There is more than one way you can live your life.
You can choose the path of least resistance. You can choose to set comfort as your goal. You can live a risk-averse life of pain avoidance. You can choose half-hearted living. And if you choose to live that kind of life, I can hardly blame you. I mean, who really wants to live a life where you might experience failure, pain and insurmountable challenges?
The problem is, if you choose to live half-hearted, you can end up living a half-life.
There is another way to live. We’ll call it ‘wholehearted living’. It requires the passionate pursuit of one thing for the long term. And while it is a life of focus and desire, it would be a mistake to think it is a driven life or that it demands the lifestyle of a workaholic. It is not a life of ruthless striving or self-centred grasping. It is a life built on a foundation of trust and rest. On top of that foundation, the wholehearted person constructs a way of living where they give the whole of themselves to the pursuit of God and all that He has for the one and only life they have been given.
That’s the kind of life that this book invites you to live.
I’m a preacher. I’ve been taught to always ask people to open – or turn on – their Bibles whenever I have the privilege to teach.
Please turn to Joshua 14. (Sorry, I can’t help it!)
Here are Israel’s oldest members. Joshua and Caleb have been through four and a half decades of pain. Forty years of aimlessly wandering around a soulless desert. Five years of fights and battles; losses and victories. At a time when you and I would probably be implementing our retirement plans, these two legends are discussing land and how they can conquer more of it. They are strategising for their next battle. They have no plans to retreat.
Caleb speaks up. He reflects on the struggles and successes of the last forty-five years and lets us know how he navigated the ups and downs of wars and wanderings: ‘I, however, followed the Lord my God wholeheartedly.’
Even though others doubted and wanted to return to Egypt, I still followed the Lord my God wholeheartedly.
Even though we lost some painful battles, I still followed the Lord my God wholeheartedly.
Even though I’m eighty-five years old, I still have the energy for the fight, still have the courage to take on the giants, still have passion for the cause. I’m still following the Lord my God wholeheartedly.
I’m impressed! Aren’t you?
But Caleb’s wholehearted devotion to God doesn’t just become evident when he puts eighty-five candles on his birthday cake. His wholehearted faith drew God’s attention forty-five years earlier.
Please turn to Numbers 13 and 14. (Again, I apologise, but I can’t help it!)
If you were ever sent to Sunday school as a child, you’ll probably remember the story well. Moses has led the people of Israel to the edge of the Promised Land. He sends in twelve spies to check out the land in preparation for their military assault.
Ten were bad. Two were good.
Ten see the problems. Two focus on the promises.
Ten say, ‘We can’t do it.’ Two say, ‘We can do it.’
Ten say, ‘They are giants and they will crush us like grasshoppers under their size-twenty feet.’ Two say, ‘With God on our side, it’s a no-brainer.’
The two? Joshua and Caleb, of course.
In that moment, Caleb’s self-declaration of wholehearted living is trumped by God’s description of this faith-filled visionary:
My servant Caleb has a different spirit and follows me wholeheartedly, I will bring him into the land he went to, and his descendants will inherit it.
Notice that word again? Wholehearted.
When everyone else doubted, when everyone else lacked faith for the fight, when everyone else wanted to throw in the towel and quit, Caleb stood out from his contemporaries because of his relentless, full devotion to God.
It may be a total coincidence, but some scholars point out that Caleb’s name, in the original Hebrew language, means ‘dog’. Strange, I know! (I mean, if you were to name your child after an animal, Tiger, Lion or Bear might be good choices. But Dog?) It may appear a strange choice to us, but maybe Caleb’s parents were following the biblical pattern of giving their child a name that made a prophetic declaration over their future.
I know very little about dogs, but I do know that they tend to be admired for their loyalty and devotion to their master. That’s why we have guide dogs and rescue dogs, and not rescue cats! In fact, someone has said that the one big difference between dogs and cats is that dogs will worship you while cats will expect you to worship them.
It may just be a coincidence, but Caleb lived up to the meaning of his name. It was like he was God’s dog, loyally and wholeheartedly following his Master.
I think it’s time for a definition.
In fact, that one word looks like it should be two words, which might help us.
That word ‘whole’ reminds us of something the entirety of Scripture teaches us, that God demands the whole of us, not just part of us.
The writer of Proverbs instructs us to ‘Trust in the Lord with all [our] heart’, as opposed to a part of our heart.
When Jesus was questioned about which of the commandments He perceived to be the most important, He responded by saying, ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’
It’s difficult to ignore the word ‘all’ in those ancient texts because they remind us that God requires us to give the whole of our lives as we follow Him. Body. Mind. Soul. Heart. The whole lot. All in.
I grew up with stories ringing in my ears of Christ-followers giving their whole lives as they followed hard after God. No half measures.
In my teens I was told the story of American missionary, Jim Elliot, who was speared to death in 1956 by Auca Indians as he followed God’s call to tell this unreached people group about the love of Jesus. A few days before his death he wrote in his journal, ‘He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.’
That’s wholehearted language.
Around the same time, I was handed a book about a very English gentleman called C T Studd who was born into a wealthy family, studied at the University of Cambridge and played cricket for England. Yet, in the early part of the twentieth century, Studd realised his faith demanded full devotion to God. He followed a missionary call to China and India, penning these words in his letters home, ‘If Jesus Christ is God and died for me, then no sacrifice is too great for me to make for Him.’
That’s wholehearted language.
It’s not that long ago that I read the inspiring biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German theologian and pastor who lived and ministered in Nazi Germany in the Second World War. His strong Christian faith and opposition of Hitler eventually led him to a concentration camp in Flossenburg where he was executed by hanging on 9th April 1945. Shortly before his death he wrote, ‘When Christ calls a man, he bids him, “Come and die.”’
That’s wholehearted language.
It may be ridiculously obvious, but I need to say it: wholehearted living requires the whole of you. It requires all of you. Which makes me wonder; when you read the word ‘all’, what is it about that word that makes you feel uncomfortable?
Do you feel uncomfortable because it includes your money?
All means all. Whole means whole. Everything. Nothing left out.
And then there’s that second word:
Of course, when the Bible uses the word ‘heart’ it is rarely referring to the blood-pumping muscle that you hope is beating rhythmically somewhere inside your chest right now. It usually refers to the unseen core of who you are. It’s that complex combination of your thoughts, emotions, desires, understanding and will. It’s your inner world. Your centre.
To put it simply, you live from the heart.
Whatever’s going on in your heart will spill out. Solomon called it ‘the wellspring of life’ (Proverbs 4:23, TPT) because he knew that every part of our life is affected by the overflow from our hearts. Unless our hearts are reformed by the intentional habits we adopt, unredeemed patterns of thinking and behaving will rise to the surface and will win the day.
Most people I know are incredibly polite. They are nice people.
Until something goes wrong.
Until their car breaks down. Until their children have a tantrum in the frozen-food aisle of the local supermarket. Until they are running late and have a difference of opinion with their spouse in the car on the way to church. In those moments, what is in their heart overflows.
You may be able to hide the things you have done, but you can never hide what is in your heart because it will always spill out in your words and your actions.
At school, I received a detention because I threw my friend’s bag out of the classroom window, but I hid the detention slip from my parents and told them I was at cricket practice so that they would never know what I had done (until now). Not the greatest crime, I know, but you get the point.
You can hide the things you’ve done from the people in your life who matter most, but you can never cover up the condition of your heart because it will always overflow.
We live from our hearts.
We live from the inside out. Even though we spend large amounts of time improving our outside, it is our inside that drives us. Even though we live in a culture that gives priority to the mind, to intellectual pursuits and academia, it is from the heart that we make our choices, take steps into action and try to influence our bit of the world.
I don’t need to tell you – but I will – that living with a healthy heart, overflowing with full devotion to God for the long term, isn’t the easiest thing to maintain. Our hearts get easily damaged. Our hearts get broken. Our hearts grow cold. Our hearts get hardened. Our hearts become hurried and harassed.
Maybe that’s why Caleb’s example is so impressive?
Wholehearted devotion to God for the long term.
The whole of his life, lived from a healthy heart, decade after decade, without ever letting up.
And so, we arrive at a couple of important questions that underpin the entire content of this book:
What does it take to follow the Lord wholeheartedly for the long term?
What did it take for Caleb to maintain full devotion to God for more than four decades from Numbers 14 through to Joshua 14?
I love to run.
In fact, running has become almost an addiction for me (don’t judge me; there are worse addictions I could have chosen, let me assure you).
For more than a decade now I have risen early to run. Eighty per cent of my days I have rolled out of bed before my family gets up and I’ve spent the first hour or so of my day with a mixture of Bible reading, prayer and running. I’ve found the running element of my early mornings to be a vital spiritual practice for me as I centre my soul in the relative stillness of my city at that time of day.
In this last decade or so I’ve run some marathons, half-marathons and this wonderful thing called ParkRun where more than 700 people meet each Saturday morning (apart from when a global pandemic stops us!) and we run or walk – or race – a five-kilometre route around my local park. I’ve run the same ParkRun route more than 250 times and I’ve noticed the same thing happen every week: there are people who sprint like crazy for the first mile but run out of energy for the second mile and I catch them up and overtake them on the second lap of the park. It happens every single week.
What is the point of starting well if you can’t finish strongly?
Some of you who are reading this book are likely to be young adults and you have some great dreams and goals for your life. You have in your mind some of the great things you would like to achieve with your life. Some of you have already decided to fully devote yourself to knowing and following Jesus Christ.
I want you to know that I’m cheering you on!
But I also want you to know that you are entering into a way of life that doesn’t just require you to start well; it also calls you to finish well, with the same level of passion that you started with (or even more!). Many people can sprint the first 100 metres of the marathon. Starting well is easy.
It is also possible that some of you who have picked up this book are, like me, closer to half-time. You are midway through the race and you find yourself carrying loads of things that have the potential to slow you down and deplete the energy you can give to full devotion to God.
Those things are often good things.
Maybe you got married. Maybe you remained single. Some of you will have built a successful career. Others will have had children. Some of you will have taken on a mortgage. Still others will have wrestled with unemployment. I appreciate that each person who reaches half-time carries their own unique weight of joys and challenges, but I find that at this stage of life some will start to feel that their limitations outnumber their options. The dreams they had in their twenties have started to fade and they’re wondering if they have the energy to live a life that looks anything like wholehearted.
I get that.
Then, of course, there are some who are taking the time to read this book and you sense you are getting closer to the finish line. For some, the challenge with drawing nearer to the finish line is that you start to notice all those young people who are taking your place, and they are doing the things you used to do in ways that you would never have dreamed of doing them.
You may even start to ask yourself, ‘Is anyone aware of what I once did or who I once was?’ It’s possible that you will limp towards the finish line wrestling with irritability, anger and sadness, rather than with that wholehearted devotion to Christ you once had.
Please don’t finish the race like that.
For me, one of the most heart-breaking things I’ve witnessed in recent years has been leaders who fall at the last hurdle. They are only a few metres from the finish line and then something in their character or in their conduct disqualifies them from crossing the line with joy. It’s so painful to see.
If you are a leader, please don’t finish your race like that.
Whether you find yourself on the start line, at half-time or near the finish line, wholehearted living is within your reach. It has nothing to do with striving and everything to do with surrender as you invite God to do a bit of heart surgery.
As this chapter draws to an end, maybe those of you who find yourselves at the start of your race might declare this prayer to God:
I’m all in. I’m devoting the whole of my life to follow You.
Those of you who would find yourselves in the middle of the race, maybe open your heart and say to God:
I have no plan to quit at half-time. I have every desire, with Your help, to live wholeheartedly for the long term.
And for those of you who sense that you’re closer to the finish line than you are to half-time, perhaps whisper this prayer to God:
I am going to finish well. I have every intention of finishing this race with even more faith, hope and love than I started with.
There is more than one way you can choose to live your life.
Wholehearted is one way.
Habits for the heart
One of the most beneficial habits that a follower of Christ can add to their daily or weekly rhythm is what is often called ‘journalling’.
It is very simple and uncomplicated.
Just find an empty diary or notebook and use it to record God’s activity in your life. Every time you write an entry in your journal, open it to a blank page, write today’s date and then scribble down whatever is on your heart.
You might want to write out an honest prayer. You might want to record something you sense God has been saying to you. You might write a list of the things that you are thankful for. You might write out a verse or two from the Bible that has been important to you lately.
If you’re really struggling to know where to start, take the words of Psalm 139:23-24 and use them as a prayer:
Search me, God, and know my heart;
test me and know my anxious thoughts.
See if there is any offensive way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting.
Then open your journal to a blank page and let the words flow.