Imagine that you receive a word from a trustworthy prophet. It begins hopefully enough: “You will live long and die in peace, and your name will be remembered for centuries.” But then comes a turn: “A few generations after you die, devastation will visit your family and your church. Your descendants will lie in ruins.” How might you respond?
In an individualistic society like ours, whose generational vision has grown dim, many may indulge the same thought that passed through King Hezekiah’s heart when he received a similar prophecy. “Hear the word of the Lord,” the prophet Isaiah told the king. One day, the treasures of Israel will adorn the palace of Babylon — and some of your sons will serve, castrated, their captors’ king. Your throne, Hezekiah, will belong to your family no more. The prophecy placed the king on a thin threshold between a lost past and a mutilated future (2 Kings 20:16–18). For now, however, he was safe.
We might expect sackcloth and ashes, confession and earnest prayer — the same kind of desperation Hezekiah had showed before (2 Kings 19:14–19). Instead, we hear a sigh of relief: “Why not,” the king asks himself, “if there will be peace and security in my days?” (2 Kings 20:19). Dead men don’t feel pain. Why worry about an army marching over your grave?
The world today knows many such leaders, who live for their own passing lives with little care for the generations to come. Our families and churches, however, desperately need leaders who will live for the welfare of days they’ll never see.
No doubt, the individualistic air we breathe in the West reminds us of some important truths. God knit together every person uniquely (Psalm 139:13). We must respond, each one of us, to the preaching of the gospel (Romans 10:9). We will stand as individuals “before the judgment seat of Christ” (2 Corinthians 5:10).
“Our families and churches desperately need leaders who will live for the welfare of days they’ll never see.”
Yet that same individualistic air can have a way of choking precious virtues, virtues that would have been assumed in biblical societies (despite the occasional Hezekiah). Biblical saints saw themselves as branches on a tree whose roots stretched farther than memory and whose limbs would keep growing long after they were gone. They walked, self-consciously, in the land between “our fathers” (Psalm 78:3) and “the children yet unborn” (Psalm 78:6). And at their best, they lived to pass on the godly legacy of their parents to descendants they would never meet (Psalm 78:5–7).
We, however, tutored by individualistic impulses, so often act like plants whose roots begin at our birth and whose fruit will die when we will. In both family and church, we struggle to live in light of a future we won’t personally experience.
In the family, many in our generation need to be convinced that kids, especially several kids, are worth the present cost. Under our breath, we ask questions prior generations rarely would have. Why give our twenties and thirties — decades of peak energy and strength — to rocking sleepless infants and pushing tricycles? Why build a family when we could build a career — or take on dependents when we could travel the continents? Generational legacies are buried, increasingly it seems, beneath today’s priorities.
In the church, too, we may subconsciously wonder if the benefits of patient, next-generation discipleship really outweigh the costs. Yes, we could train others to teach — but then we wouldn’t teach as much. Yes, we could find our Peter, James, and John and devote our days to discipling them — but only by devoting less time to our own discipleship. Yes, we could give others leadership and a platform — but only at the expense of our own.
Sometimes, this prizing of me today over them tomorrow happens innocently, with the best of intentions. Other times, the individualism around us becomes an excuse for the selfishness within us, and we forgo a Christlike legacy for the sake of present comfort, freedom, or power. Personally, I fear I have been shaped much by this Hezekiah spirit. I need another leader to follow.
Living for a Legacy
We need not scour the Scriptures to find men and women free from Hezekiah Syndrome. The Bible is filled with fathers and mothers, prophets and pastors who aimed to build a legacy that would outlive their little lives and names. Such leaders cared greatly about whether grass or thorns grew over their graves — about whether, long after they left the land of the living, the sun shone upon a world better off because of them.
Consider Abraham, for whom one hundred years well lived was not enough. He yearned for a son — and, beyond him, the promise of offspring greater than the stars, more numerous than the sand (Genesis 15:1–6). We call him father Abraham, and rightly so, for faith-filled fatherhood was his greatest gift to the world.
Consider Moses, who on the eve of his death implored God to “appoint a man over the congregation” so that the people “may not be as sheep that have no shepherd” (Numbers 27:16–17). The thought of a leaderless nation, vulnerable and lost, tore at the dying prophet’s heart.
Consider Rebekah and Ruth, Hannah and Elizabeth, mothers who ached and prayed for children to carry on the name of Israel. They gave their best years and their very bodies to bearing sons and daughters who would, in turn, make way for the one who would crush the serpent’s head (Genesis 3:15).
Consider Paul, that childless apostle who nevertheless fathered many (1 Corinthians 4:15), and who could not separate his heavenly crown from the children God had given him (1 Thessalonians 2:11, 19–20). Under the shadow of martyrdom, he rejoiced at the thought of being poured out for their faith (Philippians 2:17).
Or consider Jesus, the God-man himself, whose soul was satisfied, even on the cross, by the prospect of “many . . . accounted righteous” (Isaiah 53:11). If ever there were a life worth saving, an influence worth protecting, or a platform worth preserving, it was his. Yet these he gladly laid down to bring “many sons to glory” (Hebrews 2:10).
Such saints lived and died for “the children yet unborn” (Psalm 78:6). They could not meet those children yet; they would never embrace them in this present age. But they built legacies as men of old built cathedrals: looking beyond the boundaries of their life, they smiled at the beauty their grandchildren would enjoy.
Leaders Lost and Found
Perhaps we see clearly all we would lose by living for such a legacy — and we would indeed lose much. Pastors who devote themselves to appointing more elders lose much time and, if successful, a degree of personal power over the church. Spiritual fathers and mothers who disciple younger Christians lose energy they could devote to their own spiritual growth — or just to relaxing more. Physical fathers and mothers who add more children lose their free time precisely when they have the most strength to enjoy it; they may also lose career opportunities that will never return.
But oh, how much they gain in the losing. In the long term, of course, they gain something that will outlive them. They bear children, spiritual and physical, to bless the world. They plant fields that will feed generations.
Even in the short term, however, such leaders gain far more than they give up. Simply consider how living for a legacy brought the best out of biblical saints. We have Paul’s brilliant epistles only because this father in Christ burned for the welfare of his spiritual children. We read of Hannah’s fervency and faith only because she longed for a son who would build up her people. And two thousand years later, men and angels still stand — and will forever stand — in awe of Jesus, who taught and healed and died and rose for the children his Father had given him (Hebrews 2:13). The most beautiful life ever lived is the one he laid down for future generations.
“‘It is more blessed to give than to receive’ — in part because we find ourselves in the giving.”
“It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35) — in part because we find ourselves in the giving. So, though modern-day Hezekiahs may have short-term comfort on a short-term timeline, they do not have themselves. They are a ghost of who they could be. For God made women to have full wombs and tired arms; he made men to carry daughters on their backs and wrestle sons on the floor. And beyond the home, he made leaders to expend their best energy, to flex their strongest muscles, to take the beauty of their youth and the vigor of their best days and stack them as so many stones that raise a staircase for others.
Futures Dearer Than Our Own
If today we have any stability in life, and any maturity in Christ, we can likely trace these blessings to mothers and fathers, pastors and others who counted our futures dearer than their own. Personally, I can’t separate who I am today from a few key people — certainly my father and mother, and then, alongside them, a college-ministry leader who gave many hours to developing a once-insecure, inconspicuous young man.
As a pastor with a young family, he wasn’t searching for ways to fill his time, much less with teenagers and twentysomethings who could offer little to him personally. But fill his time with me he did. And slowly I grew.
We live far apart today, his massive investment in me no longer a direct benefit to his ministry. But the legacy of his leadership lives on in my family, my friendships, my church. When I left Colorado for Minnesota, I left far better for having known him.
Now as a father and pastor myself, his example walks with me, reminding me that we cannot stay here long. Our names will soon be forgotten, our little lives gone with the grass. But we can live now so that we leave a Christlike legacy, one that may bear fruit far beyond us, even into eternity.