“What then? Are we any better off? Not at all! For we have already charged that both Jews and Greeks are all under sin, as it is written: ‘There is no one righteous, not even one.'” (CSB – Read the chapter)
There is a difference between encouragement and reality. They may point in the same direction, but they are not the same. Given that, which is better? Is it better to offer encouragement that deviates from reality, or to simply drop reality on the table and let it be what it is? I guess the answer to that depends on who’s being asked. Some people would rather wave away reality and find some bright side to their situation even if it isn’t truly real, while other folks just want the unvarnished truth and they’ll figure out how to deal with it later. Why am I thinking about this kind of thing this morning? Because we are entering graduation season. Let’s talk about it.
There is perhaps no time when the push and pull of encouragement and reality become so pronounced as graduation season. Over the next couple of months, though in a different format than to which we are accustomed, students all over the country and world are going to receive a whole world of encouragement. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In fact, it is arguably a very good thing. They need it. But, just because they’ll receive lots of encouragement doesn’t mean it will all be grounded in reality. And that’s a problem.
The challenge here is that one’s view of reality is dependent in great measure on the particular worldview being brought to the table. You see, of the many graduation speeches to be given in the coming weeks, the speakers will in most cases be thoroughly convinced of the truthfulness of the platitudes they’ll set before the graduates they are addressing. The worldview they’ve adopted gives them such confidence.
I recently saw a rather brilliant display of this. Like millions of other folks, I have become hooked on John Krasinski’s YouTube show, “Some Good News” over the last few weeks. His genuine, self-effacing humor, and the humble sense of awe and wonder at the goodness he’s been able to find shining brightly in this dark season is a gift to the world right now.
Each episode is broken down into two major parts. The first part is dedicated to highlighting a grab bag of uplifting stories that have caught Krasinski’s eye over the past week. The second part, dives in a bit deeper to one particular story and generally consists of Krasinski matching “regular” folks with special celebrity guests to offer them some kind of fun surprise. The last three weeks in particular have been about getting people together and finding creative ways to celebrate some of the things we are missing right now including a potluck dinner, prom, and, this week, graduation.
The graduation episode (watch it here) allowed various students who were slated to speak at their own graduation to share passages from their speeches with the whole world. He then chose four students to ask and have answered a question. These four students got their questions answered respectively by Oprah, Steven Spielberg, Jon Stewart, and Malala. Quite a fun surprise. The looks of shock and delight on their faces alone when these super-celebrity guests pop into their Zoom calls with Krasinski is worth seeing all by itself.
But, then the celebrities start answering questions and, as far as I’m concerned, things quickly go downhill. The questions themselves are pretty bland. They’re common. But they’re nonetheless important, especially at the stage of life these grads are entering. What should I do with my life? How do I pursue my dreams? What next? And so on and so forth. All four of the celebrity guests answered the questions with basically the same themes: You’re enough in and of yourself to rise up and face whatever challenges lie before you. If you’ll simply trust in yourself, you will find that you have what it takes to overcome your obstacles and rise to be who you want to be.
This is the kind of rhetorical dessert (what I like to call, “Disney morality”) that gets greedily lapped up in our culture. And that makes sense too. It sounds so good. It sounds so encouraging. And for these particular grads who were all especially notable for some reason (one girl, for example, is graduating from Harvard and has already been named the country’s first ever Junior Poet Laureate), these encouragements ring with a louder peal of reality than they might for most folks who hear them.
But they’re just not true.
Encouragement is a grand and important thing. We need encouragement. I taught a Sunday school lesson this past Sunday night that was all about encouragement. It is like a spiritual vitamin for our souls without which we will not be as healthy as we need to be in order to get through life with anything even remotely resembling success. But encouragement that is disconnected from reality is untruthful at its core and cannot therefore sustain us when reality eventually comes knocking.
And what is reality? Well, it starts with what Paul writes here in his letter to the believers in ancient Rome. There is no one righteous, no not one. In other words, the answer to the question of whether or not I’m good enough to do what lies ahead of me is a firm and resounding, “No.” Your hands are dirty. This isn’t very fun to hear. It definitely wouldn’t make for the Hallmark-like moment that was the second half of Krasinski’s show this week. But that doesn’t make it any less true.
Okay fine, but who wants to sign up to hear that kind of news even if it does happen to be true? Well, in truth, not many. But that’s because our culture has trained us on a steady diet of rhetorical sweets such that we aren’t able to sustain more nourishing, but not easily as palatable morsels like what Paul writes here. These are worth learning to digest, though, because this is just the beginning of the truth. This is only dipping our toe in the waters of reality.
What else is there?
More. So much more.
After Paul finishes condemning everyone, he makes a turn at v. 21. Listen to this: “But now, apart from the law, the righteousness of God has been revealed, attested by the Law and the Prophets. The righteousness of God is through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe, since there is no distinction. For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. They are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.”
He goes on. “But God proves his own love for us in that while we were still sinners [that is, when we were in that awful state Paul described and we didn’t want to hear about], Christ died for us.” “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” And “who can separate us from the love of Christ?” “…I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
That’s encouragement and reality. The encouragement is this: You may not be enough on your own to face anything, but in Jesus you are more than enough. The reality is this: In Him you can face anything life throws your way because He’s already overcome it. In Him you have the hope that no matter what may happen in this life–no matter what shape reality happens to take for your life–you have access to an eternal life in glory when this one ends. That may not be more immediately satisfying–not nearly so much as being told that you are enough all by yourself–but in the end, it is fulfilling on an entirely deeper level. That’s better.
Let us be a people who are rooted in encouragement and reality. There’s real life to be found there.