Twenty years ago, John Piper gave a sermon at a Passion Conference that has become famous for his “seashell illustration,” which went something like this: Piper pulled out a page from Reader’s Digest and read, “Bob and Penny took early retirement from their jobs in the Northeast five years ago when he was 59 and she was 51. Now they live in Punta Gorda, Florida, where they cruise on their 30-foot trawler, play softball, and collect shells.” Then he said, “The American Dream: come to the end of your life—your one and only life—and let the last great work before you give an account to your Creator be, ‘I collected shells. See my shells.’ That is a tragedy. People today are spending billions of dollars to persuade you to embrace that tragic dream. Today I’m here to plead with you: don’t buy it. Don’t waste your life.”
I had just returned from serving for two years as a missionary in Southeast Asia when I heard that sermon. I was trying to figure out what God wanted with the rest of my life. I could feel the allures of comfort, stability, and the American Dream calling my name. Piper’s message hit my heart like a lightning bolt.
Don’t waste your life.
The phrase still haunts me.
The idea is simple: Eternity is real. The gospel is true. People’s souls matter. Your life counts. Don’t waste it.
It has been two decades since Piper issued that fateful challenge. I wrote this book because it’s time for a new generation of Christians to hear it—and to say to God, “Here am I, Lord, send me.” To consider what Jesus’ promises about the gospel and his warnings about eternity mean for how we order our lives.
I wrote this book for everyone who has ever sensed, “There must be something more out there.”
Our current generation—and I am using “our” loosely here; really I mean folks much younger than me—is a restless one. They have experienced greater technological advance and wealth acquisition than any generation in history, but still they know something’s not right.
It reminds me of an interview I saw a few years back with quarterback Tom Brady. After winning his third Super Bowl, he was asked by Steve Kroft in an interview on 60 Minutes: “This whole upward trajectory—what have you learned about yourself?”
“Why do I have three Super Bowl rings, and still think there’s something greater out there for me? Maybe a lot of people out there would say, ‘Hey man, this is what it is.’ I reached my goal, my dream, my life. Me, I think: God, there’s got to be more than this…. What else is there for me?”
Kroft asked, “And what’s the answer?”
Brady smiled for a moment, then the smile faded. “I wish I knew,” he said. “I wish I knew.”
Another of our generation’s greatest philosophical minds, comedian Jim Carrey, said the same: “I think everybody should get rich and famous and do everything they ever dreamed of so they can see that it’s not the answer.”
Many look for a global cause to give their lives to, thinking the fulfilled life is one that empowers the poor or saves the planet. Phrases like “social consciousness” and “tolerance” now describe a well-lived life or well-managed corporation. We want to eradicate poverty. Extend human rights. End global warming. Save the planet from plastic straws.
A recent study of college graduates show that “helping others” and “providing aid to those in need” is among their top post-college aspirations. One study found “living with purpose” to be the number one thing high school students want out of life–above money, fame, and even a happy marriage. Another survey asked twentysomethings, “What would make for a dream job?” I expected the top answer to be about money, or maybe influence and fame. And yes, money was on there—but it only came in at 24%. The top answer (nearly double that of money) was, “Feeling passionate about my work.”
Translation: “I want to live for something that matters.”
If you’ve ever felt that sense, asked that question … this book is for you.
The original lie that Satan whispered to Adam and Eve is a kind was, “You will not surely die.” He tried to blind her to the reality of death. It’s still what he whispers in our subconscious today—but today, it’s not usually as on-the-nose. He does it by distracting us from what we know to be true. So even when we know, propositionally, that we are going to die, Satan convinces us to live oblivious to how close the reality of death is, and how permanent eternity will be.
The Seventeenth-Century French philosopher Blaise Pascal had a great analogy for this. He describes our lives like a giant party, full of happy people, loud music, and dancing, during which a monster unexpectedly bursts through the doors, grabs a random party-goer, mauls them in front of everyone, and drags their bloody corpse out of the room. Everyone watches in horror, and after it is over stares at each other in stunned silence for a few moments.
But then the band kicks back up and everyone and returns to their frivolity, putting the horrendous display out of their minds. This horror is repeated every few moments until it becomes apparent that the monster is eventually coming for everyone in the room. Yet still the party goes on.
That monster, Pascal said, is our impending death. And our preferred way of dealing with it is distraction.
Turn up the music.
Our society, of course, has now elevated the art of distraction to epic levels. TV’s are on everywhere. Auto-play on Netflix tries to get me to watch one episode of The Office after another until I have burned through all nine seasons. Your phone is probably alerting you to at least 10 things happening right now that “need” your immediate attention. Social media apps like Instagram, Twitter, and TikTok are literally built on a psychology of addiction, created to keep you scrolling, swiping, scrolling, swiping. Trevor Haynes, writing for Harvard’s Science in the News, shows how social media app developers make big bucks on your addiction: “By using algorithms to leverage our dopamine-driven reward circuity, they stack the cards—and our brains—against us.”
In other words, there are some really smart people getting rich by fostering your addiction to . . . distraction. Our enemy has turned his Genesis 3 deception-strategy into a high-tech Silicon Valley industry.
Bucket lists are inappropriate for Christians not because good Christians stay at home, be boring and play it safe. It’s just that we know that life on earth is not our only chance (or even our best chance) to experience what the world has to offer.
Scripture gives every indication that the “new heavens and new earth” (Rev 21:1, 4) will contain better versions of anything in God’s good creation that we enjoyed down here.
Many people wrongly think of heaven as some ethereal life of leisure where saints sit around in diapers on colorless clouds with Nerf bows-and-arrows, strumming their harps and sipping non-alcoholic piña coladas. We gather at least twice daily for choir practice, but that’s our only real activity.
The Bible describes heaven much differently. Though it leaves a lot unsaid, what it does say indicates that heaven is a reality that is more than, not less than, anything we experience on earth.
Scholars say “new heavens and new earth” is better read “renewed heavens and earth.” In other words, the new earth is not a replacement of the old, but a renewed and restored version of it, freed from the curse of sin, supercharged with the glory of God.
All the mountains, rivers, oceans, animals, culture, arts, music, architecture, solar systems and even extreme sports that I never got to experience here are waiting for me there, in glorified form.
Furthermore, the Apostle John goes on to say that God will “… bring into heaven the glory and honor of the nations” (Rev 21:26). That means the best of culture—the best of Italian food, the best of Arabian and Colonial architecture, the best art, Mardi Gras (without the debauchery), Disneyworld (without the lines), the Jersey Shore (without, you know, the Jersey).
(By the way—I can’t prove this, but I’m pretty sure that in heaven all the foods that are bad for you here are good for you there, and vice versa. There, ice cream and chocolate are good for the waistline, while cauliflower makes you gain weight. Like I said, I can’t prove that, but these things are spiritually discerned. Let the wise reader understand.)
I’ve always wanted to climb Mt. Everest. My wife tells me it’s off the table until my kids at least graduate college. And by that time, I may not be physically able, and so I may never get the chance. But that’s okay, because in heaven, I’m confident I’ll get to climb the renewed one, which will be a lot better anyway. And when I get to the top, I’ll fly over to the heavenly Tuscany for dinner.
One of the most destructive myths alive in the church today, I believe, is that only a few are called to the ministry.
Many Christians believe that “calling” is a sacred experience reserved for a select few conferred through a mystical manifestation. They assume that if God wants something significant from their lives, he’ll communicate it through some kind of burning bush, wet-fleece/dry-fleece dramatic sign. I call this the “Cheerios” method of discerning the will of God. If God has something significant for you, he’ll spell it out in your Cheerios. The little o’s will mysteriously form, “go to Nepal” or “be a pastor” or whatever.
But here’s the truth: All Christians are called to ministry. Not necessarily to vocational ministry, but to leverage their lives for the Great Commission.
That call, you see, was included in the initial call to follow Jesus. “Follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will make you fish for people” (Matthew 4:19). That means when you accepted Jesus, you accepted the call to mission.
Another way to say it: The question is no longer if you are called, only where and how.
Jesus understood (and even sympathized with) the fact that living for an audience of one requires a surrender that feels terrifying. I think that’s why he told his followers,
“Don’t be afraid, little flock, because your Father delights to give you the kingdom.” (Luke 12:32).
I was always taught that you shouldn’t mix metaphors, but here Jesus wonderfully mixes three. They constitute the trifecta of assurance. God is the a) watchful Shepherd, intimately aware of where we are and what we are doing; b) the Almighty King, controlling everything according to his good purposes in our lives; and c) a tender Father who delights to see us thrive.
As John Piper notes, every word of Luke 12:32 seems specifically chosen to assure us in a time of fear or uncertainty:
“Simply and staggeringly and unspeakably … the omnipotent rule and authority of the King of the universe will be engaged forever and ever on behalf of the little flock of God.”
To those wavering in their ability to obey, Jesus gave this promise, because this promise is the only thing we need to walk confidently into the future. This presence is the bread upon which our souls feast in times of famine.
That’s what I mean when I write say that Jesus + Nothing = Everything.
I mean, with these promises, what else do you need? Without them, what else would you have? Think about it:
- Jesus is better than money. His stock never crashes and his supply never runs low. His shelves are always full and his angels never get sick.
- Jesus is more fulfilling than romantic love. His are the arms you were created for.
- Jesus is better than earthly power. What greater power can there be than to have the sovereign God commanding every molecule in the universe for his good purposes?
- Jesus is better than perfect health. He offers life that sickness can’t touch, pandemics can’t threaten and death can’t take away.
- Jesus is better than great accomplishments. Hearing “well done good and faithful servant” from Jesus will count for more than 10,000 trophies that fade from memory almost the moment they are given.
Matthew 6:33 is the closest thing I have to a life verse. My dad gave it to me before I left for college. “Son,” he said, “all these things includes the money to live. It includes satisfaction in your career. It includes a marriage partner (if that’s what God has for you) and fulfilling friendships. Those are all wonderful things, but seek all of them second. Seek God first and he’ll add those things to you.”
I love how C.S. Lewis summarized it: He said in life there are first things (God and his will) and second things (everything else we think we need for a successful, happy life). If we put first things first, Lewis says, Jesus promises to throw in second things. But put second things first, and we’ll lose not only the first things but eventually the second things, too. The money you gave your life to leaves you feeling empty and insecure. The marriage doesn’t last. The friends are no longer around.
Premise 1: All people have heard about God and rejected him. (Romans 1)
Premise 2: God has rightfully condemned all. (Romans 3:10-11)
Premise 3: In grace, God has made a way of salvation for all. (Romans 3:21-22)
Premise 4: People have to hear about this gift to receive it. (Romans 10:14)
- The gospel is only good news if it gets there in time. –Carl F. H. Henry
- It wouldn’t matter if Jesus died 1,000 times if no one heard about it. –Martin Luther
Premise 5: We are the only ones from whom they can hear it. (Romans 10:14-15)
Which leads me to this question: What if the reason God is moving in you right now here is that he is moving in someone else there to whom he wants to send you?
I ask that because I once met a “Cornelius.”
Right after college, I spent two years as a missionary in Southeast Asia. One of the first guys I got to know there was “Ishmael.” He befriended me, taught me the local language and customs, and was as hospitable a person as I have ever known. He volunteered as a youth worker at his local mosque.
I shared the gospel with Ishmael at least a dozen times. Each time, he would put his hand on my shoulder and say, “J.D., my brother, you are a great man of faith, and I know your zeal for God makes your parents very proud. You are a Christian because you were born a Christian. I am a Muslim because I was born a Muslim. Islam is God’s path for me.”
About a week before I came home, I met with him one last time to plead that he consider Jesus’ exclusive claims about salvation. He responded as he had before: “Islam is the path God has for me.”
The day that I was to leave, Ishmael showed up at my house unexpectedly. I could tell something was on his mind. He told me that after our last conversation, he had not been able to shake my words. He said, “They sat on my heart like a great weight.”
He then told me about a vision he had later that same night. He saw in a dream a road springing up before him, stretching to heaven, and—to his surprise, he said—I was on it. (In fact, he seemed so surprised by the fact that I was on it that I was almost a little offended!) He watched me walk up to the gates of heaven. But the doors were closed.
“But then,” he said with surprise, “Someone inside knew your name!” The gates opened, he said, and I went in.
“And my heart broke,” he said, “because I really wanted to go with you.”
“But then the doors opened a second time, and you walked back down to earth, reached out your hand to me, pulled me onto your back, and carried me back up into heaven with you.”
He then looked at me and said, “At first, I thought this was a dream that came from eating ‘strange fish.’” No kidding. That’s actually what he said. “But I have had enough of those dreams to know that this was not that. This was a dream from God! Do you think so? What do you think my dream means?”
Side note: I was raised in a really traditional Baptist church and we didn’t offer a class on “dreams and the interpretations thereof.” But I am happy to report that in that moment I knew exactly what to say.
I explained to him that Jesus was the way, the truth, and the life.
Sadly, he still couldn’t bring himself to believe. It was just too much for him, and to my knowledge, to this day he hasn’t come to faith. Several members of his family died a few years later in the 2004 Southeast Asian tsunami, but he survived, and I have looked for him several times since then. I hope one day I will have the privilege of leading him to Jesus. You can pray with me about that.
But it was the thing he said next that will forever haunt me. He said, “I know that this dream means that you were sent here by God to show me the way of salvation, to help me find it. But you are going home, and you are the only Christian I have ever known.”
There are Corneliuses all around the world in whom God is stirring. But they can only come to faith through the witness of one of us. Maybe that is the reason he is stirring in you right now. Maybe it’s why you picked up this book.
Premise 6: The task is urgent.
- 4.5 billion unreached people in the world
- Stalin, death of one v. death of a million
- We are debtors (Romans 1:14)
The best way I can show the difference is with a story…
In 1904, William Borden graduated from high school. He was the heir to the Borden family fortune. At the time, the Borden Milk Company was one of the most profitable businesses in the United States, which would have made young William one of the richest men in the country. Upon graduation, his parents gave him a luxurious graduation gift—a trip across the globe.
Something happened on that trip, however, that his parents were not anticipating. Borden became overwhelmed by the world’s lostness. He couldn’t get over the masses of people with no chance of hearing the gospel. Borden was a new believer, and he wanted to do something about it.
William told his father that he didn’t want to take on the family business. He wanted to be a missionary. His parents were furious, but William told them that he would divert any inheritance he received into the mission. Some of William’s Christian friends even told him, “You’re throwing everything away. You’re wasting your life!”
But Borden wouldn’t be dissuaded. After graduating from the University of Yale and then Princeton Seminary, he climbed aboard a boat headed for China.
Because Borden intended to work with Muslims in China, he stopped in Egypt to spend time learning Arabic. One month after arriving, however, he contracted spinal meningitis and died. He was 25 years old.
Back in the United States headlines proclaimed the tragic news. The stories echoed the advice Borden’s friends and family had given him: What a waste of a life!
But Borden didn’t think so. As the story goes, while on his deathbed, someone asked if he had any final words. He pulled out his Bible, turned to a blank page at the back, and wrote, “No regrets.”
From the perspective of the world, Borden’s life was wasted. From the perspective of eternity, it wasn’t. His was not a wasted life, but a worthy one.
William Borden is buried in a small cemetery in Cairo. The cemetery is so out of the way that if you don’t know what you are looking for, you’ll never find it. His tombstone is bunched up among many others, and the writing on it so faint you can barely read it. But if you get down real close you can make out a single sentence: “Apart from faith in Christ, there is no explanation for such a life.”
Apart from faith in Christ, there is no explanation for such a life.
We challenge our college graduates to let the mission of God be the most significant factor in determining where and how they pursue their careers. We challenge them to dedicate the first two years after they graduate to join a church planting team working somewhere in North America or around the globe. We call it the “Go2 Challenge.”
As we often say, “You’ve got to get a job somewhere. Why not get a job in a place where God is doing something strategic?”
Give us two years and we’ll change the world. We sometimes refer to this, tongue-in-cheek, as “the Mormonization strategy.”
Just kidding. But seriously, if Mormons can do this for a works-based gospel, can’t we do it for the real one?
If you are reading this book wondering about a next step, let me challenge you to consider this one: take the Go2 challenge.
Whether you are in college considering what God has for you next, at a transitional point in your career, or nearing retirement, why not consider investing two years directly into the mission of God?
Give two years! It will change the world!
God calls some to leverage their careers and for others to leave them. At our church, we call this the Leverage or leave? question. Is God calling you to leverage your career for the Great Commission, like the Moravians, or to leave it behind, like William Carey, Adoniram Judson, and Lottie Moon? He leads his followers both directions.
God is calling all of us to go. What that looks like will be different for everyone, but I’m hoping that every single person who reads this book will answer that call. Put your “yes” on the table and let God put it on the map.
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