When you come to the end of your life, how will you know if you have been “successful”? How would you describe a life well lived? In the movie Saving Private Ryan, Captain Miller is commissioned to find Private James Ryan behind enemy lines and bring him back to safety. Throughout the movie the main characters assigned to support Captain Miller’s quest grumble and complain about being sent on a mission to save one young soldier when they could be doing so much more to help the overall cause of the war.
Near the end of the film, Captain Miller lays wounded on a bridge, and as he nears death, he says to Private Ryan, “Earn this.” The last scene of the film shows a much-older Private Ryan standing beside the grave of Captain Miller, and Ryan, through tears in his eyes, says to his wife, “Tell me I have lived a good life. Tell me I’m a good man.”
From a biblical perspective, we would not talk about “earning a good life,” but we would talk about “living a life worth living.” We would talk about how we should aspire to live our lives in a way that brings glory and honor to Jesus Christ. Hopefully we all desire to come to the end of our lives and say, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (2 Timothy 4:7). Isn’t that true “success”? We live a good life “in a manner worthy of the calling to which [we] have been called” (Ephesians 4:1). “Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ” (Philippians 1:27). “Walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God” (Colossians 1:10). “Walk in a manner worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory” (1 Thessalonians 2:12).
The problem is that our culture heavily influences us even in ways we don’t always recognize. We make it our priority to live a happy life more than a good life. We set our goals for financial peace more than spiritual peace. We want to be a part of a church that caters to our wants and wishes more than a church that challenges us to live a sacrificial life. I’m in no way suggesting that living a happy life or finding financial peace is wrong. But according to Jesus a fulfilled life comes when we put others before ourselves and take up our cross and follow Him (Mark 8:34).
As a church, then, how do we know if we are being “successful”? Is it when we have more happy people than the church down the road? Is it when we have more happy people with happy marriages giving happily to keep the machinery of ministry running smoothly? Not to sound too sarcastic, but is this really why Jesus gave His life—just to make happy Christians and happy churches?
I’m not advocating that living the Christian life means we’re grumpy. We have enough grumpy Christians in the world already. What I am advocating is that living the Christian life means we are moving beyond ourselves. We are recapturing the virtue of sacrifice, honor, commitment, Christ-centeredness, and gratitude.
In the church we tend to overemphasize the wrong things and underemphasize the right things. As one author put it, “Somewhere along the way, our focus on programs and techniques, ministry size, and perhaps even powerful worship distracted us from the basics.” When we “win” people to programs, preferences and styles in order to make them happy, we sell out the greater good of helping them become holy.
In 2011, Christianity Today asked Billy Graham, “What are the most important issues facing evangelicals today?” Graham responded:
The most important issue we face today is the same the church has faced in every century: Will we reach our world for Christ? In other words, will we give priority to Christ’s command to go into all the world and preach the gospel? Or will we turn increasingly inward, caught up in our own internal affairs or controversies, or simply becoming more and more comfortable with the status quo? . . . . The central issues of our time are moral and spiritual in nature, and our calling is to declare Christ’s forgiveness and hope and transforming power to a world that does not know him or follow him. May we never forget this.
I invite you to join me in pouring out our hearts before God on behalf of Christ’s church. We acknowledge our weaknesses and shortcomings and our complete dependency upon Him. We confess our sins and failings as we have made our own success supersede our quest for the success of God’s kingdom. We kneel on un-calloused knees as we pray for the God of the nations to have mercy on us and the church universal. In the words of J. Hudson Taylor, “We have given too much attention to methods and to machinery and to resources, and too little to the Source of power, the filling with the Holy Ghost.” And out of these prayers from humble hearts, may we look forward, with great anticipation, for the Lord God Almighty to raise up His Church once again, for He is the God who knows “the way out of the grave” (G. K. Chesterton).