I became a Christian during my freshman year of college through the ministry of Intervarsity. In the fall of 1991, I arrived on campus, excited and ready to learn. My home for the next stage of my education was a prestigious, small, secular liberal arts university.
I came from a Catholic background, where faith was more cultural than personal. So, while my values reflected some familiarity and regard for religion, I had no real personal investment in it. Unbeknownst to me, the first person I befriended was, a Christian.
She was a senior, an Asian studies major, and the resident assistant assigned to my dorm. Born and raised in the United States, she had spent several summers in Japan, spoke the language, and had a best friend who was fluent in Spanish and French. Born in Venezuela, I was a Third Culture Kid with a unique upbringing and education that took place between various cultures and languages. So, we hit it off after finding plenty of common interest in our very diverse backgrounds.
I was taken aback by how my friend’s faith was a very real and personal matter to her. A few days into my first semester, we were chatting one night until she looked at her watch and said she needed to go to a meeting. Curious, I asked her about it, and she replied that she was headed to a prayer meeting. I was fascinated. The notion that people my age, on a college campus, free to use their time any way they saw fit, would willingly gather together in a corner of campus to pray seemed strange and unbelievable. She asked me if I wanted to come, and I said yes.
That first meeting turned into a regular activity I attended. I met the Intervarsity staff worker assigned to my campus. She would also have a great impact on my life. Soon after that first prayer meeting, which I attended mainly to satisfy my incredulous curiosity, I began to attend the weekly gatherings organized by the students from our campus Intervarsity chapter. During this time I got a free paperback student Bible and began reading it, trying to understand what it said. I loved the fellowship, soaked up the learning, and began to seriously wrestle with questions I had never asked before.
Sometime during those first few months of my college education I realized that my life was incomplete. I hungered for something that was a Someone. A very real person was behind the kindness and love my friends shared with me and others. I remember thinking, “How can this be? We are all facing the same stress and the same trials. Classes, finals, hard family situations, etc. And yet, the same things that seem to swallow me, affect them but don’t defeat them. Why?” It was simple. Looking for the answer, I bumped into Jesus. I prayed in the privacy of my dorm room and asked God to please come into my life. I told Him that I gladly gave it to Him.
Not too long after that, some friends invited me to go to a Christian concert. During the concert, the singer talked about the cost of the cross and the cost of a life without God. I wholeheartedly agreed from my seat with tears in my eyes. Then he asked if there was anyone who felt God was asking them to consider the cost, to not hesitate and simply follow Him. He posed the question over and over. I thought, “Lord I already did this in my dorm, surely I don’t need to do this here. In front of my two friends, and a bunch of strangers.”
The singer kept asking. I said to God “Ok, you make someone else get up, and I will get up after them.” I realized God didn’t want me to do this because others went first. He wanted me to do it for Him. My two friends who had invited me were sitting with their heads down praying. I was too. Finally I got the courage and thought, “Yes Lord. For you I will stand, today and always.” And I got up fast before I would chicken out and change my mind. The friend sitting next to me noticed I moved and looked up with a big surprise on his face. He tapped the shoulder of the friend sitting next to him. Now they both looked at me surprised. With tears in their eyes they smiled at me and kept on praying.
Jim Elliot, “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep, to gain that which he cannot lose.”
I first heard this quote from Jim’s widow, Elisabeth Elliot herself in 1992. When she came to speak on campus a few weeks after I became a Christian, I had never heard of her and wasn’t planning on attending her talk. But an Intervarsity leader visiting campus that week told us about her story and encouraged us to make the time to go to her talk. Fascinated by the summary the leader shared, I made sure to find a seat at my college auditorium the following Thursday night. My faith would never be the same.
The sentence stunned me when I first heard her say it. Of course attached to the testimony of Jim’s martyrdom and her own extraordinary life, it painted a compelling picture of the new Truth my new heart was learning about. The words stayed with me long after her talk ended. I went on to read several of her books and heard her speak again a few years later at a student conference.
The words are especially weighty when you know the life of the person who recorded these statements in his journal. Jim Elliot died at 28, pierced to death by the very people he’d given his life to serve. He left a widow and their 10 month old baby girl. Years later, to hear his widow say those words in the context of a lifetime of faith only adds to that weight. It is the weight of something bigger than either of them or the great loss suffered. Bigger than you or me.
My young mind grappled with the words, reminiscent of these other ones written millennia ago: “For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” Matthew 16:25 (ESV). Jim Elliot was arguing that to lose your life (which you can’t keep anyway, because we all die eventually) was not foolish at all, because the gain would greatly outdo the cost.
What gain is this, that is so great and worth our precious, finite, one life we’ve been given here on earth? That by choosing it, Jim Elliot’s life was ended at the age of 28? What gain is this that made his widow dedicate her life after his death to the very mission by which he died, choosing to stay in the jungle with her baby girl for the next 13 years – among the very people who killed her husband? What gain is this that has been transforming my life since 1991?
I took the quote and stored it in my heart, wrote it in my journal, and even used it as a screensaver in my first internship. It’s a statement issued with a tone of authority, but also an affirmation pregnant with promise. Life is finite. Eventually each one of us will die. Our life therefore is not something we can keep. We can’t prevent ourselves from decaying and our bodies aging and eventually passing. So, our time here is limited and precious, and best invested as we see fit, following our heart and deepest desires. After all, we only live once.
The thought of giving that up can seem nonsensical and a waste of time; foolish even. Undeniably, the call to follow Jesus bears considerable cost. It did for me when I first embraced faith in Him, and still does today. I may not have had to pay with my life doing missionary work in a far away jungle. But learning to apologize when I would rather indulge my anger and lash out, forgiving hurts and forfeiting my right to treat those who hurt me in the same way they treat me– these are but a few of the ongoing costs. The price for following Jesus instead of my heart has included losing friendships over my faith, being misunderstood and misrepresented by loved ones, and making the difficult choice to give up certain things.
Giving up on my right to live my life as I choose and surrender that right over to God is the costliest thing I’ve ever done. Why? Because that which I cannot lose is something that cannot be found within. We have a Maker and were made for a purpose. Only in the Hands that fashioned us into existence and which were pierced for our sake, can we find meaning. With as much resolve, wisdom, and good intentions we think we have, the problem we will face in this finite life is not outside of ourselves, but within. We are not able to always do the right thing. We are not capable of fixing ourselves. You, me, the person you love, and the one who is trying to love you–we are all sinful.
As costly as it is to give up the freedom I have to maintain agency over my life, the cost of living my way seems far greater. For I would be cheating myself of experiencing all the personal ways in which God has tenderly cared for me, provided for me, protected me, taught me, sustained me, healed me, blessed me, and loved me so deeply I can barely articulate it. Because here’s the thing: eternal life is something we cannot lose. Unlike our earthly life, it never ceases to exist. And the joy, the amazing news for me back in 1991 and today, is that eternity begins here. Jesus’ words recorded centuries ago echo so well this hope, when he said: “Behold, I am making all things new” Revelation 21:5 (ESV).
No friends, it is not senseless to give up something that we don’t get to keep anyway, in order to gain something that we will never lose. Moreover, it’s something that we begin to experience right here, right now, the moment we surrender our lives to Jesus. Because make no mistake, the greatest miracle of said surrender is to witness one’s own life and heart experience change we know we are utterly incapable of producing. This regeneration of heart and mind is only possible through the work of the Holy Spirit.
I am no fool for giving my right now life to the One who made me and who gives me real, unbroken, and forever eternal Life. I can stand on the promise and say with Job,
“I know that my redeemer lives,
And that in the end he will stand on the earth.
And after my skin has been destroyed,
Yet in my flesh I will see God;
I myself will see him
with my own eyes – and not another.
How my heart yearns within me!
Job 19: 25-27 (NIV)