This book began as my last will and testament borne out of a tragedy that struck close to home.
On the morning of September 11, 2001, Ziad Jarrah and three of his fellow hijackers boarded United Airlines Flight 93 in Newark and began what was supposed to be their cross-country journey to San Francisco. Fifteen more hijackers were boarding three different planes, all with the same mission: to strike terror into the hearts of the American people in the name of Allah.
Minutes after takeoff, the first of the four hijacked planes was flown into one of the World Trade Center towers. I learned about the first plane while working in a building adjacent to the U.S. Capitol Building. A friend told me to turn on CNN, because a small plane had flown into one of the Twin Towers. We talked about it for less than a minute, and both concluded that it was an accident and we returned to our conversation. Fifteen minutes later, the second plane hit the other tower. As soon as I found out, I instantly knew it was a terrorist attack, and I knew the world had changed forever. I remained glued to the television.
Soon, I was on the phone with my boss, Congressman Joe Pitts, who was driving in to work. He told me he saw a huge plume of black smoke coming from the Pentagon. Within minutes we learned that a third hijacked plane was to blame, and there were reports that there might be additional hijacked planes still in the air. In fact, the fourth plane was headed towards Washington. Ziad Jarrah was at the helm, and intelligence indicates he was planning to fly into the U.S. Capitol or the White House. The former was much more likely given the difficulty of hitting the White House (a relatively small target from the air).
I was angry. I felt all of the “fight” instinct and none of the “flight.” I wanted to lash out at the perpetrators. My staff was worried and wanted to leave the building, as other buildings in Washington were being evacuated. They all left, but I stayed at my desk. I refused to run away from the terrorists—something I now recognize as foolish. A Capitol police officer soon knocked on my door and told me that I was required to leave the building. Reluctantly and angrily, I left and made my way to the Metro Station to escape the city.
The passengers on Ziad's plane had learned about the fate of the other hijacked planes. They were determined to prevent their plane from hitting its intended target. Todd Beamer, who led the passengers, first recited the 23rd Psalm with the cell phone operator before asking his fellow passengers if they were ready, and then saying, “Okay, let's roll.” Beamer then rushed the hijackers. In the ensuing battle for control of the plane, Ziad swerved left and right, up and down, trying to knock the passengers off their feet. When it was clear that the passenger revolt was succeeding and Ziad would not reach his target, he said “Allahu Akbar,” meaning “God is great,” and pointed the nose of the plane towards the ground. In less than a minute, the plane hit the ground at 563 miles per hour, killing all 44 people on board and creating a crater measuring 10 feet by 50 feet.
In the following days and years, I assumed that I would die in a terrorist attack on the U.S. Capitol. Today, that sounds melodramatic, but at the time it seemed anything but. In 2004, Senator Frist, for whom I was policy advisor, told me that intelligence reports indicated there would be a terrorist attack on the Capitol Building in the near future. My office was a few paces away from the Capitol Rotunda where Ziad likely had been heading three years before. I often imagined my death, wondering whether I would have any warning or see a bright light before the explosion blew me to bits. My wife and I even briefly considered whether we should leave politics and move out of the city so my children would not grow up fatherless. In the end, we both concluded that God had called me to work for justice on the national political scene and our lives were in his hands. So we stayed.
One thing I did, however, was write a long letter to my then young children, so they would know what their dad had believed and tried to live out. My letter eventually became this book. It remains principally for my children, but I hope it may be helpful to others as well.
A superficial reading of this book might suggest it is just about self-denial and humility and servanthood. Yet the Bible's hard teachings about giving up our lives are not ends in themselves but means to the end. Jesus said, “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full” (John 10:10). That is what I want for myself, and it is, I hope, what you want for your life. I wish there were some shortcut to experiencing a full life, but there is not. Ultimately, the hard way leads to the green pastures; the easy path leads to death.
Years ago, my sister, a food photographer, flew into Washington, DC, for a photo shoot with one of her clients. I met her at the airport, helping lug heavy bags of equipment to the car rental pick-up, only to be told that we needed to take a shuttle to a different terminal. After the frustration of carrying so many bags to the next counter, we were told by a different agent that, in fact, we needed to return to the first place.
As we got back on the shuttle to retrace our journey, she looked at me in exasperation and said, “Don’t they know it’s all about me?” The absurdity of that one sentence made us laugh, and the tension of the day evaporated.
That facetious remark also made me think about how often I live as if life were all about me. I repeat that sentence to myself to mock my self-centered ways. How ridiculous to act as if I am the center of the universe!
Yet most of us live like that at least sometimes. We expect to have our careless words overlooked or contextualized, yet we resent others’ careless words spoken to us, feeling deeply wronged. We expect to be treated kindly and gently when we come home frazzled from a long day at work, but quickly lose patience with others in the same boat. We want to be affirmed and appreciated, but we neglect to do that for others. We act like infants demanding to be fed, nurtured, and coddled.
Rick Warren’s The Purpose-Driven Life captures the truth that we are loath to admit:
It's not about you. The purpose of your life is far greater than your own personal fulfillment, your peace of mind, or even your happiness. It's far greater than your family, your career, or even your wildest dreams and ambitions. If you want to know why you were placed on this planet, you must begin with God. You were born by his purpose and for his purpose.
Exactly. We were made by God and for God. This truth shocks our sensibilities in our self-exalting, comfort-seeking society. We are bombarded with advertising telling us to “spoil yourself,” “obey your thirst,” “make your own road,” “have it your way,” “because you’re worth it.” Madison Avenue pushes the messages we want to be true, justifying our own self-centeredness.
Yet, to say that “it’s not about you” is not the same as saying “you don’t matter.” In fact, you are of infinite worth precisely because it is not principally about you. As created beings, we are made to love, serve, and adore the Great I AM. We derive our value from God. We have intrinsic worth, from the lowliest street sweeper to the superstar athlete, precisely because we are made in God’s image. Without God, we would be just dust in the wind.
Having eternal value is also completely at odds with the lie that we should spoil ourselves because we only live once. “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die” propagates the fiction that, careening toward the inevitable, facing down our own death, we should indulge our every wish in the pursuit of personal happiness. I have heard divorcees explain to their grieving children, “I know you miss our family being together, but you want me to be happy, don’t you?” And we have all heard (and perhaps said ourselves), “if it’s not fun, why do it?” These lies ruin many lives.
God does want us to be happy, but in that deep and satisfying way better characterized as joy. And when the thorns of this fallen world are finally cleared away, joy will give way to enduring happiness.
The impulse to center the universe around ourselves causes us to struggle to get to the top of the ant heap. Like unruly children vying to be first in line for a carnival, we primp and preen to be better than our peers, to be the most beautiful or the smartest or the most popular or the funniest. We care desperately what others think about us and relatively little about what God thinks of us.
Many people ignore the grim reality that we will die and be forgotten by our peers and those who come after us. Within just a few decades, we will be a distant memory to our progeny, and within 100 years, few of us will be remembered by anyone. In the end, our vain pursuits to look younger and healthier will fail, and the people about whose opinions we care so much will also die. Stroll through a cemetery to remember what happens to everyone.
Though our death is a certainty, we cloak this fact behind words designed to make death seem like the exception instead of the rule: asking whether a sick friend is going to die—as if we are not all terminal. The only question is when we will die. Operationally, we act immortal, minimally planning for the inevitable, shoving it out of our minds.
Even in this life, our big achievements fade fast. U.S. Senator Dick Stone represented Florida from 1974 to 1980. He later became ambassador-at-large to Central America and ambassador to Denmark. But less than two decades after his prominent service, his name has been virtually erased from public memory. I met him a few years ago and inwardly marveled that I had never even heard of him. That will be the same story for most of us. Our greatest temporal victories will vanish into the mist of history, almost totally forgotten by those we have sought to impress.
But we will never be forgotten by God.
One day, perhaps tomorrow, we will stand before the audience of One, our Creator and our Judge, being called to account for how we spent our time on Earth. It is around this moment that I seek to orient my life. I try to think about my death every day and to live accordingly. Of course, I often forget and live out of fear of others or fear of failure or just plain vanity. But I know that my chief end should be to “glorify God, and enjoy him forever” (Westminster Shorter Catechism).
Glorifying God in all things requires that we master self-denial. Contrary to conventional wisdom, real power lies in the ability to say no to oneself and say yes to God. Counter-intuitively, in denying ourselves we learn to live life to the full. It is the hard work of self-mastery that leads to joy. The more we deny ourselves, the more we have. The more we humble ourselves, the more we are exalted. The last shall be first. The losers will be the winners. The meek will inherit the earth. The power in saying “no” to ourselves frees us to say “yes” to God and find the life for which we were made.
The reason joy begins in self-denial is because we must be freed from the sin in which we were born and which taints every part of us and others. The world is not how it is supposed to be. It is twisted, corrupted, and wrong.
This is not to say that nothing is good in the world. To the contrary, much good remains since Adam and Eve’s fateful decision to rebel. We see God’s beauty in a sunset, his genius in fantastical deep-sea creatures, his love in a mother, his joy in our friends. But these whispers of transcendence are set in the context of the cruelty of an abusive parent, the inhumanity of war, the insanity of the asylum, the destruction of a tornado, the tragedy of melanoma. The evil of our world runs right through our hearts, though we are often too blind to see our own sin and can only recognize it in others.
Learning to say no begins with laying down our lives at the cross and accepting God’s forgiveness. In plunging ourselves into God’s grace in the person of the God-Man Jesus, we simultaneously say no to ourselves and yes to God. In this act, God’s mercy secures us as his own, imputing Christ’s righteousness to us. We are sealed as God’s own, his righteousness covers our unrighteousness, and we are set free to serve our Savior out of gratitude, rather than to try to earn our salvation out of fear or pride.
This first act of saying no to ourselves is followed by countless more acts of self-denial as we seek to be sanctified—made more like God. Although followers of Christ have been ransomed by God, we are still sinful and remain in a sinful world. Denying our natural impulses to sin requires enormous effort and moment-by-moment practice. It takes a lifetime—and the grace of God—to seek to overcome the sin into which we are born. We are called to strive for perfection, and it is hard duty, indeed. Yet it is in the unceasing and wearying effort to reject rebellion that we find joy.
Unfortunately, we will never arrive at perfection this side of death. Our best efforts always fall short, which is why grace carries us from first to last. There is no room for boasting about our efforts, because they will never suffice. The power of salvation is not in our self-denial, but in the power of the cross. We do not preach ourselves, but Christ crucified.
Although this book focuses on our efforts to be faithful followers of Christ, our hope is fully in God’s grace. It is not a cheap grace, and it will cost us everything to accept it, but neither can we earn it. When we stand before God, our sole response must be that we have thrown ourselves on the mercy of our Advocate, Jesus Christ the Righteous. Our most righteous acts are still as filthy rags before the Holy God. This does not mean we cannot please him. In fact, God is easily pleased, but he is impossible to satisfy.
To modern ears, lauding the power of self-negation sounds so negative. The world tells us to taste, touch, feel, do, and just be who we are. Of course, God wants us to do all those things, but he knows we will enjoy the sensual life most within boundaries. The Evil One lies that we will be happiest without limits. Take sex, a very good gift of God, intended for our pleasure and for bearing children. Outside of marriage, sex sows pain and destruction in our lives.
God does not call us to deny ourselves because he is grouchy and mean but because he loves us and wants us to be happy—his kind of happiness, which is deep and true and right. Like a key to a locked door leading to a wonderful room, self-denial is the means of restoring a measure of the life he originally intended for us before sin and death entered the world. We say no to ourselves to say yes to life. In heaven, sin will not be present and self-denial will no longer be necessary, because we will be free of selfishness. We will only want to do good, and the enervating resistance to sin will be no more.
Living like it is not about you, but all about God, turns the natural order of the world on its head. It unlocks the deep mysteries of the universe. The way up is the way down. The way to live is first to die. To become wise we must become fools. These counter-intuitive mysteries make sense when we understand who God is, how we were originally made, how we rebelled, how we can be redeemed, and God’s plan for a new heaven and a new earth. The more we walk in reality, the more the “foolishness” of the cross—of life triumphing over death—shames the “wisdom” of the world.
God’s ways are more invigorating than our ways. He leads us to live a more daring life. He is not safe, and he will challenge us to walk through minefields with our eyes closed. He wants us to walk by faith, not by sight. He wants to lead us, and he wants us to learn to hear his voice and to trust him.
Thankfully, he can see around corners, making all things work together for good for those who follow in faith. This is not to say we will never be blown up by one of the mines, figuratively or literally. We will all die, and before that we may lose our reputations, our homes, our families, our health, our comfort. B
ut like the apostles, ten of whom were martyred, God will also use our triumphs and our defeats to his glory and for our eternal good. In the words of the twentieth-century martyr Jim Elliot, “he is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose.”
God’s ways are also more peaceful than ours. We can know peace because of our trust in who he is and what he intends for us. He loves us more deeply than anyone else, knows us better, and has a “good, pleasing, and perfect will” for all who follow (Rom. 12:2). As followers, the weight of the world is not on our shoulders, but on his. Our calling is to faithfulness, not success. This realization makes our challenges more manageable and less stressful. It is our responsibility to hear his voice and do his bidding. The results belong to him. Ours is the trying.
By participating in the work of the Most High God, we become partners with him in his exciting plans. When we are busy conquering the world for ourselves, we inevitably become dissatisfied. Our most ambitious plans cannot match the grandeur of his plans. Multi-millionaires grow discontent with their wealth, rock stars cannot drink enough fame, kings long for more lands to vanquish. In the end, what the world has to offer just is not enough.
When I worked for President George W. Bush in the White House, I had a full access pass enabling me to go anywhere in the West Wing—which is really the power center of the White House. In the beginning of my service, I experienced the thrill of walking through those storied passageways, remembering all of the historical figures who had trod there, from James Madison and Thomas Jefferson to Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Deleanor Roosevelt. Wars began and ended in those hallowed rooms. The place was brimming with the thrill of history.
But in time, the thrill waned for me. I well remember when the initial magic of the Rose Garden wore off. I was walking through the Garden just outside the Oval Office, typing on my mobile phone as I walked. I glanced up at the Rose Garden and then returned to my phone. Then it struck me: the Rose Garden had become just a garden.
We were made for so much more than worldly designs. Our grandest schemes are pale shadows of his far more thrilling plans. In learning to serve, we grow into the greatness he has in store for us. Only storming the Gates of Hell is an adventure worthy of the eternity he has sown in our hearts. In the words of the song, “Dare You to Move” by Switchfoot, God dares us “to move like today never happened before.”
God’s work is not confined to just “winning souls.” It includes that, but it is far more. He cares about every part of his world. He wants to straighten out twisted political systems, heal the sick, lift up the good, the true, and the beautiful, triumph over Evil, feed the hungry, empower the powerless, and set the captive free. His Great Commission complements his creation mandate to steward the Earth, building societies that reflect God’s Kingdom.
Pietistic theologies that reduce God’s concerns to just the spiritual realm distort the all-encompassing message of the Bible to bring everything under the Lordship of Christ. No square inch of the world is beyond God’s concern. He cares deeply about architecture, theater, philosophy, and math. Once we learn the comprehensive nature of the Kingdom, every part of our lives becomes God’s workshop. Worship becomes singing and sewing. Mission becomes evangelism and energy exploration -- and everything else.
As all of life comes under the lordship of Christ, invigorating every moment, our longing for heaven grows stronger, not weaker. On the one hand, we find a contentment and joy in doing God’s work in God’s way. On the other hand, a deep and abiding satisfaction eludes us as we fight against the thorns of sin that infest our work. We are sinners to the core. Even at our best we are flawed and broken and not what we are supposed to be. We groan, along with all of creation, under the weight of sin and death. We ache to escape the shadowlands and to live full and unfettered lives. We long to see God face-to-face, and not just through a glass darkly. We want to feel the transcendent joy of whole and healthy relationships, of well and completely fit bodies, of life as it was made to be before humanity’s rebellion. We do not want to live in the valley of the shadow of death, but in complete freedom and immortality. We long for our true home, a place we have never seen but yearn for nonetheless.
Ever since my childhood I have loved New England lakes. Their beauty captivates me. I am enchanted looking at the sun dance on the crystal clear water surrounded by stands of pine trees under a deep blue sky. On one vacation to Connecticut, I swam to the middle of a lake on a perfect summer day and floated on my back looking up at the sky. Even as I exulted in one of the things I most enjoy, I felt its deficiency. It just was not enough. Gaining what I dreamed about reminded me that the lake is not what I really want in my deepest part. What I truly want and need is God. Only he can satisfy my deepest longings. All of my desires point me back to the Creator who wants me to be completely his. Our full and final consolation lies in heaven.
The greatest joys in this world can only give us a glimpse of what we really want. Our fulfillment comes from walking with God imperfectly now, but perfectly in the future. Our longing to be with him keeps us going. It gives us strength to fight demons within and demons without. It draws us on when despair threatens to undo us. We yearn to receive a rich welcome into the Kingdom of Light, so we press on. Like a marathon runner tempted to quit, we keep our eyes fixed on the prize, “the author and perfecter of our faith” (Heb. 12:2). We do not want to be among those who are ashamed upon seeing him and shrink back, but among those whose hearts leap at the thought of being in his presence. We stumble again and again, but we keep going because of him who calls us. We run alongside others so we do not lose heart, urging one another on, remembering the saints who have gone before us who endured every conceivable hardship yet claimed the prize in the end.
It is not about you or me, but all about him.
Seek to save your life in self-gratification and you will lose yourself. But give yourself away in humble service, and you will find life, and much more, you will find him who made you and for whom you were made.
The book is divided into four sections. The first two chapters are about dying to self. Chapters 3 and 4 are about living in the shadow of our certain death. Chapters 5 and 6 are about living for God, and chapters 7 and 8 are about the importance of relationships.
I hope you will find nothing in these pages that you cannot find in other books. If you do, it is either because I have devised a novel error or you have not yet read enough. I do not pretend to be an original thinker. My wisdom, to the extent I have any, is all derived from the Bible and others who have gone before me. I have simply repackaged this ancient wisdom in my own unique way. If you find it helpful, I am glad. If not, please read better books.
William B. Wichterman