Don’t Waste Your Life by John Piper
To make others glad in God with an everlasting gladness, our lives must show that he is more precious than life. “Because your steadfast love is better than life, my lips will praise you” (Psalm 63:3). To do this we must make sacrificial life choices rooted in the assurance that magnifying Christ through generosity and mercy is more satisfying than selfishness. If we walk away from risk to keep ourselves safe and solvent, we will waste our lives. This chapter is about the kind of lifestyle that may keep that from happening.
HOW NOT TO BETRAY JESUS
If Christ is an all-satisfying treasure and promises to provide all our needs, even through famine and nakedness, then to live as though we had all the same values as the world would betray him. I have in mind mainly how we use our money and how we feel about our possessions. I hear the haunting words of Jesus, “Do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after
all these things” (Matthew 6:31-32). In other words, if we look like our lives are devoted to getting and maintaining things, we will look like the world, and that will not make Christ look great. He will look like a religious side-interest that may be useful for escaping hell in the end, but doesn’t make much difference in what we live and love here. He will not look like an all-satisfying treasure. And that will not make others glad in God.
If we are exiles and refugees on earth (1 Peter 2:11), and if our citizenship is in heaven (Philippians 3:20), and if nothing can separate us from the love of Christ (Romans 8:35), and if his steadfast love is better than life (Psalm 63:3), and if all hardship is working for us an eternal weight of glory (2 Corinthians 4:17), then we will give to the winds our fears and “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness” (Matthew 6:33). We will count everything as rubbish in comparison with Christ (Philippians 3:7-8). We will “joyfully accept the plundering of our property” for the sake of unpopular acts of mercy (Hebrews 10:34). We will choose “ rather to be mistreated with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin,” and we will count “the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt” (Hebrews 11:25-26).
WHY DON’T PEOPLE ASK US ABOUT OUR HOPE?
There is no doubt that if we lived more like this, the world would be more likely to consider whether Jesus is an all-satisfying Treasure. He would look like one. When was the last time someone asked you about “the reason for the hope that is in you”? That’s what Peter said we should always be ready to give an answer for: “Always be prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3:15).
Why don’t people ask us about our hope? The answer is probably that we look as if we hope in the same things they do. Our lives don’t look like they are on the Calvary road, stripped down for sacrificial love, serving others with the sweet assurance that we don’t need to be rewarded in this life. Our reward is great in heaven (Matthew 5:12)! “You will be repaid at the resurrection of the just” (Luke 14:14). If we believed this more deeply, others might see the worth of God and find in him their gladness.
THE CREDIBILITY OF CHRIST HANGS ON HOW WE USE OUR MONEY
The issue of money and lifestyle is not a side issue in the Bible. The credibility of Christ in the world hangs on it. “Fifteen percent of everything Christ said relates to this topic—more than his teachings on heaven and hell combined.”1 Listen to this refrain that runs all through his teachings:
• “You lack one thing: go, sell all you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me” (Mark 10:21).
• “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. . . . But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation” (Luke 6:20, 24).
• “Any of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:33).
• “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God” (Luke 18:25).
• “One’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions” (Luke 12:15).
• “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you” (Matthew 6:33).
• “Sell your possessions and give to the needy. Provide yourselves with moneybags . . . in the heavens” (Luke 12:33).
• “Zacchaeus . . . said to the Lord, ‘Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor. . . .’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Today salvation has come to this house’” (Luke 19:8-9).
• “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field” (Matthew 13:44).
• “[Jesus] saw a poor widow put in two small copper coins. And he said, ‘Truly, I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them’” (Luke 21:2-3).
• “But God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So is the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God” (Luke 12:20-21).
• “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head. . . . Follow me” (Luke 9:58-59).
Over and over Jesus is relentless in his radical call to a wartime lifestyle and a hazardous liberality. I say “hazardous” because of that story about the widow. She gave her last penny to the temple ministry. Most of us would call her foolish or, more delicately, imprudent. But there is not a word of criticism from Jesus:
And a poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which make a penny. And he called his disciples to him and said to them, “Truly, I say to you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the offering box. For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she
out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.” (Mark 12:42-44, emphasis added)
The point here is not that everyone should give everything away. The point is: Jesus loves faith-filled risk for the glory of God. I don’t have laws to give you concerning the particulars of how to spend your money, any more than Jesus did. I simply want to point to Jesus and let his word have its shocking and saving effect on us.
USE MONEY TO SHOW THAT GOD, NOT POSSESSIONS, IS OUR TREASURE
Jesus’ emphasis on money and possessions is picked up throughout the New Testament. There are the stories in the book of Acts (“They were selling their possessions . . . and distributing the proceeds . . . as any had need,” Acts 2:45). There are the words of the apostle Paul (“In a severe test of affliction, their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity. . . . God loves a cheerful giver,” 2 Corinthians 8:2; 9:7). There are the words of James, the brother of Jesus (“Its flower falls, and its beauty perishes. So also will the rich man fade away in the midst of his pursuits,” James 1:11).
The issue is pervasive because it is crucial for the witness of the church. If we want to make people glad in God, our lives must look as if God, not possessions, is our joy. Our lives must look as if we use our possessions to make people glad in God—especially the most needy.
WHY I USE THE PHRASE “WARTIME LIFESTYLE”
Sometimes I use the phrase “wartime lifestyle” or “wartime mind-set.” The phrase is helpful—but also lopsided. For me it is mainly helpful. It tells me that there is a war going on in the world between Christ and Satan, truth and falsehood, belief and
unbelief. It tells me that there are weapons to be funded and used, but that these weapons are not swords or guns or bombs but the Gospel and prayer and self-sacrificing love (2 Corinthians
10:3-5). And it tells me that the stakes of this conflict are higher than any other war in history; they are eternal and infinite: heaven or hell, eternal joy or eternal torment (Matthew 25:46).
I need to hear this message again and again, because I drift into a peacetime mind-set as certainly as rain falls down and flames go up. I am wired by nature to love the same toys that the world loves. I start to fit in. I start to love what others love. I start to call earth “home.” Before you know it, I am calling luxuries “needs” and using my money just the way unbelievers do. I begin to forget the war. I don’t think much about people perishing. Missions and unreached peoples drop out of my mind. I stop dreaming about the triumphs of grace. I sink into a secular mind-set that looks first to what man can do, not what God can do. It is a terrible sickness. And I thank God for those who have forced me again and again toward a wartime mind-set.
WHAT IT LOOKS LIKE IN WARTIME
I thank God for Ralph Winter, for example, who not only wrote powerfully about a wartime lifestyle, but has lived it as a missionary, professor, founder of the U. S. Center for World Mission, and tireless advocate for the unreached peoples of the world. He gave the following vivid illustration of the difference between a wartime and a peacetime mentality about the use of our possessions.
The Queen Mary, lying in repose in the harbor at Long Beach, California, is a fascinating museum of the past. Used both as a luxury liner in peacetime and a troop transport during the Second World War, its present status as a museum the length of three football fields affords a stunning contrast
between the lifestyles appropriate in peace and war. On one side of a partition you see the dining room reconstructed to depict the peacetime table setting that was appropriate to the wealthy patrons of high culture for whom a dazzling array of knives and forks and spoons held no mysteries. On the other side of the partition the evidences of wartime austerities are in sharp contrast. One metal tray with indentations replaces fifteen plates and saucers. Bunks, not just double but eight tiers high, explain why the peace-time complement of 3000 gave way to 15,000 people on board in wartime. How repugnant to the peacetime masters this transformation must have been! To do it took a national emergency, of course. The survival of a nation depended on it. The essence of the Great Commission today is that the survival of many millions of people depends on its fulfillment.2
Given the vulnerability of my heart to the seduction of the peacetime mind-set, which is pushed into my mind every day by media and entertainment, I need these images and these reminders. We are at war, whether the stocks are falling or climbing, whether the terrorists are hitting or hiding, whether we are healthy or sick. Both pleasure and pain are laced with poison, ready to kill us with the diseases of pride or despair. The repeated biblical warning to “be alert”3 fits the wartime image. And I need this warning every day.
WHY NOT SPEAK OF A “SIMPLE LIFESTYLE”?
It is more helpful to think of a wartime lifestyle than a merely simple lifestyle. Simplicity may have a romantic ring and a certain aesthetic appeal that is foreign to the dirty business of mercy in the dangerous places of the world. Simplicity may also overlook the fact that, in wartime, major expenses for complex weapons and troop training are needed. These may not look simple, and may be very expensive, but the whole country sacrifices
to make them happen. Simplicity may be inwardly directed and may benefit no one else. A wartime lifestyle implies that there is a great and worthy cause for which to spend and be spent (2 Corinthians 12:15).
WASTING LIFE MEANS LOSING OUR LIVES BY TRYING TO SAVE THEM
“Being spent” may sound dour. It is not. It is life-giving when we are spent to make others glad in God. Jesus taught us that “whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it” (Mark 8:35). This has application to individuals on their way to heaven, and to cultures on their way to extinction. Again Ralph Winter illustrates:
America today is a “save yourself” society if there ever was one. But does it really work? The underdeveloped societies suffer from one set of diseases: tuberculosis, malnutrition, pneumonia, parasites, typhoid, cholera, typhus, etc. Affluent America has virtually invented a whole new set of diseases: obesity, arteriosclerosis, heart disease, strokes, lung cancer, venereal disease, cirrhosis of the liver, drug addiction, alcoholism, divorce, battered children, suicide, murder. Take your choice. Labor-saving machines have turned out to be body-killing devices. Our affluence has allowed both mobility and isolation of the nuclear family, and as a result, our divorce courts, our prisons and our mental institutions are flooded. In saving ourselves we have nearly lost ourselves.4
Using our possessions in a way that makes the most needy glad in God would save us in more ways than one. It would confirm that Christ is our Treasure, and thus keep us on the path to heaven. And it would transform our society, which is driven by the suicidal craving to satisfy itself with no joy in Christ and
no love for the needy. To rescue us from this tragedy we should ponder seriously the importance of a wartime lifestyle.
WARTIME AT THE MICROBIOLOGICAL LEVEL
In recent years Ralph Winter has waved another wartime flag. It’s worth waving here. God may use it to send some of you in a direction of ministry you never thought was ministry. Winter has been calling our attention to the effects of sin and Satan at the microbiological level where some of the most horrific devastation of God’s good creation happens.
Satan has, horrifyingly, employed his rebellious freedom in the development of destructive germs and viruses at the microbial level, which today account for one third of all deaths on the planet. What the Bible calls simply “pestilence,” is a scourge to animals and humans alike. Yet our popular theology does not clearly recognize this as a work of Satan which God expects us to combat as part of His mission.
But, if missionaries do not preach about a God who is interested in all suffering, all distortions of His creative handiwork, on all these levels we are simply misrepresenting the full scope of His pervasive love and concern—His very nature. . . .
In Vietnam ten Americans died every day on the average during the entire ten years of that war. And, our government poured uncalculated billions into that conflict to extricate our people from it.
However, right now not ten but 1,500 Americans die every day of cancer. Yet our government truly puts only pennies in that direction: 80% of it diverted to HIV/AIDS research, the 20% that ends up in cancer research going almost entirely to evaluating treatments not working toward prevention. I understand that all 40 funded projects of the
federal National Cancer Institute are focused on chemo and radiation treatment, not prevention.
It’s like getting caught up in 150 Vietnam wars at the same time—as far as battle deaths are concerned. And yet we act as though no war exists! How can the consciousness of America be aroused to the fact that one third of all women and half of all men will contract cancer before they die?5
It fully accords with the intention of this book that thousands of Christians would hear this challenge from Dr. Winter and give their lives in science and research, as well as medical missions, to wage war against disease and suffering, and thus display the beauty and power of Christ. What kinds of sacrifices should we make for such combat with the enemy?
WHEN A BOBBY PIN MATTERED
We have seen the sacrifices that military people made in wartime during World War II. But it wasn’t just the military that changed its priorities. The whole country did, just like the whole church could today. During World War II,
the entire nation . . . seemed overnight to have snapped out of its Depression-era lethargy. Everyone scrambled to be of help. Rubber was needed for the war effort, and gasoline,
and metal. A women’s basketball game at Northwestern University was stopped so that the referee and all ten players could scour the floor for a lost bobby pin. Americans pitched in to support strict rationing programs and their boys turned out as volunteers in various collection “drives.” Soon butter and milk were restricted along with canned goods and meat. Shoes became scarce, and paper, and silk. People grew “victory gardens” and drove at the gas-saving “victory speed” of thirty-five miles an hour. “Use it up, wear it out, make it do,
or do without?” became a popular slogan. Air-raid sirens and blackouts were scrupulously obeyed. America sacrificed.6
Such images are for me very powerful. Secondarily, they make me appreciate the benefits of freedom and prosperity. But primarily they rebuke me for my frivolous living and inspire me to make my life count for something more than comfort and worldly success—something God-exalting and eternal.
YES, YES, TO TALK OF WAR IS LOPSIDED
But I admit, as I said above, that the term “wartime lifestyle” or “wartime mind-set” is lopsided. After one sermon in which I used these terms one person wrote to me and asked, “When you stress the imagery of wartime living, do you leave any room for aspects of life that are not part of war, like art or leisure? Are there not other images of the Christian life that are more restful than war?”
Here is the answer I gave in my next message:
The answer is, yes, absolutely, there are other images of the Christian life that are more restful. “The Lord is my Shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters” (Psalm 23:1-2). That is a very different image than bombs dropping and blood flowing. “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). “Even to your old age I am he, and to gray hairs I will carry you. I have made, and I will bear; I will carry and will save” (Isaiah 46:4).
And yes, there is a proper time and place for the Christian to benefit from, evaluate, and transform the whole range of human culture. In fact, it is virtually impossible not to be a part of our modern, Western culture; and if we do not think in terms of measured appropriation, biblical evaluation, and
thoughtful transformation, we will probably be consumed by the culture, and won’t even know that we are more American than we are Christian.
So, yes, by all means, use all the images of Scripture (not just war) to shape your life. And then let your radically Christian, God-enthralled, Christ-treasuring, giving-oriented life engage and shape your culture.
But my sense is that in the prosperous West, the danger in the church is not that there are too many overly zealous people who care too deeply about the lost, and invest hazardously in the cause of the Gospel, and ruin their lives with excessive mercy to the poor. For every careless saint who burns himself out and breaks up his family with misdirected zeal, I venture, there are a thousand who coast with the world, treating Jesus like a helpful add-on, but not as an all-satisfying, all-authoritative King in the cause of love.
THE RUINOUS ETHIC OF MERE AVOIDANCE
One of the marks of this peacetime mind-set is what I call an avoidance ethic. In wartime we ask different questions about what to do with our lives than we do in peacetime. We ask: What can I do to advance the cause? What can I do to bring the victory? What sacrifice can I make or what risk can I take to insure the joy of triumph? In peacetime we tend to ask, What can I do to be more comfortable? To have more fun? To avoid trouble and, possibly, avoid sin?
If we are going to pay the price and take the risks it will cost to make people glad in God, we move beyond the avoidance ethic. This way of life is utterly inadequate to waken people to the beauty of Christ. Avoiding fearful trouble and forbidden behaviors impresses almost no one. The avoidance ethic by itself is not Christ-commending or God-glorifying. There are many
disciplined unbelievers who avoid the same behaviors Christians do. Jesus calls us to something far more radical than that.
THE WRONG QUESTIONS AND THE RIGHT ONES
People who are content with the avoidance ethic generally ask the wrong question about behavior. They ask, What’s wrong with it? What’s wrong with this movie? Or this music? Or this game? Or these companions? Or this way of relaxing? Or this investment? Or this restaurant? Or shopping at this store? What’s wrong with going to the cabin every weekend? Or having a cabin? This kind of question will rarely yield a lifestyle that commends Christ as all-satisfying and makes people glad in God. It simply results in a list of don’ts. It feeds the avoidance ethic.
The better questions to ask about possible behaviors is: How will this help me treasure Christ more? How will it help me show that I do treasure Christ? How will it help me know Christ or display Christ? The Bible says, “Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31). So the question is mainly positive, not negative. How can I portray God as glorious in this action? How can I enjoy making much of him in this behavior?
CLEAN NOSES AND QUALITY FAMILY TIME IS NOT LIFE
Oh, how many lives are wasted by people who believe that the Christian life means simply avoiding badness and providing for the family. So there is no adultery, no stealing, no killing, no embezzlement, no fraud—just lots of hard work during the day, and lots of TV and PG-13 videos in the evening (during quality family time), and lots of fun stuff on the weekend—woven
around church (mostly). This is life for millions of people. Wasted life. We were created for more, far more.
There is an old saying: “No man ever lamented on his dying bed, ‘I wish I had spent more time at the office.’” The point being made is usually that when you are about to die, money suddenly looks like what it really is, useless for lasting happiness, while relationships become precious. It’s true. When my mother was killed in 1974, I wrote to the chairman of my department at Bethel College, where I was teaching, and reversed my request to teach an overload the next semester to make more money. Standing beside your mother’s grave with a wife and child makes things look different. Money loses its pull.
But that saying about spending less time at the office can be misleading. We need to add this: No one will ever want to say to the Lord of the universe five minutes after death, I spent every night playing games and watching clean TV with my family because I loved them so much. I think the Lord will say, “That did not make me look like a treasure in your town. You should have done something besides provide for yourself and your family. And TV, as you should have known, was not a good way to nurture your family or your own soul.”
TELEVISION, THE GREAT LIFE-WASTER
Television is one of the greatest life-wasters of the modern age. And, of course, the Internet is running to catch up, and may have caught up. You can be more selective on the Internet, but you can also select worse things with only the Judge of the universe watching. TV still reigns as the great life-waster. The main problem with TV is not how much smut is available, though that is a problem. Just the ads are enough to sow fertile seeds of greed and lust, no matter what program you’re watching. The greater problem is banality. A mind fed daily on TV diminishes. Your mind was made to know and love God. Its facility for this great
calling is ruined by excessive TV. The content is so trivial and so shallow that the capacity of the mind to think worthy thoughts withers, and the capacity of the heart to feel deep emotions shrivels. Neil Postman shows why.
What is happening in America is that television is transforming all serious public business into junk. . . . Television disdains exposition, which is serious, sequential, rational, and complex. It offers instead a mode of discourse in which everything is accessible, simplistic, concrete, and above all, entertaining. As a result, America is the world’s first culture in jeopardy of amusing itself to death.7
THE WEIGHTLESSNESS OF GOD
Since we all live in a world created by television, it is almost impossible to see what has happened to us. The only hope is to read what people were like in previous centuries. Biographies are a great antidote to cultural myopia and chronological snobbery. We have become almost incapable of handling any great truth reverently and deeply. Magnificent things, especially the glory of God, as David Wells says, rest with a kind of “weightlessness” even on the church.
It is one of the defining marks of Our Time that God is now weightless. I do not mean by this that he is ethereal but rather that he has become unimportant. He rests upon the world so inconsequentially as not to be noticeable. He has lost his saliency for human life. Those who assure the pollsters of their belief in God’s existence may nonetheless consider him less interesting than television, his commands less authoritative than their appetites for affluence and influence, his judgment no more awe-inspiring than the evening news, and his truth less compelling than the advertisers’ sweet fog of flattery and lies. That is weightlessness. It is a
condition we have assigned him after having nudged him out to the periphery of our secularized life. . . . Weightlessness tells us nothing about God but everything about ourselves, about our condition, about our psychological disposition to exclude God from our reality.8
SORTING OUT SUDAN AND PANTY HOSE
We have lost our ability to see and savor the complexities of truth and the depths of simplicity. Douglas Groothuis explains the connection between this weakness and television.
The triumph of the televised image over the word contributes to the depthlessness of postmodern sensibilities. . . . One cannot muse over a television program the way one ponders a character in William Shakespeare or C. S. Lewis, or a Blaise Pascal parable, or a line from a T. S. Eliot poem, such as ‘But our lot crawls between dry ribs / to keep its metaphysics warm.’ No one on television could utter such a line seriously. It would be “bad television”—too abstract, too poetic, too deep, just not entertaining. . . . [Not only that] but the images appear and disappear and reappear without a proper rational context. An attempt at a sobering news story about slavery in the Sudan is followed by a lively advertisement for Disneyland, followed by an appeal to purchase panty hose that will make any woman irresistible, etc., ad nauseum.9
Therefore the man who stands before God with his well-kept avoidance ethic and his protest that he did not spend too much time at the office but came home and watched TV with his family will probably not escape the indictment that he wasted his life. Jesus rebuked his disciples with words that easily apply to this man: “Even sinners work hard, avoid gross sin, watch TV at night, and do fun stuff on the weekend. What more are you doing than the others?” (see Luke 6:32-34; Matthew 5:47).
INSPIRING SACRIFICE FOR LESSER CAUSES
In fact, in wartime sinners often rise to remarkable levels of sacrifice for causes that cannot compare with Christ. The greatest cause in the world is joyfully rescuing people from hell, meeting their earthly needs, making them glad in God, and doing it with a kind, serious pleasure that makes Christ look like the Treasure he is. No war on earth was ever fought for a greater cause or a greater king.
But oh, what bold risks and daring sacrifices these lesser causes have inspired! On February 19, 1944, the battle for Iwo Jima began. It was a barren, eight-mile-square island six hundred miles south of Tokyo, guarded by 22,000 Japanese prepared to fight to the death (which they did). They were protecting two air strips that America needed in the strategic effort to contain Japanese aggression after Pearl Harbor and preserve the liberty that America cherished. It was a high cause, and the courageous sacrifice was stunning.
The hard statistics show the sacrifice made by Colonel Johnson’s 2nd Battalion: 1,400 boys [many still teenagers] landed on D-Day; 288 replacements were provided as the battle went on, a total of 1,688. Of these, 1,511 had been killed or wounded. Only 177 walked off the island. And of the final 177, 91 had been wounded at least once and returned to battle.
It had taken twenty-two crowded transports to bring the 5th Division to the island. The survivors fit comfortably onto eight departing ships.
The American boys had killed about 21,000 Japanese, but suffered more than 26,000 casualties doing so. This would be the only battle in the Pacific where the invaders suffered higher casualties than the defenders.
The Marines fought in World War II for forty-three months. Yet in one month on Iwo Jima, one third of their
total deaths occurred. They left behind the Pacific’s largest cemeteries: nearly 6,800 graves in all; mounds with their crosses and stars. Thousands of families would not have the solace of a body to bid farewell: just the abstract information that the Marine had “died in the performance of his duty” and was buried in a plot, aligned in a row with numbers on his grave. Mike lay in Plot 3, Row 5, Grave 694; Harlon in Plot 4, Row 6, Grave 912; Franklin in Plot 8, Row 7, Grave 2189.
When I think of Mike, Harlon, and Franklin there, I think of the message someone had chiseled outside the cemetery:
When you go home
Tell them for us and say
For your tomorrow
We gave our today10
O LORD, DON’T LET ME WASTE MY LIFE!
I am deeply moved by the courage and carnage on Iwo Jima. As I read the pages of this history, everything in me cries out, “O Lord, don’t let me waste my life!” Let me come to the end—whether soon or late—and be able to say to a family, a church, a city, and the unreached peoples of the earth, “For your tomorrow, I gave my today. Not just for your tomorrow on earth, but for the countless tomorrows of your ever-increasing gladness in God.” The closer I looked at the individual soldiers in this World War II history, the more I felt a passion that my life would count, and that I would be able to die well.
As rainy morning wore into afternoon and the fighting bogged down, the Marines continued to take casualties. Often it was the corpsmen [medics] themselves who died as they tried to preserve life. William Hoopes of Chattanooga was crouching beside a medic named Kelly, who put his head
above a protective ridge and placed binoculars to his eyes—just for an instant—to spot a sniper who was peppering his area. In that instant the sniper shot him through the Adam’s apple. Hoopes, a pharmacist’s mate himself, struggled frantically to save his friend. “I took my forceps and reached into his neck to grasp the artery and pinch it off,” Hoopes recalled. “His blood was spurting. He had no speech but his eyes were on me. He knew I was trying to save his life. I tried everything in the world. I couldn’t do it. I tried. The blood was so slippery. I couldn’t get the artery. I was trying so hard. And all the while he just looked at me. He looked directly into my face. The last thing he did as the blood spurts became less and less was to pat me on the arm as if to say, ‘That’s all right.’ Then he died.”11
In this heart-breaking moment I want to be Hoopes and I want to be Kelly. I want to be able to say to suffering and perishing people, “I tried everything in the world. . . . I was trying so hard.” And I want to be able to say to those around me when I die, “It’s all right. To live is Christ, and to die is gain.”
WHEN THE TRIFLING FOG CLEARS
At these moments, when the trifling fog of life clears and I see what I am really on earth to do, I groan over the petty pursuits that waste so many lives—and so much of mine. Just think of the magnitude of sports—a whole section of the daily newspaper. But there is no section on God. Think of the endless resources for making your home and garden more comfortable and impressive. Think of how many tens of thousands of dollars you can spend to buy more car than you need. Think of the time and energy and conversation that go into entertainment and leisure and what we call “fun stuff.” And add to that now the computer that artificially recreates the very games that are already
so distant from reality; it is like a multi-layered dreamworld of insignificance expanding into nothingness.
CONSUMED WITH CLOTHES
Or think about clothes. What a tragedy to see so many young people obsessed with what they wear and how they look. Even Christian youth seem powerless to ask greater questions than “What’s wrong with it?” Like: Will these clothes help me magnify Christ? Will they point people to him as the manifest Treasure of my life? Will they highlight my personhood, created in the image of God to serve, or will they highlight my sexuality? Or my laziness? Trust me, I’m not hung up on clothes. There are some pretty radical, Christ-exalting reasons to dress down. My plea is that you be more like a dolphin and less like a jellyfish in the sea of fashion—and of contra-fashion (which is just as tyrannizing).
Go beyond one teenager who wrote to the Minneapolis Star Tribune in response to a letter to the editor:
As a teenager, what you wear is unfortunately becoming more important. Honestly even I find some of the clothes that I wear offensive. The letter spoke of girls being able to dress fashionably and sensibly. Show me how that’s possible, and I’ll do it.
Most of my friends often are not comfortable with what is popular, but we wear it anyway. Standing out is just not always worth the struggle. Society tells us to be different, yet mainstream.
How do you dress to please yourself, your parents and your peers? You can’t. Teens end up compromising their values to fit in. If we intend to make it through high school, or even junior high, without being tormented then we must dress to please our peers.
We are the up-and-coming leaders of this nation, and we must see what we have become and change.12
WHERE ARE THE YOUNG RADICALS FOR CHRIST?
When I stand, as it were, on the shores of Iwo Jima and let myself reenact those hours of courage and sacrifice, and remember that they were young, I cannot make peace with the petty preoccupations of most American life. One of them was really young. I read his story and wanted to speak to every youth group in America and say, Do you want to see what cool is? Do you want to see something a thousand times more impressive than a triple double? Well, listen up about Jacklyn Lucas.
He’d fast-talked his way into the Marines at fourteen, fooling the recruits with his muscled physique. . . . Assigned to drive a truck in Hawaii, he had grown frustrated; he wanted to fight. He stowed away on a transport out of Honolulu, surviving on food passed along to him by sympathetic leathernecks on board.
He landed on D-Day [at Iwo Jima] without a rifle. He grabbed one lying on the beach and fought his way inland.
Now, on D+1, Jack and three comrades were crawling through a trench when eight Japanese sprang in front of them. Jack shot one of them through the head. Then his rifle jammed. As he struggled with it a grenade landed at his feet. He yelled a warning to the others and rammed the grenade into the soft ash. Immediately, another rolled in. Jack Lucas, seventeen, fell on both grenades. “Luke, you’re gonna die,” he remembered thinking. . . .
Aboard the hospital ship Samaritan the doctors could scarcely believe it. “Maybe he was too damned young and too damned tough to die,” one said. He endured twenty-one reconstructive operations and became the nation’s youngest
Medal of Honor winner—and the only high school freshman to receive it.13
As I read that, I thought of all the things that high school kids think is cool. I sat on the porch where I was reading and thought, O God, who will get in their face and give them something to live for? They waste their days in a trance of insignificance, trying to look cool or talk cool or walk cool. They don’t have a clue what cool is.
One more story to clarify what is cool. It’s about Ray Dollins, a fighter pilot at Iwo Jima.
The first wave of amtracs headed for shore. The Marine fighter planes were finishing up their low strafing runs. And as the last pilot began to pull his Corsair aloft, Japanese sprang to their guns and riddled the plane with flak. The pilot, Major Ray Dollins, tried to gain altitude as he headed out over the ocean so as to avoid a deadly crash into the Marines headed for the beach, but his plane was too badly damaged. Lieutenant Keith Wells watched it from the amtrac. . . . “We could see him in the cockpit,” Wells said, “and he was trying everything. He was heading straight down for a group of approaching ’tracs filled with Marines. At the last second he flipped the plane over on its back and aimed it into the water between two waves of tanks. We watched the water exploding into the air.”
Military personnel listening to the flight radio network from the ships could not only see Dollins go down; they could hear his last words into his microphone. They were a defiant parody.
Oh, what a beautiful morning,
Oh, what a beautiful day,
I’ve got a terrible feeling
Everything’s coming my way.14
Of course, we do not use the word cool to describe true greatness. It is a small word. That’s the point. It’s cheap. And it’s what millions of young people live for. Who confronts them with urgency and tears? Who pleads with them not to waste their lives? Who takes them by the collar, so to speak, and loves them enough to show them a life so radical and so real and so costly and Christ-saturated that they feel the emptiness and triviality of their CD collection and their pointless conversations about passing celebrities? Who will waken what lies latent in their souls, untapped—a longing not to waste their lives?
MY HEART’S PLEA
Oh, that young and old would turn off the television, take a long walk, and dream about feats of courage for a cause ten thousand times more important than American democracy—as precious as that is. If we would dream and if we would pray, would not God answer? Would he withhold from us a life of joyful love and mercy and sacrifice that magnifies Christ and makes people glad in God? I plead with you, as I pray for myself, set your face like flint to join Jesus on the Calvary road. “Let us go to him outside the camp and bear the reproach he endured. For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come” (Hebrews 13:13-14). When they see our sacrificial love—radiant with joy—will they not say, “Christ is great”?
1 Randy Alcorn, The Treasure Principle (Sisters, Ore.: Multnomah, 2001), 8.
2 Ralph Winter, “Reconsecration to a Wartime, not a Peacetime, Lifestyle,” in Perspectives on the World Christian Movement: A Reader, 2nd edition, eds. Ralph D. Winter and Steven C. Hawthorne (Pasadena, Ca.: William Carey Library, 1999), 705.
3 Matthew 24:42; 25:13; 26:41; Acts 20:31; 1 Corinthians 16:13; Ephesians 6:18; Colossians 4:2; 1 Thessalonians 5:6; 1 Peter 5:8.
4 Ralph Winter, “Reconsecration to a Wartime, not a Peacetime, Lifestyle,” 706.
5 Cited from http://www.verbo.org/site/winter.htm [accessed 4-2-03]. To clarify the relation between Satan’s freedom and God’s sovereignty, I would stress that Satan is real and that God gives him permission (lengthening his leash, as it were) to exploit the divine curse on creation because of sin (Romans 8:20-23), but that God remains in control of the world in all of its parts. There is no contradiction between saying that God ultimately controls all things and saying that we should labor to triumph over disease, resist injustice, and win people to Christ. Our labor is part of his way of accomplishing his sovereign plan. See John Piper, “God’s Pleasure in All That He Does” (Chapter Two), in The Pleasures of God: Meditations on God’s Delight in Being God (Sisters, Ore.: Multnomah, 2000), 47-76.
6 James Bradley, Flags of Our Fathers (New York: Bantam, 2000), 62.
7 Neil Postman, “Amusing Ourselves to Death,” Et Cetera (Spring 1985):
15, 18. See his book by the same title, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (New York: Viking, 1985).
8 David Wells, God in the Wasteland: The Reality of Truth in a World of Fading Dreams (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1994), 88, 90.
9 Douglas R. Groothuis, “How the Bombarding Images of TV Culture Undermine the Power of Words,” Modern Reformation,
10 (January/February 2001): 35-36. Available online at http://www.modernreformation.org/mr01/janfeb/mr0101bombardingtv. html.
10 Bradley, Flags of Our Fathers, 246-247. This book is the story of the Battle of Iwo Jima woven together with the lives of the six flag raisers in the famous Iwo Jima Memorial, told by the son of John Bradley, one of the soldiers in the Memorial.
11 Ibid., 188.
12 Megan Heggemeir, “For Teenagers, Fashion Is Key to Fitting in,” Minneapolis Star Tribune (November 16, 2002): A23.
13 Bradley, Flags of Our Fathers, 174-175.
14 Ibid., 161-162.