Truth, Beauty, and Goodness: My Commencement Address to ECA’s Class of 2012

This is the commencement address I gave at the graduation ceremony for Evangelical Christian Academy.  I was honored to be the first female commencement speaker in the school’s history.

Good evening.  First of all, I’d like to express my gratitude to the class of 2012 for choosing me as their commencement speaker.  It is a great honor for me to address you tonight.  You could have found speakers more eloquent and more well-known in our community, but you would have been hard-pressed to find a speaker who loves you more as a class.

For those of you who don’t know my history with this class, I started working at ECA when they came to the secondary school in 7th grade.  I had them in not one, not two, but EIGHT different classes.  If any of them can’t put a sentence together, it’s probably my fault.  But I’m moving to California.  So please direct any complaints to Mr. DeRuiter.

There was not a day I taught them that they did not make me smile, and most days I nearly got a hernia from laughing so hard.  For example, one day when I picked up Austin Becker’s test to grade it, I found that in the blank next to the word “date,” he had written “yes, please.”  Every year, they threw me a sweet sixteen birthday party, although the first year they accidentally switched the numbers on the cake, so it was a sweet 61.  In the 9th grade, they asked me what kind of dancing the people were doing in Silas Marner, and out of that came a full scale English country ball at Glen Eyrie Castle.  In 2010, Marie Burley and I took a group of them on a missions trip and study tour to France and Italy.    And I got to be with them on their senior trip, dead fish and all.  It’s been a strange but wonderful six years.

We have all certainly changed.  And so has ECA.  As many of you know, ECA  is in the process of becoming a classical school.   The classical model of education holds that truth, beauty, and goodness are the highest callings to which man may aspire and ought to be the goal of our education.  So that is subject of my discourse this evening.

Classical scholars throughout the ages have searched science, art, literature, and astronomy in a quest for the true, the beautiful, and the good. But as Christians, we do not use these terms as the world uses them today.  Because when secular people speak of truth, they mean that you need to find what is true for you.   When they speak of goodness, they mean that you need to do good works to justify your existence, and when they speak of beauty, they point to movie stars and magazine covers and say “Go ye therefore and do likewise.”

Definitions matter.  The result of letting the world define beauty for us is anorexia and plastic surgery and staggering credit card debt.  The result of letting the world define goodness for us is a haunting sense of inadequacy, feeling that we can never do enough or be enough.  The result of letting the world define truth for us is chaos, as everyone attempts to live out conflicting truths they have constructed.

So it’s important that we set ourselves apart, prevent ourselves from being swept away by the world’s rhetoric, and part of how we do that is by careful use of language–defining our terms with precision.  Language is a gift from God that is part of what separates us from the rest of creation, and we can honor him through careful and precise diction.

Because definitions are so important, I want us to examine what we, as critically thinking Christians, mean we praise something as being true, beautiful or good.  This calls to mind the imperative from Philippians 4:8, which says, “Finally brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable–if anything is excellent or praiseworthy, think about such things.”

GOODNESS: Let’s begin with goodness, and for this we have to look to God Himself, because if anything in this world can be called good it is only in reference to God, who is summum bonum, or “the chiefest good.”  In fact, the original meaning of the Anglo-Saxon word “God” is “the good.”  A.W. Pink says that God is “originally good,” and that “creatures are good only in participation and communication with God.”  If a creature is good, it’s a superadded quality, but God is good in His essence.  Our goodness is but a drop and His is an infinite ocean.  John Howe puts it this way: “Only a shadow, some faint resemblance, of the divine perfections are discernible in us. But upon earthly things we bestow these names (like goodness), while remaining aware, that under the same name something infinitely more perfect has its place and being in God.”  We might appear to be good in comparison with others, but that’s not the critical reference point, is it?  When we see the infinite goodness and holiness and perfection of God, suddenly we realize that all our righteousnesses are filthy rags.

The goodness of God was of course seen best when we transgressed His law.  Because what we deserved at that moment was wrath and what we received was His mercy.  Romans 2:4 says that it is the goodness of God that leads us to repentance.  Graduates, suffering will make you question whether or not God is really good.  You have experienced and will experience disappointment and heartache and grief and pain.  When that happens, to keep those seeds of mistrust from being planted in your hearts, look to the cross, which is the tangible evidence of God’s goodness to you.

And then out of the overflow of your ransomed hearts, by the power of the Holy Spirit, not in order to be saved, but because you have been saved, demonstrate the goodness of God and the love of God to the people He puts into your life.  And when you search your life for the good, when you search your college textbooks and your professors’ lectures and your discussions with classmates for the good, hold up what you find next to the character of God as it’s revealed to you in Scripture.  And embrace the good, elevate the good.  When you do that, you will become, as Philippians 2:15 says, “blameless and pure, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine like stars in the world.”

BEAUTY:  Next is beauty.  Now, most secular people acknowledge that external beauty is not the be-all, end-all.  If you still think that there’s nothing more to beauty than designer clothes, spray tans, and cosmetics, it’s either a sign that you’re very immature or a sign that you need to be the star of your own reality show.  So there’s an “inner beauty” movement being sort of halfheartedly peddled, but obviously it hasn’t done much to change how society views beauty.

God does not put any sort of priority on physical beauty.  Isaiah 53:2 tells us, speaking prophetically of Christ, that “he had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him,” and when it was time for Israel to choose a king, God told Samuel not to choose someone who merely looked kingly because, “Man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.”  The kind of beauty that Philippians 4:8 is talking about is “doing what we were created to do.”  We can find beauty in the natural world because it is doing what God created it to do.  But nature can never glorify God as men and women can, because we are the only part of creation made in God’s image.   True beauty is found when God’s creation points to Him and glorifies Him.  For us, that means worship.  We were created to worship, to glorify God body, mind, and soul.  Flowers were made to bloom, birds were made to sing, and you and I were made to bring glory to our Creator.  God the Father loved us enough to send His Son Jesus Christ to die for us when we were ugly sinners so that He could make us into beautiful worshipers.  And when we the redeemed, by the power of the Holy Spirit, through the mediating work of Jesus Christ, return praise and thanksgiving to God the Father, we are living right in the pulsing heart of real beauty.  That’s about as far from a magazine cover or a reality show as you can get.

What this also means for you, class of 2012, is that as you go to college, you will have countless opportunities for finding beauty in natural revelation through the subjects you study.  Even at a secular college, you can turn your studies into worship of the God who created the natural world and who is the source and goal of history and who inspires great literature and the visual arts and music.  I’m pretty sure He’s not responsible for math.  J. Gresham Machen says, “Instead of destroying the arts and sciences or being indifferent to them, let us cultivate them with all the enthusiasm of the veriest humanist, but at the same time consecrate them to the service of our God. Instead of stifling the pleasures afforded by the acquisition of knowledge or by the appreciation of what is beautiful, let us accept these pleasures as the gifts of a heavenly Father. Instead of obliterating the distinction between the Kingdom and the world, or on the other hand withdrawing from the world into a sort of modernized intellectual monasticism, let us go forth joyfully, enthusiastically to make the world subject to God.”

TRUTH:  Finally, I’d like us to examine truth, which forms the bedrock of our existence.  Amazingly, even in our post-postmodern society, the word “truth” has not become outmoded.  It is still in constant use.  But when secular people use the word truth, I think to myself, “You keep using that word.  I do not think it means what you think it means.”  Ultimately, they figure out that there is no substance in their truth.  In Jean-Paul Sartre’s existential novel Nausea, one character muses, “I was just thinking that here we sit, all of us, eating and drinking, and really there is nothing, nothing, absolutely no reason for existing.”  If you look squarely at the world’s definition of truth, it will ultimately lead you to Jean-Paul Sartre’s conclusion, which was–despair.

I was talking with Leslie Schwager last week about the classical ideals, and she reminded me that we as Christians have more in common philosophically with ancient Greek and Roman philosophers, even though they did not embrace the God of the Bible.  That is because the ancient philosophers were willing to listen to what natural revelation told them instead of silencing its voice in order to avoid accountability.  These men learned that there were universals, that there was a transcendent good, and they even learned that we live in a world of shadows and echoes.  People today do not listen to what natural revelation tells them about God.  Instead, they choose to construct a utilitarian view of truth based not upon a universal, unchanging standard, but upon what works for them at that time.  Truth for the secular world is personal, always in flux, and subject to the whims of the majority.

The Bible presents us with a radically different picture of truth.  Biblical truth is based on the correspondence of an idea to objective reality, a reality with God at its center.  CS Lewis rejected the idea that moral laws are merely social conventions.  He said, “If your moral ideas are more true and those of the Nazi less true, there must be something–some Real morality–for them to be true about.”

Across the country this month, many salutatorians and valedictorians and commencement speakers are presenting are expressing a postmodern view of truth when they tell their audiences some variation on the theme of, “You can do it all on your own!  Believe in yourself!  Follow your heart!”

We just finished reading Pilgrim’s Progress in British Literature.  Early on in his journey, Christian is terribly weighed down by this burden of sin.  He meets Mr. Worldly Wiseman, who tells him that he doesn’t have to walk the path of Christianity that was laid out for him in the Bible.  All he has to do is go to Mr. Legality’s house and he can be rid of his burden much more easily.  The problem is that Mr. Legality’s house is at the top of the Hill of Difficulty, and the more Christian climbs, the farther away the house gets.  He can never reach it.  He can never do enough.  You see the truth is, when it comes to matters of eternal importance, you CAN’T do it.  You can’t please God on your own.  You have to look to Christ for that.  DON’T believe in yourself.  Believe in God as He is presented in the Scriptures, which show us absolute truth, not subject to the whims of the majority.  And whatever you do, don’t follow your heart!  The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked.  Instead, give your heart to Christ and follow Him.

As I conclude my address, I’d like to say a few words directly to the class of 2012.  I want you to know how much I love you, how proud I am of you, and how blessed I feel to have been a part of your lives.  Tonight, you are surrounded by people who love you and whom God has used to shape you into the young men and young women you are today.  Let that be an encouragement to you.

Often when I look at you I see the past.  And I’m amazed by how quickly you’ve grown up.  But tonight when I look at you, I don’t see the past, I see the future.  I see how God is shaping you, and I see the compassionate, exuberant, talented adults you will become.  I see engineers, missionaries, youth pastors, math teachers, marine biologists, and publishing executives.  I see husbands and wives, mothers and fathers.  I see men and women of God who are prepared to stand for truth, who will point to Christ with their lives, and who will lead the next generation in goodness, in beauty, and in truth.

Thank you.

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