Death in the Definition of Success: Thoughts on a Commencement Address

“For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” (Matthew 16:26).

This year, I heard a meaningful commencement address at our town’s high school graduation ceremony.  In contrast to some years, when the address seems as predictable as the attire and the music, generating as much interest, this year featured a local chiropractor, a hometown boy at his prime in mid-life, giving his philosophy of life, and calling the graduates to very specific things.

First, he called them to success, defining it in terms like the progressive realization of an established ideal.  (No platitudes here!)  In his opinion, only five percent of high school graduates achieve success.  Most fail, but end up blaming others for their failure.  Instead of the blame-game, he called on the graduates to take responsibility for their own lives, including their failures.

Second, he called them to non-conformity.  In explaining why so many failed, the speaker identified conformity as the main cause.  Most just follow the crowd and never stop to think about where they are heading or where they could be heading.  They mindlessly drift through life.

Third, he called the grads to goals, identifying this as the key to achieving success.  In all, he tried to back up his points with quotes ranging from Emerson to the Bible, though the latter was not quoted in context well.

Since this was a public address, I would like to take this opportunity to respond publicly with these comments:

Regarding the need to take responsibility, I fully agree.  Human nature has been practicing the blame-game ever since Adam pointed to Eve, and Eve to the serpent.  In contrast, the Wisdom of God says, “He that covereth his sins shall not prosper: but whoso confesseth and forsaketh them shall have mercy” (Proverbs 28:13).  Given our society’s victim-mentality, we need more public admonitions like this, not less.

Regarding conformity, its status as virtue or vice depends on the issue at hand, as well as the crowd.  In a church, non-conformity may represent rebellion against God, assuming the congregation is generally obedient to Christ.  Furthermore, non-conformity can sometimes be the cloak of prideful self-assertion, which, while differing from the herd-mentality, is nonetheless lacking in the fear of God and conformity to His law.  Sometimes a group of “non-conformists” end up conforming to one another, ironically looking the same in their con-conformity to the Establishment.  In the end, we must both not conform and conform.  The same Bible that calls Christians to not conform to the world also calls them to be conformed to the image of Christ (Romans 12:2; 8:29).  No man is an island.

Finally, regarding the definition of success and the need for goals, the address begged the question, “What are worthy goals and ideals?”  For example, if I do everything right regarding my health, my wealth, and my family, and die at a ripe old age, how in the end do I differ from a fool who squandered his health, wealth, and family?  In the end, are we not both dead and absolutely impoverished, having no life?  It was thoughts like these that drove the wise writer of Ecclesiastes to hate life (2:17).  He despaired of his labor to think that after his death, he would bequeath everything to an unknown person, who may turn out to be a fool (2:18-19).  To what advantage would that be?  It is as if we can already hear Jesus asking, “What is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” (Matthew 16:26).

Therefore, death is the final leveler of all definitions of success.  If the success cannot jump the grave, it is at best a glorious failure.  Even if it were to benefit many now and many more later, at length such “success” shall all be circumscribed with death, when generation after generation lie in their graves.  This may be hard to accept for a strong man in his prime, who, as I will attest, has helped others, such as my son’s ball-team and my neighbor’s need.  Still, someway, somehow, the question of death must be faced–and it might as well be faced by high school grads, before they build a mountain of vanity to insulate them from the specter of Eternity.  Ironically, while I agree with speaker in calling the graduates to look down road, and often find that such a mindset is the preparation for salvation, with Jesus I insist that we look all the way down the road, to see if the bridge is built back in Christ, or if it is still washed out due to our sin.  Ignoring death is not prudent, nor is any definition of success without death successful.

Only one Man has addressed the question of death with more than speculation or personal heroism.  Jesus Christ not only brought life and immortality to light through His message, and faced the ravages of crucifixion with resolution, He Himself rose from the dead and reigns as Lord, promising to return someday to resurrect both the righteous and the wicked.  To enter that Kingdom of God should be our chief goal.  All other achievements will be burned up when the Lord Himself establishes a new heavens and a new earth, in which righteousness dwells.  He has told the way, and He has shown the way.  Indeed, He is the Way.  Do you know Him?  That is eternal life and true success.


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