Your Life Force
Your Life Force
I found a text the other day that describes stages of success:
At age 4, success is not peeing in your pants.
At age 12, success is having friends.
At age 16, success is having a driver's license.
At age 25, success is having sex when married.
At age 35, success is having money.
At age 50, success is having money.
At age 60, success is having sex when married.
At age 70, success is having a driver's license.
At age 75, success is having friends.
At age 80, success is not peeing in your pants.
This puts life in perspective, doesn't it? But what defines successful life? What does it mean for a life to have force, to have impact? What does it mean for a life to make a difference, to be significant, and to leave a mark for all of eternity? What gives your life force, strength, energy, power, and intensity?
Let's start by looking at the most forceful life in all of history: the life of Christ.
Few people deny that Christ's life was the most consequential in all of human history in terms of shaping people's thoughts and actions. What made his life so profound? The answer may surprise you. Let me take you back to a scene where Jesus revealed what made his life so radically different.
Jesus handpicked 12 guys to be by his side, to be mentored and prepared for the unleashing of his revolution on the planet through the building of his church. And it was a rush. Jesus spoke before thousands, worked miracles, and called great numbers to his side. But these 12 guys were in the inner circle. So guess what they started to do?
One day, as they walked along the road to where they would be staying for the night, they started whispering about who was going to be the greatest among them: Who is going to be the biggest, best, and most well-known? Who will go the furthest? Who will be the most successful? Who will have the most life force? And how did Jesus respond to their bickering?
Listen to Mark's Gospel record:
They came to Capernaum. When he was safe at home, he asked them, "What were you discussing on the road?" The silence was deafening—they had been arguing with one another over who among them was greatest. He sat down and summoned the Twelve. 'So you want first place? Then take the last place. Be the servant of all.'" (Mark 9:33-35, The Message).
And in the next chapter, when the same issue reared its head again, Jesus told them plainly, "Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all" (Mark 10:43-44, NIV).
And then, using one of his favorite titles for himself, the Son of Man—a name that reflected both his divinity and humanity—Jesus said, "For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve others and to give his life as a ransom for many" (Mark 10:45, NLT).
The key to the greatest, most forceful, most impactful life that has ever been lived was servanthood—being last, being a slave to others. And God wants our lives to be marked by servanthood, too. God wants us to give our lives away.
Do you believe that? Do you believe moving up requires you to move down? Think about how we use the word down. Right now, we're in a down economy with a down market. If somebody screws up, it's called a downfall. If a team is on a losing streak, we say they're in a downslide. If a neighborhood is losing value, we say it's going downhill. If you get let go from your job, it's called downsizing. When you aren't doing great in life, you're down and out, or downhearted. And when you die, where do you go? Down under!
Jesus is saying that down is somehow up. Down is good and down is best. And we're supposed to get down with that? Yes, we are.
Servanthood marked the life of the person who split history in half. Jesus' life still reverberates through every culture and every civilization. He did it not by coming to be served, but to serve and to give his life away. That's what gave his life force. And it's a life we can live, a force we can experience.
Let me give you a taste of what this looks like in the life of someone who took Jesus seriously. His name was Joe. He was a businessman. We don't know all of his business dealings, but we do know that some of them involved real estate and that he was successful. He knew how to climb ladders, take advantage of opportunities, make deals, and smell the vulnerability of those in weakened financial positions. It wasn't personal—it was business.
And then he ran into Jesus, and it rocked his world. This up-is-down, down-is-up, first-must-be-last, greatest-will-be-least, servant stuff couldn't have been more alien to his thinking.
But Jesus was different than any other man he had ever met. And Jesus' words, his life, stopped Joe dead in his tracks and challenged him to think in ways he had never thought before—and most of all, act in new ways—to see if Jesus' life force could become his life force.
The impact of servant-giving
Joe's story is recorded in the Book of Acts. Let's look at the first time he tested the waters of following Jesus into a servant's life.
All the believers were united in heart and mind. And they felt that what they owned was not their own, so they shared everything they had. The apostles testified powerfully to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and God's great blessing was upon them all. There were no needy people among them, because those who owned land or houses would sell them and bring the money to the apostles to give to those in need. For instance, there was Joseph, the one the apostles nicknamed Barnabas (which means "Son of Encouragement"). He was from the tribe of Levi and came from the island of Cyprus. He sold a field he owned and brought the money to the apostles (Acts 4:32-37, NLT).
Our goal in life is to get, not give. We want to acquire, not release. We want to add, not subtract. Less isn't more; it's just less, right? But Joe sells a piece of real estate and gives away the money—no strings attached—for somebody else's gain. So was it a life force moment? Let's walk back through that scene.
It was a time of great expectation and enthusiasm in the early church. God was working, people were responding to the message, and there was great growth. But it was also a time of great anxiety and great need. How would they make it? How would they survive? Would this thing called the church, which Jesus said he came to establish, even get off the ground?
Then Joe sold his field. He established a spirit for the entire community by selflessly selling what he owned and by giving the money to the church. The church had a mission to reach people and to care for the poor. And his actions had incredible impact. He was never known as Joe again. He became Barnabas. He became known as the Great Encourager, the one who brought hope, confidence, and courage to them all.
That gift may have single-handedly ensured the survival and vibrancy of the early church. From then on, he was always referred to as Barnabas, the encourager.
What he did was so forceful, so life-changing to the entire community, that from that point on he was known for what he did. That's how much people remembered it and were impacted by it. That was the impact of following Jesus into the power of serving.
The impact of servant-time
Now let's turn to another scene from his life. This is a few chapters later in Acts 11. The news of Christ and his resurrection from the dead was spreading. People were becoming followers of Christ left and right, even in places where there was no church. One of those places was a city named Antioch. The church at Jerusalem heard that large numbers of people in Antioch had become Christ-followers and that God was doing remarkable things in their midst. The great revolution set in motion through Christ was taking hold and spreading, but it needed people to serve it, to give their lives to it. They were like a team without a coach, a group without a leader. So what did the folks in Jerusalem do?
When the church in Jerusalem got wind of this, they sent Barnabas to Antioch to check on things. As soon as he arrived, he saw that God was behind and in it all. He threw himself in with them, got behind them, urging them to stay with it the rest of their lives. He was a good man that way, enthusiastic and confident in the Holy Spirit's ways. The community grew large and strong in the Master …. [Barnabas was] there a whole year, meeting with the church and teaching a lot of people. It was in Antioch that the disciples were for the first time called Christians (Acts 11:22-26, The Message).
This passage of Scripture has always challenged me. On the surface it's simple. There was a need to encourage a new group of believers, so they sent Barnabas. And what did Barnabas do? He said yes to the need, yes to the challenge, and threw himself into it for a season of his life. He was teaching and mentoring, leading and investing, serving in any way possible. We're told he spent a year of his life doing this.
What do you do to avoid giving up even a minute of your time? Do you scan the checkout lines at the grocery store to find the shortest one? Do you eat fast food, not because it's good, or even because it's cheap, but because it's fast? Do you pull your car into another lane so you won't have to wait on a truck? Does green mean "go," and yellow mean "speed up"?How many decisions do you make simply on the basis of whether or not it will save you time? Time is everything to us.
Barnabas gave a year of his life. Why did he do it? He experienced real life force. He knew first-hand what serving through giving could do. It changed his life, and it changed the lives of others. So when the opportunity came to do more, the choice was obvious. He knew serving gave force to his life. He knew that being a servant would enable him to make the biggest difference he could possibly make. He knew that the church was the hope of the world and that service to it was everything. He took his skills and leadership abilities, and poured them into a local community of faith so that the kingdom could expand.
And was it worth it? Did it pay off? Did it add to his life force? Yes, and his service called for another name change. The impact of his service was so significant that the people in Antioch called that group of believers "Christians," which means "little Christs."
Did you know that term had never been used before that moment? Because of Barnabas's investment, people's lives were being transformed into the very likeness of Christ. So people called them Christians—little Christs. And that term has stuck around for 2,000 years. And it was because Barnabas chose to be a servant, just like Jesus.
Why we aren't servants
For most people, this is a foreign concept. It's like an entirely new language, a radically different culture, a whole new set of values. This world doesn't teach us to serve. We don't want to serve; we want to be served. Our goals are opposite of Jesus' goals. But you know what that means? It means our lives are opposite of Jesus' in terms of influence, impact, and significance.
So why do we trade a life of significance for a life of selfishness? Why is it that we will do anything but give of our resources and our time, anything but selflessly serve, even when it costs us the life we long for? There are two main reasons.
First, we don't think serving will give us the life we long for. We're afraid that if we were to give, we would lose. When it comes to serving like Barnabas did—whether it's giving money, or investing our time—we think it will cost us more than we will gain. We believe first is first, and last is last; more is more and less is less. There is no servant math.
But that's not true. This is why Jesus went over this with the disciples, time and again.
For example, one day some of his followers, like many of us, got off course. They thought they might lose something important if they actually emulated Jesus. So one of them, Peter, said to Jesus, "We have left everything to follow you!" (Mark 10:28, NIV) He's basically saying: We have done this servant thing. We've given money, we've given time, and now our butts are out here hanging in the wind. So this is worth it, right? Because everybody thinks we're idiots for being with you. Everybody thinks we've thrown away our future, sacrificed our careers. So all this is going to be best, right?
The story continues: "'I tell you the truth,' Jesus said to them, 'no one who has left home or wife or brothers or parents or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age … and in the age to come, eternal life.'" (Mark 10:29-30, NIV).
Jesus said: I know it's a new math, a new way of thinking. It's not of this world. But it is of heaven.
Was Jesus saying there wouldn't be sacrifice involved? No. Was he saying you wouldn't sacrifice money or time? No. Was he saying serving is easy? No, but he was saying that serving is worth it. What will come about in your life as a result is 100 times more than whatever you were doing before.
But people don't believe it, so they don't serve. And so they don't act on it. This is why their lives don't have force. This is one reason why I am gripped by the story of Barnabas. Describing his decision to serve, the Bible says, "[Barnabas was] confident in the Holy Spirit's ways" (Acts 11:24, The Message). Isn't that a great way of putting it? Barnabas trusted the new math.
But there's another reason why people don't follow Jesus into a life of service. They don't see their lives, and this world, the way they should. They don't get the big picture. They don't see the real purpose of their lives. They miss what matters most.
Many people grieved this past week over the loss of 30 Navy SEALS in Afghanistan. Their helicopter was shot down on a mission to protect other soldiers, and they were killed. Their bodies were brought to Dover Air Force Base. It was the deadliest day in that ten-year conflict. It's generated a lot of talk: should we be in Afghanistan or not?
But what struck me more than anything were the responses from the families of those 30 men. The widows, mothers, father, and loved ones of these soldiers all gave the same response. They all believed these men died serving a greater cause.
These young men saw how their lives fit into the larger picture, into the conflict between good and evil, right and wrong. They knew their lives played a part in the survival of our republic, our freedom. Because they saw the situation so clearly, they were more than willing to give their lives. The sheep may not always see clearly, but the sheepdogs do. And so do the wolves.
Friends, you will never give yourself to something bigger than yourself if you only see yourself. And you will certainly never live the life Jesus lived if you don't see what's going on in this world. But those who have his life force do.
This was clear for the apostle Paul. He says,
God is strong, and he wants you strong. So take everything the Master has set out for you, well-made weapons of the best materials. And put them to use so you will be able to stand up to everything the Devil throws your way. This is no afternoon athletic contest that we'll walk away from and forget about in a couple of hours. This is for keeps, a life-or-death fight to the finish against the Devil and all his angels (Eph. 6:10-12, The Message).
Do you buy that? If not, you will never give your life away.
We all want a life that makes a difference. We all want a life of significance. It comes one way: the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life away. That's the challenge for all of us. What will you do with your life?
I want to see every Christian serving somehow, somewhere, for the cause of Christ. The cause is too great, the day is too dark, and time is too short to have anyone on the sidelines.
Barnabas was a great man. People still talk about him today. But notice what we're talking about. We're not talking about the money he made in real estate or business, but the money he gave away. We're not talking about the people he climbed over or through to get to the top, but the people he helped. We're not talking about the companies he built, but the communities of people he served.
We're not talking about his success, but his significance. That's what Jesus wants people to talk about when they think of you.
James Emery White is founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, and is a consulting editor to Leadership Journal. He is author of Serious Times and A Search for the Spiritual, and blogs at churchandculture.org.