I remember it well, though it’s been more than forty years since I first heard the gospel. The twelve-year-old who shared Christ with me presented the gospel this way: he met me at the seventh-grade classroom door and said, “It’s a good thing you lived through the night . . . because if you hadn’t, you’d be in hell right now.” His approach seriously lacked tact, but truth he did not lack. I was destined for hell apart from the gracious move of God in my life.
Needless to say, you don’t sleep well when you hear the gospel in that manner. Every night, I tossed, so frightened about not waking up that I could not easily close my eyes. That pattern continued for more than eight months before I became a follower of Christ at age 13. Only then did I genuinely sleep again, and never since then has death been a fear.
That doesn’t mean I sleep well now, though. I still toss and turn like before, but fear of death is not what keeps me awake. No, my fear this time is life. Dying does not scare me, but living does.
I fear, for example, I am living well – teaching at a seminary, preaching regularly, leading conferences, traveling – without really caring that my neighbors are often living for nothing that amounts to anything eternal.
I am afraid my wife and I are so ingrained in our way of life that we would battle hard against God if He changed our plans. What would we do if God required of us what He demanded of Abraham – to leave all behind and seek His city (Gen. 12:1-3)?
I am concerned I’m so busy that I sometimes miss people who are hungry, hurting, homeless, and helpless. Yet, their needs are real, and Jesus’ expectation that we minister to them remains (Matt. 25: 31-46).
I am also afraid I sometimes work more for my glory than for God’s. I make no claim to be famous, but I would be lying to say my ego isn’t stroked when I see my name on a book cover or a conference brochure.
Having no children, I fear I will live my life “successfully,” but leave behind no next generation to carry on the work of the gospel. I know that little matters if the mark I leave is as fleeting as life itself, but the time needed to invest heavily in others seems so limited.
I read of almost 2 billion people who have little or no access to the gospel, and I worry my American lifestyle weakens my efforts to get the gospel to the ends of the earth. I am terrified that I can live so easily without grieving over thousands of unreached people groups around the world.
In fact, I fear that somewhere in the world is a non-believer seeking truth in the wrong place, a new believer longing for a mentor, or an entire congregation pleading with God to send them training—and I will be so occupied doing other “good things” that I miss the opportunities. The door is open, and I will have missed it.
No, it is not death that scares me. What scares me is the possibility of coming to the end of life, looking back, and seeing little but wood, hay, and stubble to be burned in the fire (1 Cor. 3:10-15). It’s living in such a way that I could not face my own mortality with the confidence of Paul: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (2 Tim. 4:7).
A dying world demands that we be willing to put our lives on the line to get the gospel to them. That kind of radical obedience likely means changing the way we live at some level—and that’s frightening.
At the same time, though, this truth I know: God has given me this day to serve Him with all of my being. What I do right now will determine whether my life will have made a difference when the Lord calls me home. Present-tense radical obedience must trump my future-tense fears—and in that hope I press on today.
Chuck Lawless is Professor of Evangelism and Missions and Dean of Graduate Studies at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.