“My friend,” John Adams wrote to Thomas Jefferson toward the end of both their lives, “you and I have lived in serious times.”
Indeed, they had.
The American colony was embroiled in a contentious relationship with its mother country, Britain, which would erupt into a declaration of independence and eventually war. Instead of swift and immediate defeat at the hands of the British, the conflict birthed a new nation that in just over two centuries would be unrivaled in power and influence.
But I will confess to being equally taken by another dynamic: that Adams, Jefferson and the other founding fathers led serious lives. Had they not, the course of history would have taken an altogether different turn.
John Adam’s life was integrally involved with the Continental Congress, the American Revolution, the writing of Massachusetts’ constitution and the negotiation of the Treaty of Paris. He served as the first American vice-president under George Washington and then became the nation’s second president. Thomas Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence and then served as the country’s first secretary of state, second vice-president and third president. He fashioned the Louisiana Purchase and founded the University of Virginia. It is fitting that these founding fathers of America – Adams and Jefferson – died on the same day, July 4, 1826, the fledgling country’s 50th anniversary.
Serious times met with serious lives. This is the anvil on which history is forged. More important, it is the means by which the Kingdom of God is advanced and the life of a Christ follower measured. Paul Helm rightly notes that according to Scripture “the whole of a person’s life is fundamentally serious, something for which he is responsible before God, and for which he will have to give an account… He is individually responsible to God for what he ‘makes’ of it.”
This brings me to a confession.
I’m taken by this because there is nothing I want more than for my life to matter.
I want to be used profoundly by God, to be seized by His great and mighty hand and thrust onto the stage of history in order to do something significant. With as pure of a heart as I can muster, this isn’t about fame or prestige. It’s about wanting my life to count where it is needed most. There is a great movement of God that has been set loose in this world, and I want to be on the front lines.
Between college semesters in the summer of 1980, I went out to Colorado to work on a project for a company my father was managing. I took some time off one weekend and went into the city of Fort Collins. I walked around the campus of Colorado State University, then made my way to a theater. A new movie had just been released—the second installment of the original Star Wars trilogy, The Empire Strikes Back.
As I am sure you know, the entire Star Wars saga is about the cosmic battle between good and evil, with the first three films focused on a young farm boy named Luke who becomes swept up in a galactic rebellion against an evil empire.
Seeing that movie long, long ago in a city far, far away at the tender age of 18 was a defining moment for my life. I walked out of the theater profoundly moved. I remember sitting in my car in the parking lot, overwhelmed with a single thought: That's what I want for my life. To be caught up in the sweep of history. To be in the center of things. To be making a difference. To be at the heart of the struggle between right and wrong, good and evil. My heart was almost breaking at the thought of a life of insignificance. Then I recall thinking, But where can that happen in the real world? How can I be a part of something that is bigger than I am? Where in life can something so grand be found?
Then it came to me as startlingly sudden as a rip of lightning, and as poundingly affirmed as any thunder that could follow: That's what God's invitation to the Christ-life is all about! There is a galactic struggle going on, and I could be a warrior. I could give my life to something that was bigger than I was, that would live on long after I was gone. What I did mattered and could impact all of history—even into eternity. The reality of the spiritual realm, the struggle for men’s and women’s souls, the cosmic consequences that were at stake… it became so clear to me: I could give my life to that! And there was nothing that would ever compete with its scale or significance.
I’m not going to assume you felt the same way following Star Wars, Braveheart, Lord of the Rings or any of the scores of other films that have moved me to want to spend my life in great and noble pursuits. But this is more than a man’s emotional equivalent to chick-flicks.
Because you want your life to matter, too.
The moment may not have come seeing William Wallace in full face paint at the Battle of Stirling Bridge, or Aragorn wielding the sword of Elendil that had been forged anew. But you have been moved, and it was to give your life away to something bigger than you are. To make a difference. To change the world. It may have been seeing Les Miserables on stage, reading The Hiding Place by Corrie ten Boom, standing on the beach at sunset watching the sun paint its way out of the sky, or sitting on the crest of a mountain at dawn when the blazing newness of the day felt like it was enveloping your very soul. It may have been the stirring that came to your spirit when you first read a speech by Winston Churchill, or heard an altar call during a Billy Graham crusade, or saw a film showing Mother Teresa ministering in the slums of Calcutta.
Sadly, for most it ends there. The feeling comes and then fades. If it was a film, the closing credits are quickly followed by the trip to the car in the parking lot. If a book, the final chapter lingers only until the phone rings. Even the physical pilgrimage to the historical monument can be quickly eclipsed by an invading horde of schoolchildren.
But we let it happen!
We allow the movement of God on the surface of our spirits to become lost amid the stones the world tosses thoughtlessly into our waters. As a result, we lose the vision God could give us of our world and our place in it. Too quickly, and often without struggle, we trade making history with making money, substitute building a life with building a career and sacrifice living for God with living for the weekend. We forego significance for the sake of success and pursue the superficiality of title and degree, house and car, rank and portfolio over a life lived large. We become saved, but not seized; delivered, but not driven.
But it doesn’t have to be this way.
During the serious times of Adams and Jefferson, it was unclear whether men and women would rise to the moment. In light of this, Thomas Paine authored a series of patriotic tracts called The Crisis papers, which appeared in print from 1776-1783. The first of these so stirred George Washington that he ordered it read to his troops late in December 1776 when the American cause seemed to be faltering. “These are the times that try men’s souls,” Paine’s opening sentence began. “The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of his country.” He was right. But Paine also understood what would happen if men and women did not shrink from a life so spent. So he wrote on: “... but he that stands it now deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.”
Paine’s words proved decisive for Washington’s troops. Many soldiers whose terms of service would expire that January 1 were inspired to reenlist. Later that same month the Americans won at Trenton, and the tide of the war was turned.
Another revolutionary figure, engaged in a struggle more compelling than the mere birth of a nation, saw the choice men and women make at such moments in history with equal clarity:
“You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before men...” (Matthew 5:14-16, NIV).
Jesus saw the world as a great cosmic contest between good and evil, with the eternity of human souls wavering on the line. He charged those who followed Him with the task of engaging the contest in such a way as to make history. We often talk blithely of “seizing the day” as if it was little more than savoring a moment. For Jesus, seizing the day meant responding to the challenge of the moment.
But where does one begin?
In the ancient Scriptures, a group of men known as the men of Issachar were heralded for two things: understanding the times and determining how to live in light of those times (I Chronicles 12). This is the combination that we must pursue: understanding the serious nature of our time and living intentionally in light of those times. We can deepen our awareness of what is happening in our world – the flow of history to this point and the pivotal moment our day represents – and then explore the key areas of life that need to be developed to live a life of consequence.
And doing it now matters.
James Emery White
Adapted from the opening pages of James Emery White’s Serious Times: Making Your Life Matter in an Urgent Day (InterVarsity Press) available here.
About the Author
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, Meet Generation Z: Understanding and Reaching the New Post-Christian World, is available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.