I have already said quite a lot in this series about how highly Jesus valued the quality and practice of servanthood. I will dedicate the next episode to the hospital staff who served me in amazing and often challenging ways—all with a smile! But does servanthood alone ensure that we will be with God in eternity? In other words, are there other roads to heaven besides the one Jesus established that is called Christianity? Like the last episode, answering such questions tugs at the heart in ways that make even approaching the subject emotionally difficult. But let’s continue to examine all that Jesus meant by the road being a narrow one.
Having covered my somewhat conflicted views regarding seriously committed spiritual people who have a differing view of conversion than I do, I still do not question Matthew 7. Before we read this passage, let me mention my concerns for my relatives, neighbors and friends that led to the writing of “God, Are We Good?” What I have found in the older generations is not only a lack of Bible knowledge, but an amazing trust in human opinions about salvation. Attending funerals, or memorials, or celebrations of life, or any other end-of-life service is often quite alarming to me. If I believed the speakers at those types of services, I would have to conclude that virtually everyone must be going to heaven when they die. But is that what the Bible teaches? Let’s answer that question by taking what I call the “funeral test.” This test is based on Matthew 7:13-14, 21. Let’s read it.
Matthew 7:13-14, 21
13 “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. 14 But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it… 21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.
Now honestly, what do you get from reading those verses? Isn’t it obvious that most people will end up in hell and few in heaven, and further, that claiming to be a Christian doesn’t make you one? In our day of biblical illiteracy, most people are totally unaware of what Jesus clearly said in passages like this one. They just share opinions, and guess what? The one called the great deceiver and the father of lies, Satan himself, has done his job amazingly (and sadly) all too well. The vast majority of people, including many whom I know and love, are among the deceived. They don’t come close to living the life Jesus is calling us to live, and yet they feel spiritually safe in their condition. If they don’t know what the Bible actually says, why would they not?
Memorial services alone would provide them with the feeling of safety. They hear that everyone is safe in the arms of Jesus, in a better place and now at home with God and all of their dearly departed loved ones. It is simply heartbreaking to me. That is why I wrote that little book a couple of years ago. That is why I try to share with everyone I can, urging them to study the Bible, with me or others who know what it teaches about salvation. I urge them to ask the question posed in the book title, “God, are we good?” and then to study and seek biblical answers to the question.
While in the hospital conversing with many, many hospital workers, I realized that many of them didn’t come from a Christian perspective to start with. In their associations with those who claim a Christian perspective, they hear little to nothing about Jesus being the only way to salvation. In our modern Post-Christian setting, the assumption even by those claiming Christianity as their religion, is that every “good” person is going to be just fine after they die. But what does the Bible say? Here are a couple of verses to consider.
Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.
Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved.”
Those verses are not hard to understand, are they? All roads don’t lead to heaven; all religions don’t lead to heaven. I appreciate every person who is trying hard to be good, and who are in comparison to many other humans, but from a spiritual perspective, none are good enough to be saved without the blood of Christ. Romans 3:10 says there is no one righteous in and of themselves, and two verses later it says that none are good. We may appear both good and righteous compared to other people, but when compared to Jesus whom we are to imitate, the picture is quite different. No wonder Romans 3:23 sums it up in these words: “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Christ must be accepted on his terms as the Lord of our lives. He cannot be our Savior without also being our Lord (Master). Verses could be multiplied to demonstrate this truth. Luke 6:46 puts it this way: “Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say?”
Acts 17:22-31 makes the point quite clear that religions outside Christianity are not acceptable to God. Here is Paul’s conclusion as he spoke to the people of Athens who practiced idol religions of many kinds. “In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. 31 For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead” (Acts 17:30-31). During the Mosaic period, non-Jews were not judged as strictly as after Christ came and established the New Covenant. But now Christ is the solution to the problem of sin and will be standard by which all will be judged.
In the next segment, I am going to express my profound gratitude for the care I received from medical workers, most of whom are amazing servants. My appreciation for their service knows no bounds, but it doesn’t blind me to the realities of sin and righteousness and the basis of salvation. When Jesus encountered the Rich Young Ruler and called him to a standard he wasn’t willing to accept, it did not negate the love Jesus had for him. Mark 10:21 says that Jesus looked at him and loved him, but then he gave him the Lordship challenge which was rejected. I’m sure this hurt the heart of Jesus, but God’s standards for being saved cannot and will not be compromised by him. Will you compromise them? That’s the question I am asking here. I simply cannot and I pray that you won’t.
Thus, while I can commend a serious commitment to Jesus and the Bible, I cannot commend a watered-down version of Christianity nor an adherence to another religion besides that of Christ. The road is narrow that leads to salvation and I am always going to point people in every feasible way to seek that narrow road. Are you? If we truly believe the Bible, we don’t have any other option. Sharing our faith and pointing people to the Bible is the Christian’s only alternative. I want to have the heart and the life which reflects that truth. I want to imitate Paul’s heart when he spoke to King Agrippa. “Then Agrippa said to Paul, “Do you think that in such a short time you can persuade me to be a Christian?” 29 Paul replied, “Short time or long—I pray to God that not only you but all who are listening to me today may become what I am, except for these chains” (Acts 26:28-29). May God give us the convictions and the heart of Paul!
The last book I wrote was also the shortest I’ve ever written, entitled, “God, Are We Good?” What prompted me to write the book is the awareness that most of my neighbors and extended family members know little Bible. What they think they know has most often not come from their personal study but from what others have said, most of which boils down to personal opinions. Thus, opinions are shared and used as a basis of biblical knowledge, which is a dangerous situation. Jesus is quite clear in Matthew 7:13-14 that most humans are not going to heaven. But how many people are even aware of this passage? Few. Hence, the motivation to write the book. I have given and sent copies to friends, family members and neighbors in the hope that they will read and learn some of the most basic, yet most serious, teachings of the Bible about salvation. Ignorance does not remove responsibility and accountability before God.
As I wrote my little book, I became more aware of a tension I feel in my own historical perspectives about salvation. I believe what Jesus said in passages like Matthew 7 with all my heart. The narrow road is the narrow road, and we will not be on it without a serious commitment to Jesus as Lord of our lives. My convictions about these matters are deep and certain. Yet, in one area, I do have tensions, and I was honest in writing about them. My background in the mainstream Churches of Christ was decidedly doctrinally oriented. Nothing was more important to most of us in this fellowship of churches than getting our doctrines straight and in total alignment with what the Scriptures taught—or what we thought they taught. Since my present family of churches had its origin in the mainstream churches, we too have maintained a significant focus on being doctrinally correct.
The first full length book I wrote in 1995 was “Prepared to Answer,” a book addressing a number of doctrines I believe to be in error. I softened some of the wording in a later second edition, but I was and am still comfortable with what I wrote then. I do believe that doctrine of all types matters and that the determination of which spiritual teachings are true and which are false must be determined by the Bible and not by human opinion. That said, this one area of tension remains—a tension involving the conversion process.
How Do We Get Saved Spiritually?
In “God, Are We Good?”, I have a chapter about how we get saved spiritually in the first place. To me, the biblical pattern is easily discerned and should be virtually impossible to miss. Certain teachings are left somewhat ambiguous in the Bible, but this topic is not one of them. Yet, most of the Christian oriented churches don’t teach the plan of salvation the same way I do and as we as a family of churches do. That is a mystery to me. I just don’t understand why this is the case, and yet it is. The Bible is crystal clear about the necessary commitment to Christ and his way of life. The level of commitment Jesus described in passages like Luke 9:23-26 and Luke 14:25-33 is not negotiable; without it people are lost. Anyone not committed to producing the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-24) but is rather producing the acts of the sinful nature (Galatians 5:19-21) cannot be saved. These latter verses leave no doubt about the matter. “19 The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; 20 idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions 21 and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.”
My tensions enter when I see the biblical commitment being lived out by those whose conversion experience doesn’t line up with the Bible as I understand it. For example, my hospital experience demonstrated that more people than I might imagine are serious about Christ. Erin, one of the sisters in my local church group, had a large banner printed up to encourage me and then took it to a marriage retreat being taught by my old friends, Roger and Marcia Lamb. Many attending signed the banner and most of them wrote short but encouraging notes. Joy brought the banner to my hospital room and taped it in a location so that anyone who entered my room saw it almost immediately.
The Perfect Banner for Sharing
This prompted many conversations and opportunities for me to share my faith. I was surprised and encouraged by the number of medical workers and students who seriously engaged in spiritual discussions with me. The last medical students who came in to interview me as a patient were refreshing. One of them, a young woman, said that she was a part of the campus ministry in the medical school and had just returned from a mission to South Texas. As they were getting ready to leave, she asked if we could pray together. Several others had done the same during my stay. She held both of my hands and led one of the most spiritual prayers I had heard in a long time.
In our short time together, we didn’t discuss doctrinal issues. This wasn’t the time nor the place. I did tell many people about my website, and many of them promised to look it up. Plenty of articles are found on it which cover both doctrinal and practical spiritual issues of all types. The probability is that most of the people whom I encountered in that setting have a different view of the conversion process than I do. What about them? How would God answer them if they asked the question posed by the title of my book? Therein lies my tension, how to view the combination of commitment to Christ and doctrinal accuracy.
One chapter of the book describes my tensions and gives three examples I have heard from three well respected leaders in our family of churches (left unnamed). I’m not the only one feeling those tensions. The next chapter in the book describes the tensions I would feel if I were on the other side of the issue. Knowing what I know and believing what I believe, I simply couldn’t be on the other side. But what of the examples used by those unnamed leaders who believe as I do about conversion? One referred to Jesus’ comment in Matthew 9:6, “But I want you to know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.” We have our ways of explaining this context, but my friend asked the question of why we would think Jesus wouldn’t do the same from heaven? His forgiveness of the thief on the cross was about the same as what is called “deathbed forgiveness.” It is obvious from that thief’s comment that he knew enough about Jesus to know that he was innocent. He might have known a lot. Of course, Jesus knew everything about his life and we don’t, but the point is that Jesus can forgive whomever he wants to forgive. Period.
The second example I used from comments made by a leader came from a casual conversation the two of us had. In his profession, most of those in his professional setting were professed Christians, and many of them were serious about their commitment to Christ. My friend said that he felt more in common with many of them than with many of those with whom he attended church on Sundays. The latter ones may have shared his doctrinal beliefs, but their lives didn’t compare favorably to many of those in his professional association. Although a very conservative person doctrinally, he made the statement that he had hope for those whose doctrine regarding salvation differed from his, but he didn’t feel that he could give them hope. In other words, he couldn’t assure them that they were good with God. Yet, he believed that they most likely were. I have quoted him many times, for I feel the same. I will always teach exactly what I believe the Bible says on any matter, but only God is the Judge. He will do what is right and it might not be exactly what we expect.
The third example was offered by a dear friend whose level of Bible knowledge and spirituality are unquestioned. Here is his quote found in my book.
“Just imagine such a person with this type of committed life coming before God in the end and hearing him say, ‘You had a heart for my kingdom. You lived out the Beatitudes. You went the way of the cross. But your theology of baptism was off. So, I’m sorry, you can’t be admitted to heaven.’” My friend could not believe such an interchange would ever happen.
PS – An Unusual Book Ending
Surely you can identify with his conclusion. Although I dedicated a chapter to the tensions I would feel if I were on the other side of the issue, the above quote led me to end my book with a section I termed a “Postscript.” A postscript is something you think of later and add, which is exactly what I did sometime after finishing the book. I will include some pertinent quotes and observations from that postscript.
Broadly speaking, sin is breaking God’s laws in our personal life and in holding and/or teaching erroneous doctrinal beliefs. Life and doctrine are both important, and they may be compared to the wings of an airplane. A plane cannot fly without two wings, and our lives cannot please God without life and doctrine aligned with what he commands. Are both equally important?
But here is my question in closing: is forgiveness of both types of sins (life and doctrine) available in equal measure? We know and teach that God’s grace toward our personal life sins is exceedingly broad. When you consider that through sins of commission, we sin by our words, our actions, our thoughts, our motives; and through sins of omission, by what we leave undone, it is simply overwhelming to contemplate. Yet, we teach and preach that God will forgive us through the blood of Christ for all of it if we claim Jesus as Lord and have strong intentions to please him, with the direction of our lives demonstrating those intentions.
Moving over to the sins of a doctrinal nature, are we now in a different arena, where God’s grace is no longer quite so amazing? We base our hope for heaven not on our performance, but on God’s grace, a grace that shapes our desires to please him and determines the direction of our lives. Thus, his mercy shows itself in our lives as desire and direction rather than as performance and perfection. Will his grace motivating that same desire and direction be sufficient to overcome sins of a theological doctrinal nature? If not, why not?
I closed the book by quoting 1 John 2:1-2 where we are assured that Jesus died for the sins of the whole world and then ended with these final comments.
Are those sins of the whole world only life sins and not theological sins? All I can say in closing is that I am a sinner and in need of abundant mercy, and am thus quite content to leave the ultimate judgment to God about who is right with him and who is not. I can do no more and no less than strive with all my heart to follow his teachings with both my life and my doctrine and urge others to do the same. Thankfully, God will take it from there.
When I meet and spend time with spiritually minded people, regardless of their doctrinal beliefs, I feel a real kinship with them. I focus on the fundamentals of what it means to be a Christ follower and rejoice in our shared commitment. If we are able spend enough time together, I will get around to discussing doctrines and doctrinal differences, but I don’t start there and don’t make that my major focus. I also will introduce them to my website and ask them to scan through the article titles, read some of them and communicate with me about that experience. But I am not their Judge and I’m not going to act like I am. I am thankful and encouraged to interact with anyone who loves my Jesus.
Aside from those who supposedly have multiple personalities, all of us are two people in one. My favorite passage in the Bible, 2 Corinthians 4:16-18 makes our dual nature clear and also what our focus should be in light of that nature. Look at verse 16: “Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day.” Although the terminology of “wasting away” isn’t exactly pleasant to contemplate, over time its truth becomes more and more obvious. That said, the next part about daily inward renewal should motivate us to make sure we are doing just that. Spending quiet times with God isn’t just a nice idea; it should be seen as an absolute necessity.
We have an outward part and an inward part, the latter being made in the image of God. I recently told someone that I still felt like I was 35, although my body reminded me that I am 80. Why do we feel like that as we age, still young in spite of our aches and pains and wrinkles? Our inner person, our soul or spirit, doesn’t age. It doesn’t even sleep nor need sleep—that’s why you dream all night. The real you, the inner person, doesn’t need sleep and has been created for eternity. Death, biblically defined, is simply the departure of the spirit from the physical house it lived in, the body.
James recognizes this distinction in James 2:26. “As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.” Paul put it this way in 2 Corinthians 5:1-4: “For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands. 2 Meanwhile we groan, longing to be clothed instead with our heavenly dwelling, 3 because when we are clothed, we will not be found naked. 4 For while we are in this tent, we groan and are burdened, because we do not wish to be unclothed but to be clothed instead with our heavenly dwelling, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life.” Peter continues with the tent analogy in 2 Peter 1:13-14 thusly: I think it is right to refresh your memory as long as I live in the tent of this body, 14 because I know that I will soon put it aside, as our Lord Jesus Christ has made clear to me.” Tents are temporary dwelling places and thus an apt analogy to describe life in a physical body.
During the early part of my hospital stay, as mentioned, I was both hallucinatory and delusional at times. However, when people started talking to me, I somehow escaped that condition and reentered reality. And trust me, many people talked to me. Since I was in a teaching hospital, medical students came in frequently to interview me. Given my condition, I was shocked that that would even be allowed. But I gave it my best effort and answered their questions and added some advice. I was also shocked that I was able to engage in a coherent way and make sense in those conversations and many others with medical personnel.
The fact that I was able to do that, repeatedly, attests to the truth that we are in fact dual beings. My inner person was able to engage when my outer person was extremely sick. Quite an interesting experience, and a surprising one to me, but it shouldn’t have been. I am two people in one, and the part of me made in the image of my Father isn’t nearly as dependent on the other part as might be assumed. That was a cool discovery. While one part of me was deathly ill, the other part was capable of rising above that illness and carrying on as normal. Interesting—and impressive! We are indeed fearfully and wonderfully made, as Psalm 139:14 says.
The biggest takeaway from this insight should be to help us make sure our main focus in life is clearly on the spiritual side of it. Spiritual trainwrecks are likely results when this is not the case. Usually, the older we become, the greater the challenges. I have seen too many older people lose their way spiritually by not being able to handle those challenges, but it doesn’t have to happen like that. Continuing to grow spiritually by nourishing our inner person is the antidote. Don’t let your focus shift to the temporary; keep it on the eternal. Paul said it best in 2 Corinthians 4:18 in these words: “So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.”
A Night to Remember!
As I shared one part of my hospital story with my friend Otoma Edje via email, he made this comment: “What you share about ‘getting your house in order’ is very sobering.” Early in my hospital stay, as I’ve said, I was in bad enough shape that the possibility of dying was almost constantly on my mind. For that reason, I asked that my son, his wife and three sons come to the hospital together with my wife on one of the first nights I was there. My oldest grandson was about to turn 24 and my youngest about to be 17. They were old enough to be a part of the serious discussion I had in mind. Discussing death is to some morbid, but to me it is simply reality, howbeit a sobering one. I shared my concerns that I might die and shared my concerns that I hadn’t done all I had intended to fully set my house in order. I began sharing what those latter concerns were.
I had two file cabinets full of old documents, most of which were irrelevant and unneeded. I explained which of them would be relevant if I died and asked them to have the rest shredded. I also explained that I had a closet and desk drawers full of electronic items that would need to be disposed of as well and how to best do that. I then moved on to how to help Theresa with the immediate finances, although the long-range issues were in a document that I’ve kept updated for years on my computer. Periodically, I have given Theresa paper copies to keep in a safe place, since she isn’t much of a computer person.
In trying to describe the short-range issues, I asked Bryce, my oldest grandson, who happens to be a business graduate with a financial job, to get a pen and paper and start making notes. As I tried to recall needed usernames and passwords, I tried to verify their accuracy on my phone. Being in somewhat of a hallucinatory state, the phone screen looked weird, as if someone had put a totally different operating system on it. I could not figure out how to make passwords work on it. That was a frustrating experience. But I went on to share as many details as I could think of in my altered mental state about what to do in the event of my death.
Some of my family members were crying as they seriously contemplated my possible imminent death, and some were concentrating on what I was trying to explain. Knowing it was a strange night, I told them that I had been trying to teach them how to live well but also wanted to teach them how to die well. Dealing with the realities involved is, and was then, sobering. It was a night none of us will ever forget, but at the end of it, I felt good about it.
Since I didn’t die, my house is in much better order. Six boxes of file folders and other materials have been shredded. My old buddy from Boston, Rich Evans, flew in for several days to help me with the electronic collection of now useless (to me) items. He dealt with five old computers, three electronic tablets and two phones. Hitting the delete button doesn’t fully delete files, but Rich knew how to erase it all. With some of the equipment left, he thought of ways they could be used by others; some obsolete items we simply threw away; and the remainder we dropped off at a recycling center.
I updated my “In the event of my death…” document with all sorts of instructions in it, including those for my memorial service, and gave Theresa a printed copy. Of course, I have an updated will in a safety deposit box. (I hope you do too.) I feel relieved to have all of that accomplished, for when I do “croak,” as my deceased buddy Jerry Jones used to call it, my family members will find it much easier to deal with the details. I spoke with a widow friend shortly after her husband died, and she just shook her head and said that he had been a “clutterbug.” I don’t want to be remembered with any such term!
Many people have asked me how Theresa handled all of this, knowing that her husband might well die. Two words come to mind: maturity and spirituality. Theresa took it a day at a time and never came close to freaking out. That’s just not her. Mentioning Jerry Jones brought back a special memory. One day years ago, I was in his truck with him and his wife, Karen, as we traveled to and from an orphanage in Mexico that our church members visited regularly to serve the kids and workers. During our long drive from Phoenix to the edge of Mexico, we talked about many things. At one point, Jerry said to me, “Now you and Theresa do talk about how to handle things when one of you croaks, don’t you?”
All people as they age should do this, should get our house in order. When I recounted the story to Theresa upon arriving home, she just cackled at the word “croak.” From then until Jerry died a couple of years back, Theresa searched to find birthday cards to send him each year that typically had a frog on the front, and then inside said something along the lines of “Thank God you haven’t croaked yet!” Well, Jerry finally croaked and he did it with class. I was able to have a very meaningful conversation with him on the phone the day before he died, and I can assure you, he was quite ready to croak. His house was in order.
On the Spectrum of Surrender (Surrender’s Spectrum)
The second book I wrote was “The Victory of Surrender.” Although written long ago, it has remained the “crowd favorite.” As I have continued to wrestle with my view of God and the nature of my relationship with him, an important truth has dawned on me. Surrender falls on a spectrum with at least three positions. We often speak of people being on “the spectrum,” meaning the spectrum of autism. There is a wide range encompassing the condition we call autism. Similarly, there is a range on the spectrum of spiritual surrender. All surrender is beneficial, but not all surrender is equal. My recent insights have shown me that my own past conception of surrender was not at the pinnacle of the spectrum. Where we are on that spectrum is tied inseparably to our conception of the nature of our God.
At the low end of the spectrum is what I would describe as resignation, simply resigning ourselves to any given situation that we find challenging. Even non-Christians adopt this approach to challenges when they can find no other. But for them, God is not in the equation. As Christians, we accept such resignation as ultimately being from the hand of God, whether we feel good about it or not, whether we are really trusting Romans 8:28 or not. Even if God is working all things together for good, what we are experiencing doesn’t seem good and trusting it will turn out for our good can be an elusive goal indeed.
I remember hearing a sermon over a half century ago that used the term “resign” in three ways in speaking about finding ourselves in challenging situations. The preacher said that we could resign or quit, just give up—application number one. Or we could just resign ourselves to the objectionable situation, grin and bear it or grit our teeth and bear it—application number two. Or we could re-sign, sign back up for another go at handling the problems facing us with grace, God’s grace—application number three.
Resigning ourselves to what we see as a negative situation may have some spiritual convictions behind it, but the level of trust is not impressive. Thomas the apostle seemed to operate with this level of surrender, as these passages indicate.
16 Then Thomas (also known as Didymus) said to the rest of the disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”
24 Now Thomas (also known as Didymus), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!” But he said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.” 26 A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.” 28 Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!” 29 Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”
Thomas is called “Doubting Thomas” for good reason. He always followed Jesus in spite of his doubts, but his trust was clearly at a low level. Thus his surrender was not the kind to inspire others. Like all the apostles, I believe the reality of a resurrected Lord ultimately changed him and he became an inspiration. None of the apostles were stellar examples of believers in the resurrection until after they had actually seen Jesus. But in spite of their difficulties in believing that Jesus was going to die and be resurrected throughout Jesus’ ministry, they still had the commitment to follow him no matter what. Resignation, even accompanied with doubts, is on the spectrum, if we simply keep following.
The second level on the surrender spectrum is when our main focus on Jesus is that he is the Lord, the Master, and we are his servants. Such is a biblical analogy to be sure. Consider Luke 17:10: “So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.’” As with all passages, context is hugely important. Jesus had just given them a shocking lesson about forgiveness. It should be unlimited, said he. In their shock, they exclaimed, “Increase our faith!” After telling them that even a small amount of faith, the size of a mustard seed, could accomplish great things, he focused on the need for them to simply keep obeying as servants.
They had a long way to go yet in developing faith, and obedience was the path to follow in developing it. They would reach that third level of surrender, as we will see, but they were not there yet. We sing the old hymn admonishing us to “trust and obey,” but sometimes we have to obey in order to develop trust. Mark 1:15 suggests this principle in these words of John the Baptist: “Repent and believe the good news!” John 8:31-32 is similar, in that Jesus said that really grasping truth and being freed by it follows obedience (“holding to his teaching”). In this passage, initial belief has to move on to obedience if we are to be made free of Satan’s hold on us through surrender.
I think this level of surrender was what motivated me to write my book on the subject. Surrender has always been one of my biggest challenges. I think that is true for most of us, but not all of us. I have known a few who lived in level three. No matter what happened to them, they simply trusted that God was in control and the principle of Romans 8:28 was inevitably going to be proved true. Wilner Cornerly was one such disciple. When I went to Phoenix in 2003, the financial challenges in a time of upheaval were such that the role for which he was hired simply wasn’t feasible financially. Joe Silipo and I took Wilner out to lunch, and with as much sensitivity as possible, fired him. Joe and I were both crying as we did it. Wilner was calm and simply unflappable, full of trust in God and the plans God had for his life.
He ended up going to Chicago to be a part of the ministry staff there, and those who hired him later thanked us for firing him! He later developed terminal cancer. I was speaking in Chicago and present for one of the last staff meetings he ever attended. With two of us by his side helping to hold him up, he led the closing prayer. His attitude about having cancer and facing death were the same as when we had the termination talk. God is God and all is well. What a hero of the faith! What an inspiration! What an example of surrender at the very top of the spectrum!
I think my book described both levels two and three. We often start off at level two and end up at level three. Truthfully, I often write much better than I think, feel and live. That could be seen as hypocrisy, but in this case, I don’t think it is. As one old preacher of yesteryear wrote, “I don’t have any respect for any preacher who doesn’t preach better than he lives, but neither do I have any respect for any preacher who isn’t trying his best to live as well as he preaches.” I like that. I like to think that’s me. I believe it is. I am not nearly all that I want to be for God, but I want it badly and I’m striving for it and will until I draw my last breath. I believe I have fought to get to level two of surrender many, many times in my life when challenges came fast and furious. When I gave it my best to simply trust and obey, or obey and trust, I yielded to Jesus as my Lord and Master and ultimately found peace. That peace at the end of the process was either level three or very close to it. However, level three is, as I said earlier, inseparably tied to our view of God and his nature.
So what is level three on the surrender spectrum? It is what Jesus was leading his twelve disciples to, as described in John 15:15. “I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.” The apostles started at level one, progressed to level two and finally reached level three. Seeing yourself as a friend of God will motivate in ways that seeing yourself merely as servant to the ultimate Master will never accomplish.
I think of my earthly father in this connection. When he was younger and quite a force of nature, I was afraid of him. I did what he said out of fear when I was young. When he was old and becoming feeble, my motivation wasn’t fear at all, but desire to do anything to serve him and nothing to disappoint him. Love and quality of relationship had replaced fear. I think of level three surrender as a combination of warm love and total trust of a loving Abba. And I picture it in the words of Psalm 131:1-2. “My heart is not proud, LORD, my eyes are not haughty; I do not concern myself with great matters or things too wonderful for me. 2 But I have calmed and quieted myself, I am like a weaned child with its mother; like a weaned child I am content.”
I think that is where I am with God now. Like I was with my earthly father when he was old, I am not afraid of God. I just don’t want to disappoint him in any way. He has been so amazingly kind to me. His kindness has led me to repentance time and time again, as he intended (Romans 2:4). His kindness toward me is almost impossible to conceive. From birth until now as I approach my 80th birthday in a couple of weeks, he has blessed me beyond measure, almost beyond comprehension. As the old song puts it, I stand amazed in his presence. I stand amazed at all that he has done in my life, the ways that he has orchestrated it, inserting just the right people into it and the right situations into it—at just the right times.
I am a blessed man who has lived a blessed life, from birth to death, whenever and however death may come. I cannot imagine how or why he has blessed me so. I sometimes attribute it to having married my little angel, Theresa, and reasoned that since God is determined to bless her, I was able to come along for the ride by being one with her in marriage. That does make some sense, doesn’t it? But then I look at my early years, my BT (before Theresa) years, and even though spirituality was neither a fact nor an interest, he blessed me anyway—repeatedly. Unbelievable! What a God I have—a Father, an Abba, a Friend!
Only when these three terms seem real to us in our relationship to God will surrender level three become a reality. I am not there all the time, but I want to be. I was there during my 23-day hospital stay, sitting with God on the brink of eternity. When I left the hospital, I was in a euphoric state. It wasn’t because I was finally being discharged from a very challenging period, although I was thankful to be going home—alive. It was because something happened in those long nights as I sat with God, my Friend, and contemplated eternity. As I stated at the beginning of this series, I don’t know just how to describe it. When I was in what could have been mistaken for a manic state, as Tom Jones thought, it no doubt seemed like it. Tom wasn’t far off in his observations about that part. It was an unbelievable experience. Euphoric for sure.
I wish I could say that it lasted until this present moment, but it didn’t. Like many emotional highs, we do come back down to reality. Anyone who has attended an inspirational conference knows what I am talking about. Even Jesus coming down from the experience of the Mount of Transfiguration knows what I am talking about. But in spite of the descent back into the real world, the hospital stay was one of my life’s greatest adventures. I was born wired for adventures. I love them. I need them. God has provided them all of my life. Even some of the greatest challenges I have faced have proved to be great adventures as I look back on them.
My tendency to imagine worst case scenarios hasn’t stopped God from giving me best case scenarios. I stand amazed in his presence. I stand blessed in his presence. I stand grateful, exceedingly grateful, in his presence. He is the Servant of all servants, and he has served me for a lifetime. O God, my Abba, my Friend, help me to imitate you in becoming a servant, growing more and more into your likeness as I represent you as your image bearer, striving to demonstrate you as the greatest Servant of all times and all worlds!
The Fruits of Servanthood 4 (Influence Multiplied)
Through the years, I have had many leaders in many situations. I only remember details about two types and two types only: those who were harsh and those who were servants. Both types have led me to pray a lot. The former caused me to pray for patience and forgiveness and for them to repent and change or be taken out of leadership roles. The latter caused me to offer many prayers of thanksgiving. Many prayers—long after I was under their leadership, even after their deaths in some cases (think Wyndham Shaw). Between the harsh ones and the servant ones were the majority whose leadership I experienced, but I don’t remember too much about them. I suspect that they were focused on themselves enough to keep me from being so. You will be remembered by those whom you hurt or serve, but by few others. When you reach old age, if you are fortunate enough to live that long, you will think about your legacy, what you are leaving behind of yourself in the hearts and lives of others. Do something about it now by imitating God in being a servant.
In speaking about basic human needs, or love languages, acts of service are always included. It is my primary love language. I thank God for those who have served me and are serving me now. At the top of my prayer list, a long list, is my request for God to bless those who have been praying for me to be cured of cancer and who prayed for God to spare my life while I was in the hospital sitting with God on the brink of eternity. I can’t stop from shedding tears when I think about those in this category. Why? Because they are servants—they served me.
I imagine that some, perhaps many, who knew of my serious illness were never moved to pray at all. But I know for a fact that large numbers of my friends prayed earnestly and frequently for my healing, and still are. I wrote this near the beginning of September 2022, and then the jury was still out on whether my cancer was cured or not. Due to the severe reaction to the chemotherapy medication, I only took a partial amount of it. After getting out of the hospital, the radiation treatments resumed. I trusted that God had heard enough prayers from his servants, who are also my servants, to let that suffice for a cure.
After the radiation treatments were finished, I had to wait three months for further testing since the radiation continues to work for three months after treatments end. On September 19 (oddly, my father’s death date), I went back to the surgeon who found the cancer and this time after I awoke from the anesthesia said that she took no tissue samples because there was nothing there to take. Exactly two weeks later, the radiation oncologist said in our virtual appointment that the MRI scan taken a week earlier was perfectly clear, so she would see me a year from then for another scan. The surgeon will do a check every three months, at least for the first year. To be honest, it didn’t sink in quickly. The early diagnosis which turned out to be a false/negative made it harder to believe. What was quickly and easily believed is that the huge number of prayers for my healing by my spiritual family all over the world made all the difference. I will never be able to thank them enough. There are no words…
We all have the basic human needs of being accepted; thus we fear rejection. We want to be approved, to be included, to be considered important, hopefully even essential to those with whom we associate. Do you not think that servanthood will gain these rewards, and far more? We don’t serve to be served in return or give in order to be given to, for serving is its own reward. It is more blessed to give than to receive. Considering others more important than ourselves brings benefits far beyond what we might expect. Jesus changed the world by being the world’s greatest servant. You can change your world by being the best servant you can be, with God through the Holy Spirit enabling you to keep growing in this capacity.
Selfishness is natural; selflessness is unnatural. Yet, as with most things, what comes natural is of the world and what takes genuine effort and self-denial is of God. Trust him that his way, the Via Dolorosa, is the path to glory. It will change you, and better, it will change others. Influence is about helping others rather than impressing others, which makes true leadership servanthood, from beginning to end. Trust Jesus enough to trust that fundamental truth.
The greatest influence you can possibly have on another’s life is helping them become disciples of Jesus. If first becoming a Christian, coming into a saved relationship with God through Christ, is our first priority, guess what? We should feel compelled to see that as a starting place in being a servant to others, helping them find that same saved relationship. Although I didn’t attend the recent Summit Conference in Orlando, I did watch a lot of it virtually. The very first thing I watched addressed the topic of raising up the next generation.
All three presenters came at the subject in somewhat different, but complementary ways. Kevin Miller spoke about campus ministry and what they were doing in Boston. He didn’t speak about what they ought to be doing; he spoke about what they were doing and had been doing recently. He had two impressive younger generation disciples speak as a part of his presentation. It was all so convicting. It reminded me of why I was attracted to this family of churches in the first place. I saw in action the majority of the membership having a determination to imitate the mission of Jesus, “to seek and save the lost” (Luke 19:10). As we seek to influence and serve others in every way possible in imitation of Jesus, let’s not forget what our first priority with others should always be – helping them know Jesus.