A Call for the Perseverance of the Saints
Desiring God 2007 National Conference
Stand: A Call for the Endurance of the Saints
This message appears as a chapter in Stand.
The subject the authors of this book were asked to address was “A Call for the Endurance of the Saints.” I slightly changed this in my own thinking to “A Call for the Perseverance of the Saints.” In England the word endurance has a connotation of gritting your teeth, keeping a stiff upper lip, and getting through the job in hand somehow. But the word perseverance makes one think of steadily going on and refusing to give up, no matter what comes.
When I began thinking about the subject, my mind went very quickly to Caleb. Caleb was eighty-five years old when he reminded Joshua of a promise that Moses had made to him to “give me this mountain” (KJV) when they reached the Promised Land. I read Caleb’s story again, first in Numbers 13–14 and then in Deuteronomy 1:36 and then particularly in Joshua 14. Five times we read a telling phrase in the context of Caleb — “wholly followed” (Numbers 32:12; Deuteronomy 1:36; Joshua 14:8, 9, 14).
He followed the Lord wholeheartedly. There was nothing halfhearted about him. There was no sometimes on, sometimes off, sometimes hot, sometimes cold. There was no choosing when he would follow or when he wouldn’t. And he was eighty-five years old! I’m not quite there yet, but I thought, that is what I want to be like — wholehearted.
Somebody recently asked me, “Who are your heroes?” I had to stop and think. I really don’t have any heroes except Jesus. But I realize that in one sense, Caleb is one of my heroes. He was still going strong at eighty-five years of age, still prepared to fight for a mountain that was inhabited by giants with fortified cities. He went for it. He did not give up.
Then I thought of Polycarp, the Bishop of Smyrna. He was eighty-six years old when he was burned at the stake in a.d. 156. He could have saved his life, had he cursed Christ. But he said, “Eighty and six years have I served him, and he has done me no wrong; how then can I blaspheme my king who saved me?” (For more on Polycarp’s remarkable courage and perseverance, see John Piper’s chapter in this book.)
Next I thought of Blandina, a slave girl — fragile in body, timid in mind. She was subjected to every kind of torture during the first century, yet she could not be compelled to deny her faith before they ultimately butchered her to death. So age is of no account: a young slave and a bishop at the end of his life — both were sold out to following Jesus to the end.
That takes us easily into Hebrews 12:1, where we are commanded to throw off everything that hinders — to throw off the sin that so easily entangles — and to “run with perseverance” (NIV) the race marked out for us. This race is not only for Caleb or Bishop Polycarp or Blandina but also for each one of us. All of us who know and love our Lord Jesus are to run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus.
In February 2006 a Bible teacher in my country, the Rev. Edward Lobb, preached two sermons in my home church on Hebrews 12. He stressed the fact that as Christians we are not called to a picnic. We’re not given a hammock when we enter our fifties or sixties. We’re not invited to put our feet up and say it’s done. No. That’s just not the way it is. We are called to a race, which needs determination, guts, and endurance to finish. Anyone can start a race, but what matters is getting to the end.
The writer to the Hebrews was writing to persecuted Jewish Christians. They were persecuted to the extent of being turned out of the temple. They’d lost all that had been dear to them through Old Testament days — temple worship, all the fine clothing of the high priest, and all the ordinances they had practiced. They were not even allowed to enter the temple courtyard.
Suddenly they felt they’d lost an awful lot and they weren’t sure what they’d gained. The writer to the Hebrews keeps on saying, “With Jesus, it’s better! With Jesus, it’s better! Don’t seek to worship angels. Jesus is better than angels. Don’t hang onto the worship practiced by the Old Testament saints. Jesus is better.” He stresses this all the way through the letter, and he pleads with them not to turn away, not to shrink back or give up.
Then in chapter 11 of Hebrews we read that wonderful great list of Old Testament saints. They all stuck it out. They finished their courses, some through terrible sufferings. The writer tells us how some of them were sawn asunder, but all of them stuck it out to the end. They didn’t give in, and God did not fail them or let them down.
Then in Hebrews 12:2 we read that Jesus, our great High Priest, finished the course. He finished the race that God had given to him, which was to die on the cross for you and for me. He got to the end. Remember how he cried out on the cross, “It is finished!” (John 19:30). Jesus didn’t stop before he finished the job that God had given him to save you and me. He said to God, “Not my will, but yours, be done” (Luke 22:42).
No Christians, including older saints, are called to hammock-living.
Friends, you and I can finish too if we keep our eyes on Jesus and if we accept his loving discipline and endure hardships without complaining and without becoming embittered.
This past summer at a camp for teenage girls, I was giving three Bible studies on the life of David. We studied together how David was anointed as the future king and how he proved himself in the battle against Goliath. We looked at all his faithfulness in so many different directions. And then, toward the end of his reign, we read the story of Bathsheba. God graciously sent Nathan to him, and David repented. As a result of that, we have Psalm 51, and we have all the encouragement for our own hearts that if we truly repent of sin, God will forgive us. Thank God for that, yes. But why was there failure? And so near the end?
I remember an occasion at Nebobongo, the small hospital I worked at in the heart of the forestlands of northeast Congo. A youngster arrived one day — I think he was probably around eleven years old — to say that his father, who was an evangelist, was very ill out in a village way back in the forest. I was very new in Africa, and I didn’t know the way. I asked the youngster, “Can you take me to him?” “Oh, yes,” he replied. So I asked, “How far is it?” I knew that we had little gasoline left for the ambulance. He said, “It’s two sleeps.” (In other words, it had taken three days to walk to me, sleeping twice en route.) I worked out it would be roughly ninety miles, and I thought quickly, Well, I’ve just about enough gasoline to get me there.
So when the boy assured me that if we could get to his father’s village, they had a 400-liter drum of gasoline and would be able to fill my car up for the return trip, we set off together. He sat beside me in the cab, and we talked. Oh, good talk. I was talking about our Lord Jesus. We shared together, and I was telling him stories about Jesus. As we drove along we came to a fork in the road, and he would say, “Go right,” so I went right. We came to a crossroads, and we turned, and I went on talking to him. Suddenly the car spluttered, coughed, and came to a halt. I looked at the gas gauge — we’d run out of gasoline. The boy looked around. “Doctor,” he said, “I don’t know where we are. I’ve never been here before.”
We had to leave the vehicle on the side of the road and set off to walk back the way we had just come. After about two to three miles, we came to a fork. “Oh,” he said, “we should have gone left here.” We hadn’t! We had turned right. We walked along for another two miles. It was about five miles from where I left the vehicle to where the lad’s village was. We had been so near, but at the last minute we had taken the wrong fork.
It can be like that in our Christian life. It’s so essential to keep going to the end. To start a race is fine, but it’s much more important to keep going until we hit the tape.
Christ’s Perseverance with Us
When I was thinking about our perseverance in following Jesus, I paused for a moment as I thought that there is actually something much more wonderful than that: it is his perseverance in dealing with us — you and me. I never cease to wonder at God’s patience and long-suffering with me. Particularly when I’m at the Lord’s Table in church, and there’s a moment during the service when together we confess our sins to God, and I look back to the last time I was at the Lord’s Supper, and I think, It’s the same things that I confessed last time. It’s the same impatience or irritability or being a bit sorry for myself, a pity-little-me syndrome.
Once again I tell God I’m sorry and that with all my heart I really want to change. I really want God to make me more like Jesus. I want to be Christlike, but I fail so often. He’s so patient, isn’t he? He doesn’t throw us off. He doesn’t say, “You’ve had all the chances you’re going to have; I’m finished with you.” God is always so gracious. His perseverance with us — in transforming us into the likeness of his Son as members of his family — is amazing.
I think of a chorus that I sang when I was first saved.
Turn your eyes upon Jesus. Look full in His wonderful face. And the things of earth will grow strangely dim In the light of His glory and grace.
(Helen H. Lemmel, “Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus” )
So just for a minute, before we think about our perseverance in following him, let us pause in order not to forget his perseverance with us — with you and with me.
Every year between Christmas Day and New Year’s Day I seek to have time alone with God and to ask him for a particular verse for the coming year. For 2006 he gave me a phrase out of Ephesians 1:17: “that [I] may know him better” (NIV). That has been the longing of my heart all year. When Paul wrote that phrase, he was at the end of his life, imprisoned in Rome. He’d been a missionary for years. He’d been serving God with all his heart for years, and yet still this prayer came out of his heart: “that [I] may know him better.”
I asked the Lord for a verse for 2007, and he gave me Psalm 27:4: “One thing I ask of the Lord, this is what I seek, that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord and to seek him in his temple” (NIV). When I was pray ing through this verse, one little phrase struck me straightaway. The verse starts off with the two words, “one thing.” So I looked up in the concordance all the verses in the Bible where it says “one thing,” and I let my mind dwell on that phrase.
I want us to think about three verses that say “one thing”: * One thing I know (a past fact) * One thing I do (a present activity) * One thing I seek after (a future aspiration)
These three point to the past, the present, and the future testimony of my Christian life.
One Thing I Know
“One thing I . . . know” comes from John 9:25. There was a man who was born blind, and Jesus healed him. The Pharisees were saying, “Who did it?” They were arguing with the man that he wasn’t the man who’d been born blind, and if he was, then who had healed him? The man said, “Whether he [that is, Jesus] is a sinner or not, I do not know. One thing I do know. I was blind but now I see!” And that was fact — actually, past fact! I pray that for every single one of us this is a past fact in our personal experience. There was a moment when, having been blind to the things of God, suddenly I could see!
I’ll never forget that wonderful evening, the first of January, a lovely New Year’s Day over sixty years ago. I can remember it now as though it was yesterday. I don’t know how God does such wonders, but I suddenly knew with absolute assurance that God knew me and loved me so much that he sent his Son Jesus to die for me. I’d heard this wonderful gospel throughout my first term at the university, when I’d been going to Christian Union meetings. I don’t even know why I went to those meetings, except that they drew me, they attracted me; but I didn’t know the Savior.
There was now a growing hunger in my heart. During the Christmas holidays, the C.U. girls had arranged for me to go to a Christian house party, and suddenly, on the last night of the house party, I knew. I knew that I had been blind, but now I could see. And this complete certainty, the knowledge of what Jesus had done for me in the past, made me utterly sure that I was saved.
There’s a teaching seeping into even what we call the evangelical Christian church that is belittling the fact that Jesus died for my sins. They say that he died only as an example or some such thing. I don’t honestly know how they explain away the fact of his penal death on the cross as our Savior or what they actually believe instead of the Truth. In fact, I don’t know how they can call themselves Christians if they don’t believe that “Jesus died for my sins.” For me, that’s the basic fact of Christianity. Jesus died for my sins. And this to me is solid fact. And whatever else happens in anyone’s Christian life, whatever the problems or difficulties, this one thing is certain:
Jesus my Lord will love me forever, From him no pow’r of evil can sever, He gave his life to ransom my soul; Now I belong to him. Now I belong to Jesus. Jesus belongs to me. Not for the years of time alone, But for eternity.
(Norman J. Clayton, “Now I Belong to Jesus” )
I tend to say that on that night sixty years ago I fell in love with Jesus. I’m just overwhelmed by the fact of his love for me. The lady in charge of the house party where I was saved gave me a new Bible. The man who’d been leading the Bible studies — Dr. Graham Scroggie, a great Bible teacher in the UK during the first half of the last century — wrote a verse from Philippians in my new Bible, Philippians 3:10: “that I may know him, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings, being made conformable unto him in his death” (KJV). And then, within half an hour of having been saved, Dr. Scroggie signed me up for a four-year Bible correspondence course! It was through his tutoring, as he mentored me through those four years, that not only did I fall in love with Jesus, but I fell also in love with his Word.
When I went up to bed that night, I tried to find Philippians 3 and to read the verse in context. I knew nothing about the Bible; in fact, I was terribly ignorant of anything to do with spiritual things. I had no idea who this man Paul was who had written the chapter, but I just knew as I read the chapter that I wanted to love Jesus as he did. I wanted to love him wholeheartedly. I wanted to love him with all I had — to put him first in everything.
That is partly why Caleb became a pattern for me in my life — to love the Lord and to follow him wholeheartedly. As I started Bible study daily, I came to verses like Romans 8:1, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” And, “There is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). There is only Jesus. He is our unique, lovely, beautiful Savior.
I went back to college, where I finished my training as a doctor. I was accepted into our mission, WEC International. In 1953 I sailed for Congo. All those early years at college and the first twelve years in Congo as a missionary and then the five months of the rebellion (civil war in Congo in 1964) — it was out of all the experiences of those years that I was persuaded (when I had been rescued and came home) to write my first book, trying to express this longing to love the Lord and serve him wholeheartedly. Caleb had said, “Give me this mountain” (Joshua 14:12, KJV).
“Jesus is our unique, lovely, beautiful Savior.”
All those first years on the mission field I longed for mountaintop experiences. I wanted to be up there. I wanted to be seeing Jesus. I wanted almost desperately to be pleasing to him, possibly to show him in some small way how much I loved him. There were lots of struggles. There were moments when I was frustrated. There were moments when I nearly gave up. I anguished over my own failure to be what I knew God wanted me to be. But through it all there was this great longing to love him and follow him wholeheartedly.
One Thing I Do
Now we will consider the second “one thing.” In Philippians 3:13 Paul writes, “I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do . . .” “One thing I do” is in the present tense — the present-active tense. “One thing I am doing. Forgetting what is behind, straining to what is ahead, I am pressing on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me.” Hosea 6:3 says, “Keep on keeping on.” That is a literal translation from my Swahili Bible — “Keep on keeping on.” Don’t give up; rather, follow on to know the Lord to the end. Jesus said, “You will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But the one who endures to the end will be saved” (Matthew 10:22).
We know we are his ambassadors. We’ve been entrusted with the word of reconciliation and are called to tell others that Jesus died for their sins. And that is the certainty of what should be our present-tense activity. That’s what we’ve been sent to do. God has sent us out to tell others about Jesus. There should be an earnestness in our spirits.
There should be the pressure that I must — not I may, not perhaps; it’s not an optional extra — I must share Jesus with others. I must tell them. That’s what Paul said. “One thing I do: Forgetting what’s behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me” (Philippians 3:13–14, NIV).
Even when discouragements come or a feeling of weariness or of growing older, keep going! Don’t give up. We have to continue steadfast daily with To please him as our motto. Pleasing him in everything — in every choice that has to be made: the petty little choices, as well as every great, large choice. It doesn’t matter what the choices, let our motto be: In everything to please him. This should be our commitment for life.
I spent a lot of my time in recent years with university students, mostly Christians, mostly trying to encourage them. Sometimes I go back to a place for a second visit, possibly a couple of years later. I may ask them, “How many of you were here when I was here last year?” They can be quite excited to put their hands up. They are rather glad to tell me they were there the last time I came. “Well,” I say, “you shouldn’t be here now! If you’d listened to what I’d said last time you’d now be on the mission field” — or at least in training for the next move in that direction!
There is always this temptation to slacken off, to tone down. It’s easy to seek greener pastures. Somehow it’s easy to think, If only I didn’t have to work with So-and-So. If only I could be in such and such a place I could be what God wants me to be. I could make a go of it, but . . . We blame our circumstances or we blame our companion or we even blame our homes. If you’re a missionary, you blame the committee. (I used to think the only reason we had committees on mission fields was so missionaries had someone to blame!)
But in fact, the responsibility rests on me. The blame culture of today leads me to seek to justify myself if I’m slacking off, if I’m slowing down, if I get to a place where I say, “I can’t do any more, Lord. I’ve done my share; I want to slow down.” If I find myself thinking or talking like that, I’m in danger. We have to be 100 percent committed right through to the end.
One of the major problems I had was in learning to live a consistent Christian life wherever God put me. I spent twenty years in Congo in Central Africa, where in many ways it was very easy to be a Christian — I was the only pale-skin among some eighty thousand dark-skinned people.
Wherever I went, I was immediately known as the missionary. When Africans met me they would say, “If you’re a missionary, your job is talking about Jesus: so get on with it and talk about Jesus!” It was relatively easy. Then the Lord called me back to live and work in the UK. I now live just outside Belfast. I love Africans. I loved being a missionary in the middle of Africa. But I found it much harder to love affluent Westerners.
In Africa, if you are walking along a jungle pathway, through the marshlands, and crossing over a narrow bridge made of slippery poles, and you meet an African coming toward you, you know that one of you has to turn back — and I couldn’t! I could only just balance on those bridges; as for passing anybody, there wasn’t a hope. I’d fall into the muddy waters for sure. So the other person would go backwards very graciously.
I would go across to the other side and then say to him, “Do you know my best friend?” He says, “Who?” I say, “Jesus.” “No,” he says. “Can I introduce you to him?” “Yes,” he says. And we sit down on the grassy bank, and we talk for two, three, maybe four hours. He is in no hurry. To him time doesn’t matter.
Now in the UK you can’t do that! I haven’t found it so easy there. But I’ve had to learn that it doesn’t matter to God where he puts us. We have to learn to be consistent Christians and 100 percent in love with Jesus and fully committed to our deepest desire to be pleasing to him at all times, no matter where he places us.
That demands that we come down into the valleys. We cannot fulfill God’s purpose for our lives up on the mountaintop. The disciples saw the transfigured Jesus in all his glory and radiance on the mountaintop. His garments were shining; his eyes were shining. They were in the very presence of the glory of God. Then they came down into the valley, where there was a crowd. In the crowd was a father with his epileptic (or demonized) son. That was where the work was done.
The mountaintop was the place of the vision, but the work was done down in the valley. So it is for us: it’s being willing to stick it out in the valley that really counts. Sometimes the valley can be very dark. It can be very lonely. It can be quite frustrating. Sometimes I felt like crying out, like that father did, “I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24). But we have to stick at it.
During the five months that we were held by guerrilla soldiers during the Congo Civil War, there was no use in moaning and groaning about our fears and pains. I knew I was there because God had put me there. So whatever would happen to me was God’s responsibility. We were ultimately rescued and were brought home to recover. Then we went back again, and people said, “Oh, aren’t you wonderful!”
Honestly, I wasn’t particularly wonderful at all. All my adult life I’d lived out there in Congo. I’d never done medicine anywhere but in Congo. The Congolese were my family. I loved them. I didn’t want to stay at home in the UK. There was truthfully nothing very wonderful about our decision to return. An urgent desire “to please Jesus” had become part of me. I truly wanted to live for him 100 percent. We had known — even when we were captives, even when the beatings were savage, even when things were unpleasant — that God was still on the throne and had not forgotten his own. He was with us. And he will be with us whatever happens. He’s working out his purposes.
As I was meditating on the fact that we must share Jesus with others — anywhere, whatever the circumstances — I was reminded of two passages in Scripture. Isaiah 52:7 says, “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news, who publishes peace, who brings good news of happiness, who publishes salvation, who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns.’” Isn’t that lovely? Jesus is saying to you and me, “If you’re busy telling others about me, you’re beautiful.” Maybe no one else thinks you or I are particularly beautiful, but God says, “If you’re busy telling others about Jesus, you are beautiful in my eyes.”
“Let our motto be: In everything to please him.”
Another passage where Jesus said that what was done was a beautiful thing was in Simon’s house, at the meal table, when the woman came and broke the alabaster jar of precious ointment, anointing him, as he said, in preparation for his burial. The other disciples were grumbling: “Why this waste of perfume? It could have been sold for more than a year’s wages and the money given to the poor.” Jesus said, “Why do you trouble her? . . . She has done a beautiful thing to me” (Mark 14:4–6).
That means that as we worship Jesus — pouring out our innermost soul to him, thanking him for his grace that allows us to worship him in every part of our lives, putting Jesus first, loving him, wanting to know him better, being with him — he says that is beautiful! In our service, as in our worship, God says that is beautiful. It is such condescension on God’s part to consider anything that we seek to do for him beautiful, when he looks at us and says we’re beautiful when we’re talking to others about him.
Perhaps you know this hymn,
My goal is God Himself, not joy nor peace, Nor even blessing, but Himself, my God. ’Tis His to lead me there, not mine but His. At any cost, dear Lord, by any road.
One thing I know. I cannot say Him nay. One thing I do, I press towards my Lord, My God, my Glory here from day to day. And in the glory there, my Great Reward.
(Fredrick Brook, “My Goal Is God Himself,” date unknown.)
I find that very lovely — it expresses my innermost desires toward God himself.
One Thing I Ask
That brings me to my third “one thing.” It is found in Psalm 27:4. “One thing have I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord and to inquire in his temple.”
Follow this prayer with the command of Jesus to seek first his kingdom and his righteousness and his promise that all the other necessary things would be given to us as well (Matthew 6:33). My yearning in my own heart as I look forward is to have the right priorities all the time to please him in everything I do. It is my priority first and foremost to please my lovely Lord Jesus — to seek him so as to love him above all and everything else. And that’s what the psalmist said — to dwell and to gaze.
Do I honestly take time to dwell with the Lord? Not as a visitor, not as a passing guest, but to dwell, to live in his temple. To live in his presence — to have nothing in my life that is not in the presence of the Lord. Have we really let him so into our lives that everything from now on that we do is done in the presence of Jesus with him as our companion?
Remember Mary and Martha. The one was busy and harassed. She just had too much to do. The other sister was sitting at the feet of Jesus, just being with him. And Jesus declared that what Mary was doing was “good” (Luke 10:42). (He doesn’t actually say “better” as it reads in some translations.) What she was doing was good. “Martha, Martha,” the Lord said, “you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is good, and it will not be taken away from her” (NIV).
Do I choose what is good? Do we treasure that early hour in his presence, that quiet time alone with the Lord? It’s so essential to being what he wants us to be. It’s the only way we’re going to become more like our lovely Lord Jesus. Can that early hour be squeezed out? Now I know that for the mothers of small children it can be very difficult to keep that quiet time. I’m well aware it may not be possible in the early hour. But we can all find some time when we can be alone with God. He will enable us to find that time if our hearts are set on it. Do I guard that time against all intrusions?
Do I love to read his Word and soak in it, more than any of the other newspapers, magazines, or whatever else? Is God’s Word honestly precious to me? We’ll become like Jesus more by reading the Word than by reading the daily newspaper!
Do I hunger for the feast that he’s prepared for me daily? Am I hungry and thirsty after righteousness, to be holy with his holiness? Am I more quickly aware of and ashamed of failure than I was a year ago? If I’m growing more like Jesus, I will be. I will more quickly say, “I’m sorry, Lord. I shouldn’t have done that or said that.” Or “I should have done that or said that.” I shall be more quickly sensitive to his leading me to repent. Is he beautiful in my eyes and in my heart? Do I want his beauty to rest on me? I love Psalm 90:17: “Let the beauty of the Lord our God rest upon us” (KJV). That’s the beauty of his character. Think of Galatians 5:22–23: “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.” That’s the loveliness of Jesus. Is that seen in me?
“Do I honestly take time to dwell with the Lord?”
In private, in our homes, that can be much more demanding. It’s what our closest family members think of us, not just the people who see us when we stand on the platform, that counts. When we are is on the platform, everybody may think we are marvelous! But it’s when we are at home with people who know us well that the true test comes. Am I, are you, really revealing the loveliness of the Lord Jesus?
Let the beauty of Jesus be seen in me, All his wondrous compassion and purity. O thou Spirit divine, all my nature refine Till the beauty of Jesus be seen in me.
(Albert Orsborn, “Let the Beauty of Jesus Be Seen in Me.” Orsborn was General of the Salvation Army (1946–1952)
Do I long to gaze on his beauty so that I may reflect him? In that wonderful verse, 2 Corinthians 3:18, Paul says we are to be mirrors reflecting the loveliness, the glory, the beauty of Jesus, so that others looking at us will see him. Is that really happening? Is that really an expression that describes me?
Some of my favorite verses are in 1 John 3, the first three verses. “See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God. . . . Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is,” the all-together lovely One. That is beautiful. And that is what the psalmist said in Psalm 27:4: “. . . that I may dwell in the house of the Lord . . . to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord.” So my life, my lips, my actions, my motivations, my reactions to other people should all reflect the loveliness of the Lord Jesus. There is a hymn that says it all:
May the mind of Christ my Savior Live in me from day to day, By His love and power controlling All I do and say.
May the Word of God dwell richly In my heart from hour to hour, So that all may see I triumph Only through His power.
May the peace of God my Father Rule my life in everything, That I may be calm to comfort Sick and sorrowing.
May the love of Jesus fill me As the waters fill the sea; Him exalting, self abasing — This is victory!
May I run the race before me, Strong and brave to face the foe, Looking only unto Jesus As I onward go.
May His beauty rest upon me As I seek the lost to win. And may they forget the channel, Seeing only Him.
(Kate B. Wilkinson, “May the Mind of Christ, My Savior” [before 1913])
Make This Valley Full of Ditches
And yet at the same time as I yearn for this, there’s another side that I want to bring to your attention. We are to reflect his loveliness — which is true and necessary — but we therefore have a specific responsibility. I had an eightieth birthday not long ago, and I received an e-mail from a friend who’s about ten days older than I am. He welcomed me into what he called the Octogenarians’ Club, and he wrote, “I just want you to remember one thing. There is only one rule in the Club: retirement is forbidden. No one retires while there’s still so much work to be done.” How absolutely true!
Any of you who are approaching retirement or just starting retirement or taking early retirement, are you realizing that this is the most golden opportunity in your lives? You no longer have to go to work 9 to 5 to do whatever it was you were doing. You’re now free to serve Jesus full-time instead of only part-time. It’s to be more, not less. It’s to be more in his presence, more reflecting him, more telling others about Jesus. The amazing thing is that Almighty God invites us to work for him.
After I came home from Africa and it was fairly clear they were not going to quickly send me back to Africa, I was assigned a job with the mission at the home end. I asked the Lord for a verse to guide me, to give me confidence that this was his will. I was actually lying in bed in the hospital where I had just had surgery.
Coming around from anesthetic, I asked the nurse, “Would you open my Bible at the place where the marker is?” She did and propped it up in front of me. I looked at the open Bible and saw that it was opened at 2 Kings 3. I thought, How can God ever guide me from 2 Kings 3? I started to read the chapter and was praying, “God, please, I want a verse that says, ‘Thus saith the Lord.’ It has to be so clear I can’t miss it. It has to be so clear that when I share it with the mission they’ll know it’s your voice speaking.”
As I began to read this chapter, I realized that I knew the story — I had taught it to students in Africa. So I knew in a way what was coming, and yet I didn’t know the “Thus saith the Lord” verse. Suddenly I saw it coming. “Thus saith the Lord.” And I didn’t want it. I was scared. I thought, I don’t know what he’s going to say to me. I put my hand across it. But then I read this amazing verse that God was speaking to the kings of Judah, Israel, and Edom through his prophet Elisha. “Thus saith the Lord, make this valley full of ditches” (verse 16, KJV).
Second Kings 3 is an amazing story. It is both exciting and beautiful. In the very next verse, after saying, “Make this valley full of ditches,” God goes on to say in essence, “You’re not going to see rain. You’re not going to hear wind.” It must have seemed awful, even stupid. There they were — an army by the dried up riverbed that separated them from the kingdom of Moab, and God was saying to soldiers who were not trained to dig ditches and who didn’t even have spades, “Make this valley full of ditches.”
Yet as we read the story, we see that they did exactly what God told them to do. They were a well-disciplined army. So they had to get down on their knees and dig . . . with their hands. The ditches were possibly a meter long, thirty centimeters deep, ten centimeters across. I sometimes wonder, while they were all busy digging — maybe several thousand soldiers digging ditches — as each one dug his ditch, chucking the sand out, the man behind him might well have knocked the sand back in. I could just sense them getting mad with each other. Add to their discomfort the fact that God said they would not see any rain. They must have felt the whole exercise was senseless.
Nevertheless, they made the valley full of ditches, and then, during the night, God filled those ditches with water. They awoke in the morning to see water throughout the valley. There was water enough for all their animals and for themselves. Meanwhile, the Moabite army on top of the hillside was looking down on the Israelite army as the early morning sun was rising. The sun shone on the water, and the Moabites saw what they thought was blood! And they said, “Incredible! The three armies down there have fought each other, and their blood fills the valley. So let’s go down and take all the spoils.” And they were beaten, totally devastated. God gave wonderful victory to his people.
What God said to me as I read that chapter, was, “Make this valley . . .” Now the word this involves the present. It’s where you are now. It’s not that valley of some other day in your life or that of some other person. “Make this valley full of ditches.” If you have any sense of valley around you — it may be a new start, it may be a change of employment, there may have been sorrow, there may have been grief, there may have been all sorts of different reasons — but this speaks of where you are right now. It is each individual’s personal valley.
Further, the word *make is active. “Make this valley full of ditches.” We have to do something, and we have to do it actively. It may well be hard work. We may well get blistered hands. We’ll become thirsty, and we might get no thanks for our work. “Make this valley full of ditches.”
I have been working out that verse ever since. “Make this valley full of ditches.” What I have come to realize is that God doesn’t actually need you and me. He is sovereign. He is almighty. He doesn’t need us to reach the unreached peoples of the world. But he chooses, in his gracious mercy, to use us. He chooses to use you and me. He wants us to be spades in his hand. He wants us to be willing to dig his ditches, using us as his spades wherever he places us. That is amazing, quite amazing.
I belong to a youth organization in the UK, The Girl Crusaders’ Union, and this organization was ninety years old last year. I was asked to take four meetings for the Union in England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland and also one in London. The subject I was given to speak on was “God Chooses to Need Spades.” We have to realize this amazing fact. He knows just what he wants done, he knows just where he wants it done, and he knows just when he wants it done.
Are we available? We must not get huffy if he chooses one day not to use us and takes the rake or the fork and leaves us in the tool shed. That’s okay. He knows just the minute he wants us to do what he wants us to do and the niche he has for us. He wants to use all of us right through to the end.
This is to be the future for each one of us — to be 100 percent involved in serving this wonderful, lovely Lord as his ambassadors, taking his gospel to those whom we meet wherever we are. It is all privilege — amazing privilege. It’s an unbelievable privilege that God should actually want to use you and me in his task of reaching others with the gospel.
Retirement means that you are now able to serve the Lord full-time.
All I have to ask is, is my valley full yet? Should I ever get to a moment when I say, “Dear Lord, I’ve been digging ditches for a long time. I’m awfully tired of it. Couldn’t you give me a new verse?” he may say to me, “Your valley’s not yet full.” So I’m still digging ditches. Possibly what he gives you to do may seem very small. Maybe you’re a housewife — just cleaning the home, cooking meals, looking after the children. You may be the breadwinner of the household — getting stuck in the traffic jams going to work in the morning, being a representative of Jesus wherever you are — in the traffic or at work. Students at college, you are to be representatives for Jesus, standing up for him, even when it’s not politically correct.
So from mountaintop vision, seeking to know Christ better, to willingness to work hard down in the valleys even when our hands are blistered, empowered by his almighty resurrection power — and then to be available to him to be sent to dig ditches wherever he wants us, remembering all the time that it’s a privilege to share Jesus with others in our sin-sick world — let us all “take up the whole armor of God that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm” (Ephesians 6:13). Don’t give up. Don’t lose heart. Don’t be discouraged. Keep on keeping on to the very end, looking unto Jesus.
I finish where I started, in Hebrews 12:1–2 (NIV).
Run with perseverance the race marked out for us [for each one of us]. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus.
And don’t stop running until you hit the tape. Amen.
More Messages from Desiring God 2007 National Conference
Four Essentials for Finishing Well (Jerry Bridges)
Getting Old to the Glory of God (John Piper)
Certainties That Drive Enduring Ministry Pt. 1 (John MacArthur)
Certainties That Drive Enduring Ministry Pt. 2 (John MacArthur)
Today’s Decisions Determine Who You’ll Be Tomorrow (Randy Alcorn)