Progress is more about direction than speed

Editor’s Note: The following is taken from Dr. Ben Sells’ remarks at Ouachita’s May 2021 Commencement ceremony. See his full, original remarks at obu.edu/stories. 

The class of 2021 marks a turnaround for Ouachita, a rising tide in our enrollment – highest in 20 years – that’s running counter to trends. Their leadership as seniors allowed Ouachita to offer a fully in-person experience, one of very few across the country. We give thanks to the Lord for His provision; to a state that trusted us; and to parents, alumni, friends and churches who supported us.  

History records that global events – wars, depressions and pandemics – accelerate change. In this year of challenges and transitions, I kept returning to seven words of wisdom. They were shared with me by a respected friend who undoubtedly heard them from someone else.  

This saying has served me especially well when starting something new: Progress is more about direction than speed.  

To me, this advice contains three components: The desire for – and hard work – of progress. The caution of speed. And, the importance of direction. 

The desire for and hard work of progress.  

Deep in the DNA of the American experience is the desire for progress, something that lives beyond ourselves, not only as a personal ethic but as a hope that each generation could build on the gains of the last. This desire for something more, something better, isn’t just American. In the Bible, in Ecclesiastes, we find this truth: “God set eternity in the heart of people.” [1] 

It’s not just genetics and personality, but God’s design for us to be aware of, to long for something more, to restore what is broken, to pray that earth becomes more like heaven, to find a purpose and meaning greater than ourselves. May I encourage you to pay attention to and steward well what God has deeply planted in your heart.   

Progress is more about direction than speed, but that doesn’t mean speed is unimportant. 

Indeed, there are times when speed is very important. As a five-foot-five basketball player in high school, speed was my only advantage. In our race against the pandemic, speed has often been the difference between life and death. 

However, over the span of one’s life, experience and wisdom reveal that direction is more important than speed. Over 2,000 years ago, Aesop told the fable of the tortoise and the hare. Remember the rabbit, so confident in its speed, stops during the race and falls asleep while the turtle moves slowly without stopping. The turtle wins the race. The moral of this fable endures not just because it’s a good story, but because it’s true. 

One of the cautions about speed that got my attention this year is found in the song with the title “Does Anybody Hear Her” by the group Casting Crowns. It includes lyrics about a person, and I quote: “running a hundred miles an hour in the wrong direction.” [2] 

Speed matters, but most of the time direction matters more. 

And direction really matters. At Ouachita, we believe in God’s larger redemptive purposes. We believe that history is moving in a direction; that God invites us personally to join Him in this journey; that through His work, our response and the help of the church, we’re formed into the person God intends for us to become; to serve Him and our neighbor in all of our roles and places; and that eventually all that is wrong will be made right. All for eternity.   

That’s progress with a purpose, progress that requires direction, progress that takes time.  

During this year, I read again “A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: Discipleship in an Instant Society,” a book written 20 years ago by the late Eugene Peterson and drawn from the Psalms. Peterson writes: “Christian discipleship is a decision to walk in his ways, steadily and firmly, and then finding that the way integrates all our interests, passions and gifts, our human needs and eternal aspirations. It is the way we were created for.” [3] 

Deep in our hearts, don’t we long to live “the way we were created for?” When you live for that direction, you’ll make progress through successes, which will be many for you, but also through setbacks. Setbacks are inevitable, some by our own choices and others for reasons we can’t explain – like a pandemic.  

When you feel uncertain or alone, an experience we’ve all had this past year, remember that God is with us, desiring to work for your good and his purposes, day by day.  

By Dr. Ben R Sells, Ouachita president 

[1] New American Standard Bible, Ecclesiastes 3:11. 

[2] Does Anybody Hear Her.” Casting Crowns, album “Lifesong,” 2005. 

[3] “A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: Discipleship in an Instant Society” by Eugene H. Peterson, 1980. Page 128. 

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