There is a poignant moment in JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings in which Frodo, the main character, realizes that the quest he has undertaken will most likely cost him his life.
It dawns on him that he might well lose everything that he had once held dear – that nothing can ever be the same.
His dreams about a quaint life in a perfect little house in The Shire are all but forgotten against the backdrop of a much bigger and infinitely more important picture.
I always think about the gospel when I think about that scene. Because while the decision to follow God is a step into freedom and fulfillment, it’s easy to forget that it also involves a decision to give away your life – an all-consuming commitment that not only requires real sacrifice, but one that, according to the Bible, is likely to lead to pain and even suffering.
Yes, you heard me. Ask Paul. Ask James, Peter or John. Ask just about every biblical character or anyone who has ever served God outside the comfortable confines of a cushy western mega-church. Ask Jesus, for that matter: if you want to walk the straight and narrow, you’d better know you’re in for a rough ride.
Jesus sets the tone in his typical no-holds-barred style in Luke (9:23): “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.”
The next verse is even more of a whopper: “For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it.”
No room for misinterpretation there: living the life Jesus wants evidently means leaving behind a whole lot of what you want. Not only is it about short-term discomfort (denying yourself), it’s about sacrificing to the point where you’re willing to give it all away.
It’s the kind of idea implicit in Acts 9 when God, about to call Paul, says: “This man is my chosen instrument… I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.” Ditto for passages like Luke 6:20-22 (blessed are the poor; those who hunger; those who weep) and numerous other verses that you probably won’t hear on TBN any time soon.
Captured in these little passages, and in countless bible stories of suffering, is the idea that serving God is not about achieving your own goals or even about “having a great life,” but about living for something that transcends your material, earthly existence. Think about it: Many, many biblical characters knew deep pain and suffering, and many died without ever seeing God’s promises fulfilled in their lifetime. Starting with giants like Moses and Abraham, running right through to the apostles, the Bible is packed with examples of people who lived for something bigger than themselves without even the slightest regard for their own wants.
And how do we measure up against these examples? I don’t know about you, but my approach to life looks ridiculously self-centered, short-sighted and pathetic in comparison.
The reality, of course, is that we are consumed with ourselves. Our desires, plans and dreams. You don’t have to search too far to become aware of that. We have become experts at catering to a self-absorbed generation. Living a “godly” life has become little more than an exercise in self-actualization – reaching for our dreams, setting our little goals, and having “blessed” lives (blessed, in this sense, usually means you feel wonderful, are successful, live in a great home and maybe even drive a nice car).
No, I’m not denying the fact that God can bless you with earthly riches. But when the main thrust of the church’s message is about treating God like a divine vending machine because we’re hellbent on living a heavenly life, things derail quite quickly. A few weeks ago, I listened in amazement as a fairly prominent preacher passionately argued that God wanted to meet not only our needs, but give us our wants as well. Evidently, God is eminently interested in hooking me up with a 40 inch full HD flat screen LED TV with 3D imaging technology. Looking back at that message in the light of God’s eternal purposes soon reveals its utter emptiness.
Whenever I’m tempted to take the easy way out and settle for a gospel that caters to my comfort, I always call to memory a simple but powerful story I grew up with. It’s a story recounted in a sermon by John G Lake, the legendary American evangelist who is regarded as the father of pentecostalism in South Africa, my home country. For more than thirty years now, my parents have served as pastors in the denomination he helped plant on the southern tip of Africa. I recently ran across a transcript of the particular sermon in which he recounts this story of the first group of pastors to serve in the burgeoning South African pentecostal movement:
We had one hundred and twenty-five men out on the field at one time. We were a very young institution and were not known in the world. South Africa is seven thousand miles from any European country. It is ten thousand miles by way of England to the United States. Our finances got so low, under the awful assault we were compelled to endure, that there came a time I could not even mail to these workers, at the end of the month, a $10 bill. It got so I could not send them $2. The situation was desperate. What was I to do? Under these circumstances I did not want to take the responsibility of leaving men and their families on the frontier without real knowledge of what the conditions were.
Some of us at headquarters sold our clothes in some cases, sold certain pieces of furniture out of the house, sold anything we could sell, to bring those hundred and twenty-five workers off the field for a conference.
One night in the progress of the conference I was invited by a committee to leave the room for a minute or two. The conference wanted to have a word by themselves. So I stepped out to a restaurant for a cup of coffee, and came back. When I came back in, I found they had rearranged the chairs in an oval, with a little table at one end, and on the table was the bread and wine. Old father Vanderwall, speaking for the company said, “Brother John, during your absence we have come to a conclusion. We have made our decision. We want you to serve the Lord’s Supper. We are going back to our fields. We are going back if our wives die. We are going back if we have to starve. We are going back if we have to walk back. We are going back if our children die. We are going back if we die ourselves. We have but one request. If we die, we want you to come and bury us.”
The next year I buried twelve of those men, along with sixteen of their wives and children.
I often wonder what modern-day prosperity pimps would make of that story – a story about a group of people who sacrificed everything because their perspective was an eternal one. Where was the provision? The blessing? For that matter, where was God when Stephen, James, John and a host of others died horrific deaths because of their faith? Did Paul not know about the “principles of prosperity” when he spent years scraping by on next to nothing, rotting away in dingy jail cells?
The answer, of course, is that none of these men and women were too concerned about their short-term fate – they were ready to lay it all down because they looked at life from an eternal perspective.
I dream of a day when we can be like that once more.
I dream of a day when all the silly things we spend our lives aiming for will pale into insignificance against the enormity and importance of the task ahead of us.
I dream of a day when all those things will look utterly empty in the light of His glorious plan.