the full address at the bottom or by visiting NSA's podcast on iTunes or Google Play
Graduates, family and friends, as an alumni and friend of this institution, I want to offer my deepest congratulations on finishing this portion of the course of life. Making it this far is no small feat, and your presence here is a testament both to the grace of God and your hard work, and, for some of you, to the kindness and generosity of your professors.
As I understand it, it is customary at such events for the speaker to offer an exhortation. A natural choice this evening would be to extol the value of a liberal arts education for life. But you’ve been studying here, in the Mecca of Christian Liberal Arts. I know your professors. I count many of them as my friends (I’ll let you guess which ones I’m excluding). You’ve read Shakespeare with Grieser, studied Augustine with Appel, learned Latin with Griffith. You’ve been “Quid est-ed?” and “Quid agit-ed?” until you dream in Latin stick figures. Dr. McIntosh has introduced you to some of the greatest thinkers in history. Men like Anselm, and Anselm, and Anselm, and Aquinas, but really Anselm. Before you came here you did not know that it was possible for anyone to be as excited about Herodotus, Thucydides, and medieval progymnasmata as Dr. Schlect is. Some of you men have tried to get a girlfriend by using those Anglo-Saxon pickup lines that Dr. Merkle taught you (“Hey girl, do you ofermeod? Wyrd.”) You’ve sung psalms with Erb, read the gospels with Edwards, and seen the glories of mathematics with Stokes (though the first time you walked into class, you did wonder if he was going to teach physics by bench-pressing you). You learned mimetic desire from a Wilson, creative writing from a Wilson, and the mating habits of the western rattlesnake from a Wilson. Wilson, Wilson, and Wilson—it sounds like a law firm. Or, in case any of our Truly Reformed brethren are listening in, it’s really a Law and Gospel firm.
No, if, after spending four (or more years) here in Moscow, you still don’t know the value of a liberal arts education, then, as the sage Rooster Cogburn once said, “I can do nothin’ for ya, son.” Which, incidentally, is also what Professor Escalante told some of you after your Rhetoric final. (Imagine him with an eyepatch and the stache? The freshmen wouldn’t know where to look.)
So though extolling the Christian liberal arts would have some value, for this address, I’ve chosen to offer an exhortation, not from the Great Books, but from the Greatest Book. That’s how we talk at my institution. We study the Great Books in the light of the Greatest Book. Indeed, in light of the Person at the center of the Greatest Book.
Do the Word
To that end, my exhortation if very simple: Do the word. Or as James says “Be a doer of the word.” Here’s the full passage from James 1:
But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing. (James 1:22-25)
James contrasts doing the word with being a mere hearer. Hearing without doing is like looking at your face in a mirror and then walking away and forgetting what you look like. Hearing = looking in the mirror. Not doing = walking away and forgetting. Simply hearing the word is not the same as obeying the word. If all you do is hear, with no doing, you’re kidding yourself. You’re self-deceived. There must be something more.
What’s the more? It’s looking in the right mirror and doing what you see. What’s the mirror? The mirror is the law of liberty, what he earlier calls the word of truth by which we’re born again, the implanted word which saves us, and which later he calls the royal law of liberty. In other words, the mirror that we should look carefully into is the Holy Scriptures, both Old and New Testaments, understood in light of the good news of King Jesus. That’s the word that we are to do. We’re after gospel doing. What does that mean?
The gospel doer looks into the mirror of the royal law of liberty. The gospel doer sees himself reflected in the living and abiding word of God. Doing the word, or what I’m calling “gospel doing” means that you look to Jesus and to yourself in Jesus for the strength and supply for all of your deeds. You have been raised with Christ. You are seated with him in the heavenlies. Your life is hidden with Christ in God. One day, when he appears, you also will appear with him in glory. Your true self, the fullness of who and what God made you to be, will be revealed and made manifest. But for now it’s hidden.
Gospel doing means that you see yourself in the royal law and you live into that vision. You look into the mirror and you don’t walk away and forget. You persevere in that vision. You do what you see. This is more than just moral exemplarism. It’s not simply “What would Jesus do?” That is often too abstract and distant to be of much use. It’s “What would I do, if I were full of Jesus?” C. S. Lewis called this “good pretending.” Bad pretending is hypocrisy. It’s when we pretend to be something that we’re not. Our pretense, our fakery is a substitute for reality. Good pretending is when the pretense leads up to the reality, when the pretending is the on ramp to reality. It’s what children do when they pretend to be grown up so that they can grow up. And it’s what Christians do, in our pilgrim condition, when we’re told to do the word.
Practically speaking, it works like this: imagine what you’d be like if you really did experience deep, gospel renewal. If you really believed that the living God was for you and that he would meet all of your needs and that you didn’t need to use people to get what you want because you know that God accepts and approves and embraces you and so you overflow with his kind of love. Imagine that version of yourself, the one that is free and happy and stable and full of love. Now take that imaginary you and put him in the situations that you face in your life. What would that imaginary, gospel-you do? If you really did love God deeply from the heart, and if you really did love your neighbor sincerely, what would you do? When you have the answer, ask for God’s help and then go and do it (even if you suspect that your motives are mixed). In other words, do the deeds of love even when (some of) the substance is lacking. Don’t wait for your motives to be fully pure. Repent of your impure motives, sinful preferences, and spiritual apathy. Look at yourself in the mirror of the gospel, the liberating law of King Jesus. See what you are in light of the good news. Now don’t walk away and forget. Remember. Persevere in that vision of yourself in Christ. Walk away and do what you saw, even if you don’t fully feel what you saw. And, James says, you will be blessed in your doing.
That’s what I mean by “Do the word.” For the rest of your life, be a doer—a gospel doer—of the word.
Now the concept may still be somewhat abstract, and as any mason will tell you, concrete makes a sure foundation. So in the remainder of my time, I want to describe a handful of situations that all of you may face, and some of you will undoubtedly face.
Some of you are going to be unbelievably successful, beyond your wildest dreams. Everything you touch will turn to gold. Your family will flourish, your ministry will be fruitful, your church will be growing, your job will be fulfilling and meaningful, and your hearth and home will be happy. When that happens, you will be tempted to boast. You will be tempted to lord it over others. You may flaunt it, or you may find subtle Christian ways to remind everyone of your success and fruitfulness. Instead of looking into the mirror of the royal law, you will collect mirrors. You will turn other people into mirrors for your glory. You will build a kingdom for yourself built on the praise of others, or the envy of others, or the admiration of others. You will derive a twisted sense of pleasure in provoking people to want your life (and a subtle sense of satisfaction that they can’t have it).
So wh"DOen God forces you to face fruitfulness and success, do the word. Look into the royal law of liberty and ask yourself, “What do you have that you did not receive? And if you received it, why would you boast as though you did it yourself?” Remember that life does not consist in the abundance of your possessions, or the wealth of your accomplishments. Remember that it’s hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom (and that there are more kinds of wealth than money). Remember that Paul treats facing plenty and abundance as a challenge. It’s easy to say, “I can do all things through wealth which strengthens me.” It’s hard to be fruitful and successful in such a way that shows that your strength comes from Christ alone. So look into the mirror; look upon yourself with sober judgment. Remember what defines you: “By the grace of God I am what I am.” Remember that, no matter how fruitful you are, you are only quite a little fellow in a wide world after all. And thank goodness.
Other People’s Success
Some of you are not going to succeed. Your dreams are not going to come true. You are going to watch other people move further up and further in. Your friend is going to get the job. Your rival is going to get the promotion. Someone else will have the golden opportunity. You’ll watch your friends get married, and feel the ache of being left out. Or you’ll get married and watch your friends have children, and feel the ache of being left out. You’ll go into ministry, and watch a neighboring church flourish while yours languishes. Someone else’s platform is going to be raised, and your neck will hurt from looking up so often.
And when that happens, do the word. Don’t allow their success to be your stumbling block. Don’t receive their blessings as a personal wound. Resist the poison of envy and rivalry. Put to death malice and bitterness. Look into the law of liberty and remember that God’s kindness knows no bounds. It will take him an eternity to pour out all of his blessings upon you. Bless God for the blessings of others. The imaginary gospel-you in the mirror of God’s word—that guy rejoices in the fruitfulness, success, and blessing of others. The gospel-you revels in God’s grace upon other people, especially those who succeed in things that you care about. The gospel-you overflows with gratitude for others gifts. So see yourself in light of God’s glad-hearted embrace of you in Christ, and do the word when others succeed.
All of you will face trials in your life. Some of you will face horrific trials. You’re going to lose your job. You’re going to face depression. You’re going to get a tumor in your auditory canal, and you’re going to stare death in the face, and you’re going to look your kids in the eyes on the way into surgery and know that they may spend the rest of their earthly lives fatherless. Or it’s going to be your husband or your son on the hospital bed, and you know that this might be it. And sometimes, they don’t wake up. Some of you will watch dementia slowly and cruelly stalk your father until he wastes away. Cancer will take your mom three months before the first grandbaby arrives. Or the icy road will steal your best friend or younger sister. Or the joy of birth will turn to horror when the baby is stillborn.
You are going to face trials of various kinds. When you do, do the word. Look into the perfect law of liberty and see the empty tomb and the living hope and count it all joy. And then cry your eyes out, because it hurts just as much as it’s worth. It hurts just as much as he’s worth and as she’s worth. Look into the mirror of the word and see Job sitting in ashes for days, and the psalmist crying “Why, God?” in agony, and see Jesus weeping at the tomb of his friend five minutes before he ordered Death to release him. Doing the word in the face of trials is not stoicism. It’s sorrowful yet always rejoicing. It’s grieving and lamenting and aching, but not without hope. It’s knowing deep in the world that Jesus meant what he said: “In this world, you will have trouble. Take heart, I have overcome the world.”
Time fails me to speak of other situations. When you face an uncertain future and anxiety bubbles up from your heart, do the word and know that the cross God is calling you to bear now is the cross of not knowing. Anxiety itself, not all of the unknown and horrific possibilities, is the affliction you have to face. When you sin grievously, do the word and confess your transgressions. When you’re sinned against, do the word and extend the same forgiveness that you have received. When you face opposition and hostility in the world because you refuse to live in the world’s fantasies, do the word without shrillness, without malice, but with joy, humility, and compassion for refugees from the world.
Class of 2017, as long as you have breath, look into the mirror of the gospel, and do the word.