A listener named Bruce writes in: “Dear Pastor John, I haven’t read your book Don’t Waste Your Life. The title is convicting enough. The fact is that I have already wasted it, or at least it feels that way. For decades I tried a variety of different ‘careers.’ None of them worked. I tried starting my own business for over 20 years while my wife worked. I earned a PhD, moved to a country where I didn’t speak the language (for my wife’s job) and had a breakdown. Several years later, my wife and I separated. I’m now 64, I live in a small mobile home, and I do work that any 18-year-old could do (those are my boss’s words). The company is good to me, my boss is a Christian, and I can earn a living, but each day feels like nothing more than an exercise in waking up in the morning, getting through the day, and going to bed at night. What advice can you give to someone who has already wasted his life?”
Bruce, as I paused to pray over this question when I first heard it, I believe the Lord brought five things to my mind for you that I hope will be of encouragement — and, of course, I don’t know you and I don’t even know if you are a Christian. But I have written and done many podcasts on the dynamics of the spiritual life which maybe you do or you don’t have. So I am just going to assume the best, okay? I am going to assume you are a Christian and that you have really struggled to be a Christian over these years. So that is my big assumption. Now here are my five gifts.
1. Find Evidences of Grace
There have been evidences of grace in your life over the past decades. There have been. And these are important for three reasons, these evidences of grace. One is that they really are evidences that you belong to Jesus. They are the sorts of things you wouldn’t have done if you weren’t a Christian — if you were a merely natural man rather than spiritual, indwelt by the Holy Spirit. Second, they will be acknowledged by the Lord on the last day, these evidences of grace to your joy. And third, as pebbles dropped in the pond of history, they didn’t fall in vain. God turned every one of those evidences of grace in your life. He turned every one of them and, I would even add, your failures for his own wise purposes. All of that to say: Beware of overstating the waste of the past. You might find yourself sounding humble but, in fact, dishonoring grace.
2. Calculate the Future
The thief on the cross wasted his entire life except for the last few hours. He repented, and Christ promised him that in a few hours he would be with him in paradise (Luke 23:43). This thief will face a judgment according to works like all of us. And the only good works that he will have to offer will be the good works of the last three hours, or however many it was, on the cross — the time between his conversion and his death.
“Don’t waste the rest of your life by fretting over the past. God has a new dream for you.”
Those good works would include, for example, the rebuke that he gave to the other thief. “We deserve this. He doesn’t. Why don’t you wake up?” (see Luke 23:40–41). That is a good work. That is a beautiful act. In other words, there will not be very many works in this man’s life to commend. Everything he did up to that point was sin because he didn’t do it from faith (Romans 14:23). But this handful of works that he did on the cross before he died will be enough to give evidence that he was born again and welcome.
Now the reason I mention that for you is not because any of us would want to be content with a handful of good deeds, but that you are 64-years-old. Perhaps you have, if you average, fifteen years of life in front of you. And if my math is correct, you may have 75,000 more hours to do good deeds than the thief on the cross did. Now that is absolutely stunning. In other words, there is a huge segment of your life in front of you. And I don’t say “huge” compared to 64. I know it is small compared to 64. I say “huge” compared to three hours on the cross or millions of people, millions upon millions of people, who have less life to live than you do. It is incalculable what can be achieved for Jesus in fifteen years. Jesus served publicly for three years.
3. Forget the Past
So don’t waste the rest of your life by fretting over the past. God has a new dream for you that is not wasteful. Remember what the apostle Paul said in Philippians 3:13–14: “Forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” Surely the reason he said, “forgetting what lies behind” is because the past regularly functions for us as a ball and chain around our feet, either because we failed and we feel hopeless, or because we succeeded and feel proud. Better to forget the past in that way and dream a new dream.
4. Focus on the How, Not the What
In dreaming your new dream for your life, keep in front of you this truth: How you do what you do is vastly more important in the eyes of God than what you do. I understand — I mean, I think I can understand — that having a PhD and doing what any 18-year-old can do probably feels like bad stewardship or failure. But remember, there are thousands of people with PhDs working in universities and displeasing the Lord God almighty more than millions of teenagers who are walking by the Holy Spirit. It is not where you work or what you do that pleases the Lord. It is whether you live by the Spirit, whether you walk by faith, whether you pursue holiness, whether you love people, whether you grow in grace, whether Christ is more precious to you than anything.
“How you do what you do is vastly more important in the eyes of God than what you do.”
So Bruce, when I say, “Dream a new dream,” I don’t know whether the Lord means for you to have a new job. And I don’t care very much. Sorry. But I care enormously that you do what your hand finds to do in the name of the Lord Jesus in love for people for the glory of God flat-out for fifteen years. That is what I care about.
5. Surround Yourself
And finally, Bruce, gather around you a few friends who love Christ and pour out your heart to them about your sense of failure and ask them to join you in praying earnestly and expectantly that God will open a new chapter of usefulness for you, for joy, for worship, for a new humility that is willing to acknowledge (like you do all the failures of the past) a simplicity in the present and a blood-bought hope for the future. So God bless you, Bruce. I will be eager to hear, if I live long enough, how God has made your last chapter the best. I am surely (at 70) praying mine will be.