My aim tonight is to persuade you of the truth — or at least open you to the truth — that it is better to lose your life than to waste it. When I spoke at Passion One Day in 2000, I looked out on that sea of students and said, “I could be your father.” My oldest grandchild just started college this fall. So now I look out at you and say, “I could be your grandfather,” which means that I share another generation’s worth of weight inside when I say I don’t want you to waste your life.
Time to Say Goodbye
Let’s look at Acts 20 together. Perhaps you know what the situation is in this text, but maybe not. Paul had spent three years in Ephesus (on the west coast of today’s Greece), teaching and building up the church. You see this at the end of the chapter (verse 31): “For three years I did not cease night or day to admonish every one with tears.” He was so successful in this ministry that according to Acts 19:10, “all the residents of Asia heard the word of the Lord, both Jews and Greeks.” Amazing.
“My aim is to persuade you of the truth that it is better to lose your life than to waste it.”
He left Ephesus and spent the winter in Corinth in Greece, across the Aegean Sea. Now, he is on his way to Jerusalem, hurrying to get back by Pentecost, probably in the year AD 56. But he wants one more contact with the leaders of the church of Ephesus. So, when his boat puts in at Miletus some twenty miles south of Ephesus, he sends for the elders of the church. In Acts 20:18–35 he gives them his last words. It is very moving. The encounter ends like this:
There was much weeping on the part of all; they embraced Paul and kissed him, being sorrowful most of all because of the word he had spoken, that they would not see his face again. And they accompanied him to the ship. (Acts 20:37–38)
When I see a Christian pastor or missionary taking leave of his people, or a father taking leave of his family for the last time, I listen very carefully. Because I know, I’m going to hear words not only from the heart, but also words that probably sum up: What has my life been about? What has this ministry been for? What’s the point of it all?
Paul’s Last Will and Testament
So what we have here in Acts 20:18–35 is a kind of last will and testament of Paul, the great apostle of Jesus Christ, to a church where he seems to have worked longer than anywhere else.
This is a very personal word from Paul about his deepest convictions — about what it means to follow Jesus Christ. And I have to admit that virtually every time I circle back to these words (especially verses 22–25), they make me want to renounce everything and follow Jesus (Luke 14:33). These radical words of Paul make chills of admiration and longing go up and down my back. They make me want to be utterly out of step with my secular age and the typical expression of the “American Dream” — especially for a 71 year old. This is just a more immediately available version of the dream held out to 22 year olds. Paul’s words make me want to be utterly abandoned to the cause of Christ in this world — no matter what.
Press on for the Prize
I would like you to look with me at verses 22–25, with a special focus on verse 24:
And now, behold, I am going to Jerusalem, constrained by the Spirit, not knowing what will happen to me there, except that the Holy Spirit testifies to me in every city that imprisonment and afflictions await me. But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God. And now, behold, I know that none of you among whom I have gone about proclaiming the kingdom will see my face again. (Acts 20:22–25)
“I want to be utterly abandoned to the cause of Christ in this world — no matter what.”
My summary of these four verses for you is this: better to lose your life than waste it. Listen again to verse 24 and see if you agree that this is a fair summary of the verse: “I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God.”
I don’t count my life of any value, or as precious to myself — except for one thing. I have been given a race to run and ministry to perform; namely, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God. This ministry is like a race that I am running. There is a racecourse. And I am running on it. This is why I live. This is what my life means. Finish the race, fulfill the ministry. Don’t stop. Don’t leave the course. Don’t go backward. If you do, your life is wasted.
So when he says, “I do not count my life of any value but for this one thing,” isn’t he saying, “Better to be faithful and die than unfaithful and live”? Or, “Better to lose your life than to waste it”? My goal is not to stay alive. My goal is to stay on course.
The Unwasted Life
Paul will say this again from prison in Rome in Philippians 3:8:
I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ.
One of those things that Paul counted as rubbish was staying alive and living eighty years, and making eighty million dollars, and never having a sick day — while running through the meadows off the racecourse toward the cliff. That kind of success, he says, is rubbish. Better to lose your life than waste it.
He had read it in Psalm 63:3, “Your steadfast love [O Lord] is better than life.” There is a path of life that leads to the everlasting enjoyment of the steadfast love of God. Better to lose your life than go off of that path. “I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God.”
Five Pictures of What It Looks Like to Lose Your Life
So, what I would like to do with you this evening is try to answer two questions using these verses as the basis for the answers: (1) What is it like to have the mind-set, “It is better to lose your life than waste it”? and (2) Why is it better to lose your life than to waste it?
First, what is it like to have the mind-set: “Better to lose your life than waste it”?
1. It is like being mastered by a Person and a power not your own.
And now, behold, I am going to Jerusalem, constrained [literally bound] by the Spirit, not knowing what will happen to me there. (Acts 20:22)
A Christian who says, “Better to lose my life than to waste it” and who means it for Jesus’s sake is not speaking in his own power. He is constrained by the Spirit. This is how we all got started on this race when we were dead in our sins. How did you come to say from your heart, “Jesus is Lord”? Paul tells us how we came to say that in 1 Corinthians 12:3: “No one speaking in the Spirit of God ever says ‘Jesus is accursed!’ and no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except in the Holy Spirit.” You would never have said, “Jesus is Lord” unless constrained by the Holy Spirit, overcoming all your fears and all your rebellion. And no Christian ever says, “Better to lose my life than waste it,” except by the Holy Spirit. This is the evidence that he is in you.
That’s the first answer to the question: What is it like to have the mind-set: “Better to lose your life than waste it”? It is like being mastered by a Person and a power not your own. This is the mind-set of the Spirit, not the flesh (Romans 8:5–8). God’s Spirit has a hold of you. And your new passion is a life utterly devoted to God’s racecourse, God’s ministry plan.
2. It is being content not to know what tomorrow will bring.
Keep reading in verse 22:
And now, behold, I am going to Jerusalem, constrained by the Spirit, not knowing what will happen to me there.
The unwasted life that looks death in the face and says, “You are no threat to me — better to die than waste my life,” does not need to know what tomorrow may bring.
Every racecourse that God appoints for his children to run disappears over the hill called the future. Every ministry takes a turn around the corner called future and disappears into the unknown. Therefore, the unwasted life is always lived one step from the unknown. This is what faith is for. “By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going” (Hebrews 11:8). That’s what faith does.
“I will not live for the American Dream, not as a college student, or as a mid-lifer or as a seventy-something.”
Better to lose your life on the racecourse of faith than to say, “I’ve got to know what’s coming!” You don’t. And you never will. But you do know that he will be there with you and for you (Matthew 28:20; Romans 8:31).
When I preached on Hebrews 11:8 in 1997, there was a young student in the audience wrestling with whether to take his family into the unknown dangers of Bible translation. One of his relatives had said the night before the Sunday when I preached, “You’re crazy if you take these little children overseas like that!” He told me later, “At one point during the message you were talking about Abraham’s going out not knowing where he is going, and you looked right at me, and shouted, ‘That’s crazy! Yes, and absolutely glorious.’” Better to lose your life than to miss that racecourse. He has been in Thailand with his family since he finished his training.
So, the second answer to the question, What is it like to have the mind-set: “Better to lose your life than waste it”? It is being content in faith not to know in detail what tomorrow will bring. Verse 22: “I am going to Jerusalem, constrained by the Spirit, not knowing what will happen to me there.”
3. It is the courage not to stop running when the racecourse leads through suffering.
In the next verse (Acts 20:23), however, Paul goes on to say that there is one thing he does know about his future. He does not know what will happen to him “except that the Holy Spirit testifies to me in every city that imprisonment and afflictions await me.”
It’s not just that the racecourse disappears over the hill. The Christian racecourse is designed by God to lead through pain.
Paul said to all his churches according to Acts 14:22, “Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.” There is one path to heaven, and that is the way it goes.
He wrote to Timothy in 2 Timothy 3:12, “Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.”
Jesus said in Matthew 10:25, “If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household.”
Then, for Paul, the Holy Spirit got even more specific: “The Holy Spirit testifies to me in every city that imprisonment and afflictions await me.” So, whether it is imprisonment or not for you, it will be something. The racecourse of the Christian life always leads through suffering.
If you can honestly say with Paul “Better to lose my life than waste it,” it will mean not only that you can be content with uncertainty about tomorrow, but you can also be content with the certainty that some of your tomorrows are going to hurt. So “Better to lose your life than waste it” also means, “Better to live life through suffering than to waste it.”
“Some of your tomorrows are going to hurt, but it’s better to live life through suffering than to waste it.”
May I say a word to you women? My experience of over forty years of recruiting and shepherding young men and women for radical, risk-taking ministry — say, in reaching unreached peoples (but not only missions) — has taught me that often, or perhaps more often, in marriage (or as singles) the woman is more ready for the challenge of missions, more eager, and less risk-averse than the man.
I don’t say that to puff you up. I say it lest any of you think you get a pass on courage. I say it to direct your attention to the word of God. Proverbs 31:25: “Strength and dignity are her clothing, and she laughs at the time to come.” The time to come, with all its uncertainty, and all its certain afflictions — she laughs.
And do you recall what Peter in his first letter says when he ponders these Old Testament women of faith? He says,
This is how the holy women who hoped in God used to adorn themselves, by submitting to their own husbands, as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord. And you are her children, if you do good and do not fear anything that is frightening. (1 Peter 3:5–6)
You are a daughter of Sarah (and yes, I could add, men, you are sons of Abraham) “if you do good and do not fear anything that is frightening.” Better to lose your life than waste it means being women and men of courage who do not stop running the race when the racecourse leads through suffering.
4. It is living to make much of the greatness and the glory of the grace of God in Jesus Christ as our supreme treasure.
I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God. (Acts 20:24)
We don’t all have the same form of ministry. But we do all have the same essential goal: to magnify the glory and the greatness of the grace of God in Jesus Christ. This is the racecourse all Christians are running. The turns and the terrain are different. The aim is the same.
Paul said in Ephesians 1:5–6: “God predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of the glory of his grace.” That is the ultimate meaning of life — the meaning of the race — to live to make much of the glory of the grace of God. That is the unwasted life.
Therefore, a wasted life is a life that leaves the racecourse of living to magnify the glory of the grace of God. Better to lose your life than to waste it like that.
5. I will not live for the American Dream, neither as a college student, nor as a mid-lifer nor as a seventy-something. I am going to Jerusalem.
And now, behold, I am going to Jerusalem. (Acts 20:22)
“But Paul, you’re getting old. How ’bout a little cottage on the Aegean Sea? You’ve already done more in your ministry than most people could do in five lifetimes. It’s time to rest. Let the last twenty years of your life be travel and golf, shuffleboard and putzing around the garage and digging in the garden. Let Timothy have a chance. He’s young. Don’t go to Jerusalem. Agabus the prophet has told you, they are going to bind your hands and feet and hand you over to the Gentiles (Acts 21:11). And whatever you do, don’t go to Rome. And get out of your head the crazy plan of going to Spain at your age. You could get yourself killed. It isn’t American! It’s not the American Dream of ‘the sunset years.’”
“The Christian life is not moving toward night, but toward noon. There are no sunset years for the Christian.”
You might wonder why I would mention the tragic waste of the so-called sunset years to a crowd of college students. It’s because, as I said at One Day in 2000, they are spending billions of dollars to make the wasting of the end of your earthly life look so attractive you will build your whole career around it.
Don’t misunderstand. I am just fine with you retiring from your well-paying job at age 55 or 62 or 67 and giving yourself for the next twenty years to a ministry that you only dreamed about and never had time for. There is no such thing as retirement from ministry in the Bible.
But the path of the righteous is like the light of dawn,
which shines brighter and brighter until full day. (Proverbs 4:18)
The Christian life is not moving toward night, but toward noon. There are no sunset years for the Christian.
Till you die, there is a race to be run and a ministry to be finished. Or, if not, there is a life to be wasted. And it is better to lose your life than to waste it.
Why Live for More Than Yourself?
One last question: Why should we embrace this maxim — this watchword over our lives — Better to lose your life than to waste it?
The reason is this: It is better to lose your life than to waste it because, when you lose it, while not wasting it, you don’t lose it. You gain it. And you gain it crowned. The race has been won.
Remember, in verse 24, Paul speaks of finishing his course. “I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course.” There is only one other place where Paul speaks like this with these words (2 Timothy 4:7–8):
I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing.
“The crown of righteousness will be put on your head by the King of kings.”
Better to lose your life than to waste it because, when you lose it, while not wasting it, you get the crown. Everybody who finishes the unwasted life, whether at 22 or 82, wins the crown. And this crown of righteousness will be put on your head by the King of kings. You will share his righteousness. Share his rule. Share his glory. “This light momentary affliction is preparing [or working] for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison” (2 Corinthians 4:17).
You will look back and say, after a thousand temptations, I am so glad — so thankful — I lost my life while I was not wasting it.
Don’t Waste Your Life
To sum it up: if the mind-set that says better to lose your life than to waste it means
- being under the control of a power not your own — of the Holy Spirit,
- and being courageous in the face of uncertainty,
- and overcoming fear when the course runs through suffering,
- and living to make much of the glory of the grace of God in Christ as our supreme treasure,
- and putting the pedal to the metal of ministry between the ages of sixty and eighty — and living in sync with that dream between twenty and sixty,
and if losing your life while not wasting it means you don’t lose it — but gain it with a crown of righteousness — then my simple message to you is: don’t waste your life because it’s better to lose your life than to waste it.