Your Place in This World
Published in 2005 by LifeWay Christian Resources in the Holman CSB Graduate's Bible, this was Dr. Willard's commencement address at Greenville College in May 2004. Transcribed and edited by Steve Bond of Holman Bible Publishers. Also published in 2016 as Chapter 20 of Renewing The Christian Mind (HarperOne Publisher).
Not so long ago, you have participated in commencement. I don’t altogether like the word commencement that suggests beginning. It doesn’t do justice to what you have already done. Nevertheless, there is a certain point to the word. You’re going through a change; you are commencing. I think perhaps the words that best capture the change are words like responsibility, effectiveness, and opportunity. You’re going out and will be on your own in a way you haven’t been before. That is what we were made for. Consider the wonderful words in Ephesians 2:10:
For we are His creation—created in Christ Jesus for good works,
which God prepared ahead of time so that we should walk in them.
That should be tremendously encouraging for helping you understand who you are. Not that you would go off and be an isolated individual, indifferent to others like one of the "Three Little Pigs," going out into the world to seek your fortune. Rather you are called to take your place alongside others in a community under God and devote your life to the causes of God among humanity in our generation. That is your special work and that is what you are going to commence in a new way with a distinctly different quality of judgment.
Jesus, you may recall, gave a commencement address to His students. He gave it to them as they, too, entered their new phase of responsibility, effectiveness, and opportunity. His commencement address is found in the Gospel of John, chapters 13–17. It ends with a lengthy prayer that makes up chapter 17. Here are some of the words that we have already heard read:
I am not praying that You take them
out of the world,
but that You protect them
from the evil one.
They are not of the world, just as
I am not of the world.
Notice the prepositions in and of.
Sanctify them by the truth;
Your word is truth.
Just as You sent Me into the world,
I also have sent them
into the world.
Being in the world for Christ today. In but not of. This is an interesting distinction. Keep it before your mind for a few minutes. How are we to think of in but not of?
Think of a desert landscape. Dust and dryness as far as you can see. But right in the middle of it a spring of water bubbles up, forming a pool of life and refreshment for all who come by. Do you have that picture?
Now the spring and the pool are in the desert but they are not of it. They do not partake of the nature of the desert but of rain and snow and limpid streams on far away mountains that feed the springs through hidden passageways in the earth. We know how that works. Think of this applying to you. Indeed, it applies to everyone who makes contact with Jesus Christ and draws life from Him.
This is what Jesus was talking about with Nicodemus (John 3). Jesus was trying to convey to Nicodemus how God’s Spirit works—how the Spirit comes and moves in the life of an individual. People see the results but they can’t see what causes the results. This is abundant life in its fullest sense: life lived from hidden sources that come into the soul from God and His kingdom. Such abundant life is possible no matter where you are or what you happen to be doing.
Being in the world is not a bad thing; it’s a good thing. The world is—in the end—God’s creation. The world is the place where God has appointed you to live. Your birth and life to this point hasn’t taken God by surprise. God has prepared this time and this place for you. We find this place prepared through our family, through our country, and through our education. You have been prepared to rule for good. That’s the purpose for which God made you.
Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness.
They will rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, the animals,
all the earth, and the creatures that crawl on the earth.
God made you similar to Him and made you to rule over all the earth. This is a command that extends throughout Scripture, beginning in Genesis and concluding in eternity. This is the place you have in God’s order—to be the person He intended you to be—forever.
You aren’t alone in the place God prepared for you. God placed you with other people, beginning with your family. God’s intention is that your family bless and serve you, giving you a solid foundation for blessing and serving them. Blessing and service don’t stop with one’s family but become a settled way of life with all of those whose lives we touch. Our character is formed to that purpose.
Sometimes we don’t receive the blessing God intends from our family or the community in which we grow up. Sometimes much healing is needed and, thank God, healing is available. If healing remains to be done in your life, know that it is available.
Whether you feel weak or strong, whether you have been well prepared or poorly prepared for taking your next step in life, Jesus’ invitation is for you: "Repent, because the kingdom of heaven has come near!"
Jesus invites you to live in His kingdom.
Repent means to change the way you’ve been thinking and acting. Notice how you’ve been thinking and then add to those thoughts the fact that it is now possible for you to begin living in God’s kingdom right now, right where you are in this time of change and transition.
In the world but not of the world.
As you take your next steps and find your place in this world, you will find yourself in the middle of much that isn’t good or right. Still, you can know the action of God in your place. You can live the presence of God in the midst of a spiritual wasteland. Your soul can be both a conduit and a receptacle of those refreshing streams that come from the mountain heights and course through the earth’s hidden passageways.
Repent. Change your thinking. Seek God’s kingdom first. Seek His righteousness. He promises that everything else will be added when you put first things first. This is what He promises in Psalm 23: "The LORD is my shepherd. There is nothing I lack." That’s the provision of God for those who seek His kingdom. To seek His kingdom simply means to find out what He is doing and join Him in it.
How do I know what God is doing? The source of this knowledge is God’s written word, the Bible. "The Bible is the unique written Word of God. It is inerrant in its original form and infallible in all of its forms for the purpose of guiding you into a life-saving relationship with God in His kingdom" [Hearing God, p. 141]. The Bible contains a body of knowledge without which human beings cannot survive. "It reliably fixes the boundaries of everything God will ever say to humankind" [Hearing God, p. 142].
Knowledge is fundamental to life in God’s kingdom. Knowledge is the capacity to represent things as they are the basis for thought and experience. You will find more than ever in the days to come the real battle in our world today is over knowledge. Who knows? Who has knowledge? Underlying most of the conflicts in public life is what counts as knowledge. Christians have sometimes made the mistake of allowing the secular world to define what counts as knowledge. Christian knowledge is often marginalized when people say, "It’s only tradition. It doesn’t count as knowledge." This is one of the challenges you will face as you take your next step in the place God has prepared for you.
The organ of spiritual knowledge is obedience. Just as you open your eyes to see colors, you know the presence of the kingdom of God by obeying. You act on the knowledge you have. And in acting you encounter the reality of the kingdom. This is not some esoteric knowledge but claims that can be tested publicly. These knowledge claims are verifiable. As you obey, you yourself will be tested—at times severely. In those times, hold fast to the idea that you do have knowledge. As you do, you will come to know the goodness and rightness of the teachings of the Christian faith.
Simply obeying Jesus will bring into your life the reality of Trinitarian presence and action. As Jesus said in His commencement address:
If you love Me, you will keep My commandments. And I will ask the Father, and He will give you another Counselor to be with you .… The one who has My commands and keeps them is the one who loves Me. And the one who loves Me will be loved by My Father. I also will love him and will reveal Myself to him. (Jn 14:15,16,21).
In obedience we come to know. You have received knowledge from generations of faithful, obedient believers. Now this knowledge must be renewed and made actual in your time by your own obedience. This knowledge will shape every dimension of your life: intellectual, emotional, social, and professional. It’s your turn to take the baton.
Neil Anderson, a well-known author, says the greatest problem in Christian education in our day is the fact that doctrine rather than character transformation has become an end in itself. Character transformation requires right belief and right doctrine, but we don’t stop with right doctrine. Right belief and doctrine must be expressed in thought, decision, and action. In action we meet the kingdom of God. Love and adoration of Jesus and confidence in Him assumes right doctrine. But there is much more. And it’s this that leads us beyond mere consumer Christianity where we see ourselves as merely consuming the merits of Christ and the services of the church. What Christ has done for us calls forth something from us—daily and hourly discipleship.
Isaac Watts gets it. Contemplating Jesus’ death on our behalf, he cried out:
Love so amazing, so divine
Demands my soul, my life, my all.
His work for us then becomes His work in us. The goal is that we will be just like Him. As His disciple, Jesus teaches you to live your life as He would live your life. That leads to inner transformation, the transformation of character resulting in godly service in the kingdom of God. Transformation moves from the inside out. You take on His thoughts, His beliefs, and His judgments. They become yours. You feel as He did. Your body acts as He did. Your social relationships bear the imprint of His character, and the depths of your soul are renewed in a likeness to His.
This transformation into His likeness is a lifelong process. Here are four things to remember as you make this journey.
1. Remember who you are. That’s not as easy as it sounds. Remember who you are before God. You are an unceasing spiritual being with an eternal destiny in God’s great universe. Say it. I am an unceasing spiritual being with an eternal destiny in God’s great universe. Memorize it. Say it to your friends. Tell it to people you meet. Strong currents in our society will attempt to keep you from realizing who you are before God.
Some months ago someone did a study of a certain type of chimpanzee. They discovered this chimpanzee possessed 99.4% of human DNA. What’s the conclusion you are supposed to draw? You know what it is. It’s certainly not that you are an unceasing spiritual being with an eternal destiny in God’s great universe. The conclusion you’re supposed to draw is that you’re very much like a chimp.
I’ve talked to some of my colleagues and suggested that we trying giving a chimp a Ph.D. Certainly if chimps have 99.4% of DNA and DNA is what we are, then some chimps should do better on tests than humans! But no one who thought about it would suggest that 99.4% of DNA translates into 99.4% of human experience. What conclusion should we draw? We humans are a great deal more than DNA. You are a spiritual being. I emphasize that and encourage you to stay connected to this truth because you will be continually challenged on this. Remember to say it to yourself, to your friends. Get them to say it to you. You may even want to write it on your bathroom mirror.
2. Remember to keep God before your mind.
You will keep in perfect peace
the mind that is dependent on You,
for it is trusting You (Is 26:3).
I keep the LORD in mind always.
Because He is at my right hand,
I will not be shaken (Ps 16:8).
Set the Lord before you. Keep Him in your mind. You can learn to do this. You can bring God before your mind constantly and train yourself to have Him there always. One simple approach is to train yourself to go through the morning repeating to yourself, every minute or so, "Hallowed be Your name" or some other phrase that’s meaningful to you.
3. Remember to live sacrificially.
On January 20, 1961, John F. Kennedy was inaugurated as the thirty-fifth president of the United States. During his inaugural address, this, the youngest man ever elected president said that "the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans." In this context, President Kennedy issued the following challenge: "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country."
This simple statement, delivered with great fervor, drew forth an amazing current of sacrificial giving from people. This is built into our hearts. We know it’s right. And as Christians we’re the ones who really know what it means and how it can be done.
Don’t strive to advance yourself. Let God advance you. This is a deep psychological and sociological truth as well as a profound theological teaching. If you try to save your life, you’ll lose it. Give it away. God will give it back to you. Don’t make it your aim to get what you want. Serve others. Remember, God gives grace to the humble. He calls us to submit ourselves to the mighty hand of God that, when the time is right, He will lift us up.
I need to add that it’s not safe to be a servant unless you know who you are and unless you stand before God. On the night of His betrayal, just before He shared the Passover with His disciples, ...
Jesus knew that the Father had given everything into His hands, that He had come from God, and that He was going back to God. So He got up from supper, laid aside His robe, took a towel, and tied it around Himself. Next, He poured water into a basin and began to wash His disciples’ feet and to dry them with the towel tied around Him (Jn 13:3-5).
Because Jesus knew who He was, because He was secure in His relationship with His Father, He was able to do the work of the most menial slave.
Remember who you are. Keep God before you. Then serve sacrificially. When you serve others, you’re really serving God. Because you are serving God, you give the best of service to other human beings.
4. Remember you need a plan of discipline. Living the Christ life requires it. What’s normally thought of as church activities is not enough, even if you’re one of the leaders. Put together and follow a plan of solitude and silence, Scripture memorization, fasting, prayer, and worship.
If you regularly do these things, Christ will grow in you and His character will become your character. Then you will routinely and easily do the things He did and said to do out of love, joy, peace, and power.
The people who are in the world but not of the world are people who simply do the right thing routinely, easily with peace and joy. Their picture is drawn repeatedly in the Scriptures (Ephesians 4, Colossians 3, Philippians 2). What you see in these passages is true. It works. It’s accessible to everyone. And there’s nothing in this world that compares with it. People like this are the answer to Jesus’ prayer at the end of his commencement address.
I have given them the glory You have given Me.
May they be one as We are one.
I am in them and You are in Me.
May they be made completely one,
So the world may know You have sent Me
and have loved them as You have loved me.
This is what the world is waiting for. Paul says that all creation is groaning, waiting for the sons and daughters of God.
Now take your God-given place in this world. Be Christ to those around you.