In June of 1996, I walked down the aisle, with 13 others, at Quentin Road Christian School in Lake Zurich, Illinois, and received my high school diploma. I distinctly remember the mixture of anticipation and hope I felt that day.
Twenty years later, I look back with amazement. First, it’s hard to believe it has been over 20 years. I don’t feel that old. Second, I’m stunned by the grace of God displayed in knitting the strands of my life together. Third, there are so many things I’ve learned in 20 years that I wish I could tell 18-year-old me. Here are 20 things I’ve learned since that day, in no particular order:
- School is just the beginning of learning. Much of what we learn in elementary, middle, and high school is quickly forgotten (until we need it again to help our kids with their homework). Of course, the basics of math, reading, science, and history are vital, but what’s even more important is learning to learn. School sets the trajectory for the rest of our lives. Wise people realize that, upon graduation, their education has just begun. They read, study, and grow, pursuing knowledge and wisdom (Prov. 4:7).
- We make choices, but God directs our steps. I remember hearing teachers, coaches, and parents telling me that the choices I make in my teens and 20s would set the course of my life. They were so right, in ways I haven’t even begun to see until now. But even more important than making good choices is the willingness to depend upon the Lord to direct our steps. Our choices are mere tools in the hand of a guiding, teaching, directing Father. We are not, nor will we ever be, self-made men. Ultimately, God uses flawed people who often make poor choices to build his church.
- Life is made up of seasons. When you walk down the aisle, and are handed that diploma, you may think you must chart your entire future. Planning is good stewardship, but hold your plans loosely. God will guide you into different seasons of life. I’ve already had a season as an editor, a season as a pastor, and am now in a season as an executive who writes and preaches. There are seasons yet ahead.
- A life of influence is mostly built in the daily disciplines of ordinary days, not in transcendent moments of glory. Yes, you will have moments and memories: that one camp meeting where you gave your life in service to Christ, the talk with a mentor that shaped your future, the movie or book or song that stirred your heart. But mostly, your life is built on the steady, patient, obscure business of doing excellent work that nobody sees. Commit to this kind of life.
- Work is necessary, but also a joy. There is something satisfactory about working for a long time in the area of your giftedness, not simply to make money but because of the joy that the work itself brings. Ambition is good, but ordering your life simply to get to the next rung on the ladder can be wearisome. It’s better to find deep joy in the work we do now. Work is not a means to an end. Work is a good gift from a wonderful God.
- Gratitude opens doors; entitlement shuts them. If you live as though the world owes you everything, you will quickly be disappointed. But, if you live as if your opportunities are gifts, you will always be surprised. One of my first jobs after high school graduation was at Ace Hardware. I was fresh off of being the “big man on campus” in our tiny, obscure Christian school. I had even won student leadership awards. Yet my boss at the hardware store didn’t care about that. His only concern was that I get to work on time, that I stop making keys that didn’t work, and that I stacked the piles of fertilizer in the correct manner on the pallet. This experience was good for me.
- Talent is helpful, but hard work and character are vital. I learned this playing basketball. Talent is important, hard work will get you farther, but character matters most. I’ve seen plenty of people with great talent flame out because their lack of character caught up with them. I’ve seen folks with marginal talent go far because they had integrity and were willing to work hard despite the fact that they may lack in other areas. I’ve learned and am learning the importance of cultivating the inner habits of the heart.
- Relationships are God’s tool for sanctification. God’s desire is for Christ to shape us more into his image, and human relationships are one of his main methods of doing so. Yielding to the work of the Holy Spirit, your spouse, your children, and your co-workers will change you in ways you cannot imagine. They will expose your deepest sin patterns and force you to your knees in repentance and grace. Don’t resist this challenge. Embrace it. I have learned much from my roles as a husband, father, pastor, and boss.
- Who you marry matters. If God calls you to marriage, whom you choose as your mate is the most important decision you face. You will make a solemn commitment before God and others to live with and care for this person for the rest of your lives. So marry well. I married extremely well. I can’t, nor do I want to, imagine my life without Angela. We marry, not merely for pleasure or companionship, though those are good fruits of marriage, but as an opportunity to show the world a glimpse of Christ’s great love for his church.
- Adversity can be your greatest ally. Nobody desires hardship, opposition, and pain. Nobody asks God to rain down trouble. But trouble comes, and it comes for all of us. And if you believe in a sovereign God who loves enough to prune and sift and filter, you will slowly, over time and through much reflection, begin to see your trials as God’s handiwork of blessing. A few years ago I was betrayed and hurt in a deep and difficult way by people I loved. I would not want to live through those years again. This season caused great anguish of soul, but I can testify to experiencing God’s refining grace.
- Bitterness will poison; forgiveness will free. Perhaps the most important trait for a leader to cultivate is the ability to forgive. And you can only do this if you know the One who has forgiven you of much greater sins than have been committed against you. Bitterness only hurts the one who is bitter. Don’t nurture your grudges and let forgiveness form a crust around your soul. Let forgiveness free you to love and serve and lead well.
- Discipline is a gift. A few years ago my wife and I were counseling a young woman who made a statement that has haunted me since. She said, “I wish someone, somewhere had given me some rules to live by.” At that moment I was filled with gratitude for parents willing to teach and enforce right from wrong. They weren’t perfect, as no parents are, but what they gave me, by being parents instead of mere friends, was a gift that has shaped my own adulthood. I still need Jesus, but my parents’ discipline saved me from a life of bad choices and even worse consequences. If you have parents who loved you enough to provide meaningful structure and rules, you possess a rare gift.
- The gospel is the best news in the world. I know this is a cliché, but I feel this more strongly now than ever before. The Christian story of creation, fall, redemption, and consummation stands alone in answering the deep problems of the world, in fixing my own inner corruption, and in providing a future in Jesus’ cosmic renewal. In my darkest moments, when my heart is overcome with fear and uncertainty, I’m comforted, not by political movements or powerful leaders, but by the simple phrase I learned in church: “Jesus saves.”
- If you want to change the world, do it by loving the church. You will undoubtedly have many opportunities to use your gifts and talents to affect social change in big and small ways. God has put you here, on this earth, with your unique mix of gifts, talents, and opportunities to give yourself in service to others. But while your mission will likely be more than what you do on Sundays, it will never be less. The church is where God is most active in the world today. The most important gathering this week will not happen in a town hall, a stadium, or the White House, but in congregations big and small, around the world, where God’s people are proclaiming the reign of another King and another Kingdom. If you love Jesus, you will love the church he loves. The older I get, the more I realize my deep need for the church.
- The hymns I learned in my youth have stuck with me. From the time I could read, I was learning and singing, three times a week, the hymns of Luther, Crosby, Watts, and Wesley. I didn’t know what the words meant in those early years, but they were catechizing my soul for future life. Today, in moments of despair, joy, doubt, and uncertainty, the rich hymns of the faith are a reminder of the fresh theological truth, even though I learned it long ago. When we sign hymns, we are not simply providing “filler” for the rest of the service. We are declaring the reign of Christ to the world. We are teaching ourselves doctrine. And we are embedding, in the heart, powerful, sustaining truths.
- I never “get over” my need for grace. I used to think the gospel was something I did when I was 4 years old. But the older I get, the more I realize how desperate I am for Jesus and how little I can do without him. I recognize that the gospel is not just for sinners “out there,” but also for this sinner, right here.
- Asking questions and spending time with smart people is wise. Someone once said that if you are the smartest person in the room, you are in the wrong room. This is so true. I’ve learned much simply by asking questions, reading, and realizing how little it is that I actually know. My father once said, “You never stop learning,” and he was right. I’ve learned the most from people who were much older than me, different than me, and were willing to challenge my thinking.
- Old paths are good paths. Along the way, you will be tempted to embrace fashionable new doctrines and fresh theologies bent to the times. But it is the faith once delivered to the saints (Jude 1:3) that will be your surest guide. Beware of novel new interpretations of Scripture untested by church history. Truth and orthodoxy endure, because Christ endures. He is building his church, not on the slippery whims of modern thought, but on the sure foundation of his revealed Word.
- Community matters. We were not made to live alone, but in community. We worship, not in isolation, but with our brothers and sisters in Christ. I have found strength in deep friendships, intense conversations, and joyful community. But it’s up to you to cultivate that community with intentionality and the willingness to both forgive and be forgiven.
- Both impulsiveness and passivity kill. I’ve learned to take a lot of time when making a major decision, to get advice from a diverse group of wise people, thinking about all the major ramifications. But once I’ve counseled, prayed, and researched, it’s important to actually make decisions. Rash decisions have always hurt me, but so has “paralysis by analysis.” Endless navel-gazing is as damaging as intemperately quick decisions. Avoiding both has served me well.
If you are a parent shepherding your children through school, a pastor preaching to youth, or a student navigating the various challenges of growing up, don’t underestimate the value of what the Lord will do through these impressionable years. Make the most of formal learning, but don’t just focus on studies and grades and accolades. Instead, concentrate on growing in Christ so that you can look back on these school days, amazed at how the Lord has directed your paths and displayed his faithfulness.