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Rivers on the bare heights

Graduates, prepare for the days when you will be parched with thirst

Rivers on the bare heights

May and June are full of uplifting commencement addresses. Speakers offer sentiments such as, "Today you embark on a great adventure. Endeavor to persevere."

There is nothing wrong with such sentiments. Clichés become clichés because they have a foundation in experience. But graduates, while embarking on a great adventure, will also encounter disappointment and doubt, so speakers should mix in a little reality with the inevitable exhortation.

Graduates will face disappointment with people. Sooner or later a Christian friendship will end in betrayal and a Christian organization will evidence corruption. That will be a shattering experience for those who professed Christ merely because they believed what parents or pastors or friends told them.

Sadly, some people lose confidence in Christ because of Christians. The key then is to remember what an old deacon told me 30 years ago: "Christians will often disappoint you. Christ never will."

Even harder than disappointment is a second D, doubt. Graduates should understand that doubts are normal. After all, we are all in a predicament, born into a world we did not make and trying to figure out how we should live. In such a puzzling situation it is natural to doubt, and it requires supernatural grace to go beyond doubt.

That grace often comes not in violent storms or earthquakes but in gentle whispers. Later, writers like C.S. Lewis, Francis Schaeffer, J.I. Packer, and many others can amplify those whispers. The big problem comes when Christians are perfectionists, thinking that if we have any doubts or if we do something wrong it means that we are not saved.

Graduates should not fear disappointment and doubt. As novelist Walker Percy observed, our anxiety is evidence that we are strangers in the world: "Better to be a dislocated human than a happy chimp." If we felt completely at home, that would be a sign that we are at home. Our desire for more shows that we are either completely deluded or that we are really citizens of heaven.

Which is it-delusion, or a desire that will one day be satisfied? When the Bible tells us to work out our salvation in fear and trembling, I think it means that we are to work not on reducing but on increasing our desire for what is really good and true.

I've been instructed in this by John Piper's excellent book, Desiring God: "We should never try to deny our longing to be happy, as though it were a bad impulse. Instead, we should seek to intensify this longing and nourish it with whatever will provide the deepest and most enduring satisfaction."

Graduates should learn to handle disappointment by letting it increase their desire for God, who, unlike people, does not disappoint. They should learn to use doubt to increase their desire to read the Bible and absorb its truths, in part because doubt will make them realize how desperate they (and all of us) are.

Anne Lamott, although theologically unorthodox, has the right idea here: "I don't know much, but I understand how entirely doomed I am without God." A sense of helplessness makes us yearn for God. The Gospel of Luke tells us about people like Simeon who were "waiting for the consolation of Israel." Anna, age 84, had such an intense longing that she "did not depart from the temple, worshipping with fasting and prayer night and day."

As Luke suggests, Simeon and Anna longed for God. So must we. Isaiah put it this way in his 41st chapter: "When the poor and needy seek water, and there is none, and their tongue is parched with thirst, I the Lord will answer them; I the God of Israel will not forsake them."

Graduates grappling with disappointment and doubt might scarf down a can of potato chips, but they would do better to apply a famous commercial to Bible verses: "Bet you can't read just one." Let's continue with God's promise in Isaiah: "I will open rivers on the bare heights, and foundations in the midst of the valleys . . . that men may see and know."

That's a future hope for the day the world graduates, but also a present one for all graduates with ears to hear.