Let God take you to places unimagined
There is no limit to what God can do in you, for you, and through you. But to seize this promise, you must rely on the power of God and trust all the way in His will for your life.
I am a child of Berrien Springs, Michigan, the home of Andrews University. My parents migrated from the West Indies in the 1960s to study there. Later, after completing his Ph.D., my father returned to Andrews to be a professor in the seminary, where he taught for 35 years. My mother worked nights as a medical technologist so she could take care of my two sisters and me during the day.
I am also a proud child of Adventist education. I attended the local Adventist schools for my elementary and secondary education. I have had the privilege of attending some of the best schools in the country (such as the University of Michigan and Yale Law School), and I can honestly say that I lost out on nothing by coming up through the Adventist educational system. I have met, and competed against, students who went to the most elite private schools in the world, but the foundation I received from my Adventist education (which extended well beyond academics, to spiritual grounding and leadership/life skills) prepared me well for the opportunities and challenges I have since encountered in my life journey.
All of my formative years – early friendships, spiritual foundation, academic training, work ethic, moral compass, sense of ambition, belief in myself, respect for others, etc. – were forged in the same community. I was not born into any special circumstances, nor did I have any special skills or abilities. In short, I was no different than any of you.
That is not to say I didn’t have dreams. In fact, when I was about to leave Berrien Springs for college, I had a very clear plan of what I wanted to do with my life. My plan was to go to college, study business, go to law school, and then become a successful corporate lawyer. But I was not very successful at executing this early plan I set for my life. In fact, if you had told me then that 23 years later I would have had the career I have had to this point – working as an attorney in the civil rights firm founded by the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, serving as counsel to two governors of the State of New York, leading urban policy for the president of the United States (can you imagine a kid from a small Adventist village leading urban policy for the United States!), and now serving as a vice president at one of the great universities in the world – if you told me I would do all this, I would never have believed you. It is well beyond what I hoped and dreamed.
Your future: Three questions
From my spiritual, academic, and professional journey thus far, reflecting on how I began as an Adventist kid in an Adventist home in an Adventist school, and further rejoicing in how that journey led me to professional achievement without losing my faith roots and spiritual life, I have three challenges to share with young people on the verge of taking a similar journey.
First, what’s next? That’s the first question any college student has to face: continue one’s education or start a career. While this step is relatively straightforward, it does mark a transition, and I do want to share a brief thought about that. Likely, one of the most significant issues that many of you will face is moving from an environment where Adventists are in the majority to an environment where, as an Adventist, you will be in the minority. To most successfully navigate this transition, it is important to be open about who you are and to embrace your faith. That is not to say that you have to wear your religion on your sleeve (that works for some, but not others), but I found it helpful to let people know up front about my religion and its practices – about not studying or working on Saturdays, about not eating pork or shellfish, about not smoking or drinking, etc. Defining myself early prevented others from trying to define my behavior through their lens, and I found it often garnered respect, and sometimes admiration, from those who observed how the Adventist lifestyle enhanced one’s quality of life.
Second, what’s possible? To set the table for this, I think it is important to first look to the Word of God – to the promises He has made to each one of you, and the potential He wants you to see in yourselves. For this, Ephesians 3:20-21 (KJV) is my favorite starter: “Now unto him that is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that worketh in us, Unto him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus throughout all ages, world without end. Amen.”
“Exceedingly, abundantly, above, all, that we ask or think!” That is the power and promise of God’s love, which Paul, in this chapter, is trying to convey. The New International Version says God is able to do “immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine.” What a powerful promise that is! Just think about it for a second... . Think about the all the things you have ever asked God for in your life. Think about the dreams you have for your future (for your family, friends, career, spiritual life). Now stretch your imagination a bit, and think about what aspirations you could have for yourself that you never before even considered possible. What this text is saying – this promise – is that God is willing and able to do for you exceedingly, abundantly, above all of that – that He is able to do immeasurably more than anything you can possibly ask or conceive.
Ellen White puts this notion of possibility another way: “Higher than the highest human thought can reach is God’s ideal for His children.”* In some sense, what these promises are telling us is that the age-old motivational notion of being able to accomplish anything you set your mind to may actually be too limiting! You not only can accomplish anything you set your mind to … you can accomplish things that go beyond what your mind is able to set! In other words, “what’s possible” for you is truly boundless – “higher than the highest human thought can reach.” There is no limit to what God can do in you, for you, and through you. But to seize this promise, you must rely on the power of God and trust in His will for your life.
Third, what opportunities lie ahead? You may be asking yourself, “If my possibilities are boundless, how do I translate this promise into concrete opportunities for my future? How does one attain heights that are ‘higher than the highest human thought can reach’?” I am not sure there is a clear answer to this question. Personally, I think it has less to do with what “works you do,” and more to do with the “mindset you have” to create the space that allows God to lead your life. In other words, there is no formal roadmap of actions to take to ascend “higher than the highest human thought can reach,” but my experience tells me (as well as numerous other examples in the Bible and elsewhere) that there is a mental state – a deep faith and complete trust in God – that is crucial to allowing you to experience the full scope of opportunities that God has for your life.
Let me illustrate this with two brief examples. First, an example from the Bible: Joseph. Joseph was a Hebrew boy who, like his brothers, was destined to a life as a shepherd. Sold by his brothers into slavery, Joseph eventually wound up in a jail in Egypt. While in jail, Joseph met Pharaoh’s cupbearer and interpreted his dream. This act was remembered by the cupbearer (albeit two years later) and conveyed to Pharaoh, who needed help interpreting a dream of his own. This led Pharaoh to make Joseph governor over all of Egypt (at the ripe old age of 30) – a position through which he saved his family and the people of Israel from famine. Now, this is not what Joseph requested, nor is it something that he likely conceived. This was beyond anything he asked or thought possible, but through faith and openness to God’s will, he achieved it.
For a second example, consider the founding of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. The founding fathers and mothers of our church were young people, who, as we know, went through the greatest of disappointments. They were mocked, ridiculed, and scorned for their beliefs, but they held on to their faith. God used these leaders to fuel a movement that led to the Adventist church, which started as a small gathering and has grown to over 17 million adult members today. This was not what our church founders asked for back in 1844, nor is it what they thought would happen on that fateful day of October 22. But, again, this church, our church, turned out to be “exceedingly, abundantly, above all” that they asked for or imagined at the time.
So, this promise is not just a thing of the past. People all around us have experienced it (and are experiencing it) firsthand. I see my father, who grew up poor on a farm in Grenada, West Indies, but rose to get his Ph.D, become chair of his department in the seminary, ombudsman for the university, and pastor of two multicultural churches. This isn’t something he imagined for himself early in life. This is beyond!
Or ask Andrews University president Niels-Erik Andreasen if, when he was a boy growing up in Denmark, he thought he would one day ascend to be the president of the oldest university within the Seventh-day Adventist Church – Andrews University – he too would likely tell you that it is beyond what he conceived.
This experience of having God take you to places unimagined is not exceptional. It happens to this day. It has happened repeatedly in my life. And it can happen in your life if you claim His promise.
Experiencing the exceptional – the common threads
While I said earlier that there is no set action plan for how to convert God’s promise of possibility into a guaranteed opportunity for your life, the examples I cited above do contain some common threads that I think are instructive as you chart your path forward.
First, all of the examples above involved people who had a close relationship with God, and complete faith in Him. That truly is the foundation for all of this. As Jesus said, “Everything is possible for one who believes” (Mark 9:23, NIV). I believe this is where you need to start in order to claim this promise of possibility.
Second, they all had dreams and ambitions. They did not sit idly by waiting for God to act. The promise says God is able to do “exceedingly, abundantly, above all that you ask or think.” That means you have to be asking and thinking! Without ambition, coupled with some action, it is not possible to realize this promise.
Third, they all experienced significant challenges and setbacks. However, they didn’t let these setbacks derail them. At the time, they could not have known whether they would ever emerge from their challenging circumstances. But through it all, their faith in God never wavered. Will you occasionally face challenges and experience failings as you embark on your own journey? Yes, you surely will. We all do. But the test is not perfection. The true test is whether you’re able to weather your challenges, recognize your failings, and then rise, through Christ, to continue on life’s journey.
Fourth, but for the setbacks and challenges they faced, they would not have achieved the heights that God had in store for them. Joseph would not have been governor over Egypt and able to save the people of Israel had his brothers not sold him into slavery. The Seventh-day Adventist Church, as we know it, may not be in existence today without the Great Disappointment. On a much less significant scale, I can point to numerous times in my life where I was dead set on something happening – getting a particular job, meeting a particular person, accomplishing a particular goal – but it didn’t happen, despite my incessant prayers and best efforts. At the time I was deeply disappointed, but in almost every instance, it later turned out that had the things I wanted so badly come to pass, a better opportunity that God had in store would have never happened. So difficulties can be doors of opportunity. It’s about understanding that the challenge of today may be the blessing of tomorrow.
Fifth, and finally, in each of the examples the people were open to God having a different course for their lives. Having this mindset of letting God lead and being open to where He takes you – even if it doesn’t agree with the plan you have for your life – is crucial, in my view, to ascending “higher than the highest human thoughts can reach.”
Now, I am not suggesting that traditional measures of success are a guarantee and that every one of you will be on the Supreme Court some day, or become president of the country, or CEO of Microsoft or whatever. That is not the point of God’s promise. The point is, God has a plan for your life, and this plan may be different, may be beyond anything you have planned for your life. And we also know that God’s hierarchy of success is not the same as that of secular society – so what He considers “beyond” may not always be what society considers “beyond.” Just remember the story of the widow’s mite, where Jesus said to His disciples, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything … she had” (Mark 12:43-44 NIV).
I often say to my children, “God knows what He is doing!” I say this to explain both the good and the bad that happen to us – to help them understand that God has a plan for their lives and that what may seem difficult now may actually be an important step toward the realization of this plan. I have seen it work just this way in my life. I firmly believe that if each of you trust in the Lord, and are open to His will, you will see it work in your life too.
So the opportunity is there. It is promised to you as a function of your faith. The question is: are you going to seize it, and will you accept it even if it takes a form that is different from – perhaps beyond – what you requested or imagined?
Derek R.B. Douglas (J.D., Yale Law School) is a vice president for civic engagement, The University of Chicago. From 2009 to 2011, he served on the White House Domestic Policy Council as special assistant to President Barack Obama.
* Ellen G. White, Education (Mountain View, California: Pacific Press Publ. Assn., 1903), p. 18.
This article is based on the author’s commencement address delivered at Andrews University, August 4, 2013.