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‘I Never Made a Sacrifice’

The Call and Question of David Livingstone

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Founder & Teacher, desiringGod.org

David Livingstone was born March 19, 1813. He gave his life to serve Christ in the exploration of Africa for the sake of creating access to the gospel. He was the first European to cross the width of Africa, and the first to set his eyes on Victoria Falls, which he named after his queen. He also laid his eyes on the horrors of the East African slave trade, and devoted himself with passion as an abolitionist.

Many doubted Livingstone’s sincerity as a missionary, since he spent so much of his time exploring. But his own perspective was clear: “As for me, I am determined to open up Africa or perish.” He said, “The end of the exploration is the beginning of the enterprise.”

A year before he died in 1873, he wrote in his journal on his 59th birthday, “My birthday! My Jesus, my King, my Life, my All. I again dedicate my whole self to Thee.”

Shadows of Suffering

On December 4, 1857, he addressed the students of Cambridge University about “leaving the benefits of England behind.” In this address he spoke the sentence that, of all his sayings, has made the greatest impact on me. I read it many years ago as my Christian Hedonism was taking shape in the bright shadow of missionary suffering.

I knew that, if I were ever to see Christian joy the way the Bible sees it, I would have to do my ministry in the joyful shadow of those who suffered as they spread the gospel. These are the servants whose testimonies can bear the weight of scoffers who say the New Testament is naïve when it tells us repeatedly, “We rejoice in our sufferings” (Romans 5:3; Matthew 5:10–12; Luke 6:22–23; Acts 5:41; 2 Corinthians 12:9; Philippians 2:17; James 1:2–3).

Here is what Livingstone said to the Cambridge students. It’s the last sentence that captured me.

For my own part, I have never ceased to rejoice that God has appointed me to such an office. People talk of the sacrifice I have made in spending so much of my life in Africa. . . . Is that a sacrifice which brings its own blest reward in healthful activity, the consciousness of doing good, peace of mind, and a bright hope of a glorious destiny hereafter? Away with the word in such a view, and with such a thought! It is emphatically no sacrifice. Say rather it is a privilege. Anxiety, sickness, suffering, or danger, now and then, with a foregoing of the common conveniences and charities of this life, may make us pause, and cause the spirit to waver, and the soul to sink; but let this only be for a moment. All these are nothing when compared with the glory which shall be revealed in and for us. I never made a sacrifice. (Perspectives on the World Christian Movement, 1981, 259)

Is that a biblical thing to say? “I never made a sacrifice.” Yes, if we listen carefully to what he says and then turn to the words of Paul in Philippians 3 and the words of Jesus in Mark 10.

All I Once Thought Loss

Livingstone did not hide the painful experiences of “anxiety, sickness, suffering, and danger.” Most people would consider those sacrifices. But then he explained that he was speaking comparatively. “All these are nothing when compared with the glory which shall be revealed in and for us.” They are “nothing” — no sacrifice — by comparison!

He is speaking the way Paul does in Philippians 3:8: “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” The worth of knowing Jesus is so great that by comparison all else is as if lost.

In Mark 10 the rich young man turns away from following Jesus because “he had great possessions” (Mark 10:22). Peter realizes that Jesus calls for radical “sacrifice.” “Any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:33). This is why “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” (Mark 10:25).

Christian Obedience as Gain

In response to Jesus, Peter announces that he and the other disciples have made the necessary sacrifice: “See, we have left everything and followed you” (Mark 10:28). I wish I knew his tone of voice when he said this. Was there a tinge of boasting? Was there a tinge of self-pity — the flip side of boasting?

However that may be, Jesus certainly did not approve of any such boasting or self-pity. In fact, he did exactly what David Livingstone and Paul did. He showed that the so-called sacrifice that Peter and the others had made was not really a sacrifice. Here’s what Jesus said to Peter and the others who had “left everything”:

Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life. (Mark 10:29–30)

I cannot escape the impression that this is a rebuke.

Peter, you speak of what you have left behind in order to follow me! Really? No, Peter, what you have left behind is as nothing compared to what you gain in following me! Don’t you see, Peter, that if you think of Christian obedience in terms of loss, rather than gain, you dishonor me?

I did not call you to me because I am poor and need your sacrifices. I called you to me because I am all-powerful and all-wise, and I own everything in the universe. I have called you into my family as fellow heirs of all I have (1 Corinthians 3:21–23), and I am giving you eternal life — eternal joy with me in the presence of my Father.

No, Peter, you have not made a sacrifice to follow me. Not any more than if you sold your house to buy a field of hidden gold, or sold your fishing boat to buy the finest hidden pearl.

In the bright shadow of David Livingstone’s suffering, I could see the point of Jesus’s words more readily — “Following me, you do not make a sacrifice.”

Hudson Taylor

Whether David Livingstone was the first suffering missionary to use these words — “I never made a sacrifice” — I don’t know. But what I do know is that the words show up, more or less, again and again after 1857 in the stories of other missionaries.

For example, Hudson Taylor, who founded the China Inland Mission in 1865, used these very words to describe his own experience. In Hudson Taylor’s Spiritual Secret, Taylor’s son, Howard, and daughter-in-law, Geraldine, write,

“I never made a sacrifice,” said Hudson Taylor in later years, looking back over a life in which that element was certainly not lacking. But what he said was true, for the compensations were so real and lasting that he came to see that giving up is inevitably receiving, when one is dealing heart to heart with God.

Taylor’s Daughter-in-Law

Later, when Joy Guinness wrote the biography of Geraldine Taylor, she described how Geraldine at first thought missionaries who talked like this were exaggerating. But her own experience proved it to be true:

But now I know that such words are wholly true. Talk of sacrifice, this is no sacrifice! There is no such word to the Christian. . . . Count it all joy — all joy!

After a riot, when our lives had been saved by a miracle, when we were sitting bruised and bleeding amidst the ruins of our home, in that hour, believe me, heaven itself was opened to us, and we tasted then and afterwards a joy so marvelous that I scarcely like to speak about it here, as we realized that we had been permitted to suffer something for Christ’s sake. . . . No words can tell you the joy which filled our hearts. We have never known anything like it since, and we would not miss that experience out of our lives for all that you could give us. (Mrs. Howard Taylor: Her Web of Time)

Samuel Zwemer

I give one more example from this lineage who know from experience that following Jesus is “no sacrifice.” Samuel Zwemer was born in 1867 and spent his life in the cause of reaching Muslims in the Middle East for Christ. Along with all their other hardships, in 1904 in Bahrein, in the space of eight days, he and his wife Amy lost both their daughters, Ruth, age 4, and Katharina, age 7.

On their graves are inscribed, “Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive riches.”

Zwemer’s biographer writes,

Yet, in spite of all the opposition and the small outward results that were apparent, in spite of the sacrifice of life and the intense heat and fever and loneliness, Zwemer could exclaim as he looked back fifty years later, “But the sheer joy of it all comes back. . . . How gladly would I do it all over again in some unoccupied seaport of Western Arabia.” (J. Christy Wilson, Apostle to Islam)

Of course, this lineage continues in our own day where Christians suffer. Three years ago, Noël and I watched a set of documentaries called The Cross: Jesus in China. The first three parts tell the story of suffering and triumph-in-suffering in the Chinese church. The overwhelming theme pervading them all is Joy, Joy, Joy. And those who suffered longest often speak the most sweetly about the satisfying preciousness of Christ now, and the hope of pleasures forevermore.

His Call and Question

So, on this birthday of David Livingstone, may the risen Leader of the greatest movement in the history of the world make us respond with joy to the explorer’s radical call and radical question:

“If you have men who will only come if they know there is a good road, I don’t want them. I want men who will come if there is no road at all.”

“If a commission by an earthly king is considered an honor, how can a commission by a Heavenly King be considered a sacrifice?”