Over the past 18 months, Tiffany and I saw both of our children, at their respective universities, walk in that traditional processional to receive the crowning diploma representing the degree they had each worked so hard for. These events brought a sense of accomplishment to our kids, but also fostered proud moments for their parents and grandparents. They also made me reflect on my own educational journey.
When I was pursuing my education, I had a strong inclination to go as far as I could go. In academic circles, the doctorate is typically called the “terminal degree.” That means it is as far as you can go in that certain field. However, for me, it felt “terminal” in the sense that it almost killed me! As a full-time pastor in a growing local church, it took me 8 years to accomplish what was designed for 3 years. Now maybe it was due to academic deficiencies in me; however, often, it was simply juggling all of the roles of the pastor, father, and spouse that made me more inclined to lay my academic pursuits aside for periods of time. I thought I would never finish. Many times, I would peer over into the deep chasm of the “Canyon of Quitting” and contemplate base jumping into it.
This stressful time caused me to do some soul searching on my motivations. Why was I doing it? Why would I intentionally put myself through such difficulty? It certainly was not for the title or salutation. I am still referred to as “Bill” by the majority of folks I pastor and that suits me just fine. However, the draw toward education was more about my sense of faithfulness to the ways God had gifted me and the opportunities He had laid before me.
Though it has been almost 15 years since I donned those doctoral stripes and hood for graduation, the memory of that day remains vibrant. It was my fourth major graduation. It was an honor during each of those moments to shake the hand of the Principal of the school or the President of the University/Seminary. For each of these accomplishments I was handed a diploma, which was designed to be framed for public display.
However, as the years have gone by, I have become more aware of the true nature of a diploma. It represents an accomplishment, but it is not the accomplishment itself. There is no way that simple piece of paper could account for all of the late nights, and brain-splitting labor that was given to pursue it. However, even with all of that effort, I had not reached the destination. Certainly, a milestone had been achieved; but, was that the end of it? Had the time come to just sit back and do nothing? Of course not. The journey to achieving the degree was just another step in the journey to which God had called me for life. Where I went from there was more important than where I had been.
I imagine the same holds true for most people. Landing the promotion is not as important as what you will accomplish in that new position…or the way in which you will handle yourself in that job. Having your name put on a birth certificate as a parent will never highlight the late nights spent nurturing a sick child…or ballgames and recitals you will cheer at…or struggling with them through life’s disappointments. Signing your name on that marriage license is but a moment in time. Marriage, though, is a lifetime of daily decisions to prioritize the needs of your mate over your own…or going outside of your comfort zone to speak love to them in a language they understand.
Taking hold of the degree, signing the new employment contract, holding the newborn baby, and saying “I do” are all noteworthy milestones and accomplishments. But they are not the end of the journey…they are just another step in the journey. The most important questions are not where you have been or what promise you have just made…it is where you go from here that matters most.
The apostle Paul’s life before Christ would have been impressive on a resume. He had the unique distinction of being a Jew and a Roman citizen. He had been well-trained in the Hebrew faith and had obviously been trusted enough to head up significant efforts to persecute the early church. His training and talents gave him the ability to communicate on many levels to many different people; however, it was all a set-up. God had been covertly prepping this man with his own unique background to be a vital leader in the spread of the very gospel that he had been attempting to thwart. When Jesus divinely met him on that Damascus Road, everything about Paul’s future changed. It wasn’t simply that Paul gave His heart to Jesus in that moment; rather, everything he would do from that moment forward was impacted.
As he states in Philippians 4:12-14, “Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.”
What you see as your greatest accomplishments in life are not a call to sit back and bask in the milestones accomplished. What you see as your greatest failures in life are not a call to shrink back because you are not worthy or have no value. For those who are in Christ, God is the Redeemer of the good and the bad, the wins and the losses, the righteous acts and the unrighteous. And He redeems us to move us further ahead in the journey: glorifying Him and growing in Him.
So, regardless of what your past holds, good or bad, my prayer is that your future is consumed with pursuing “the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” I know mine is.