HE WAS barely 20 when he started keeping a spiritual journal. He wrote down his thoughts and prayers regularly for the rest of his life – which was to end eight years later, when he was tragically killed.
His journal entries reflect a maturity way beyond his age, and a deep commitment and devotion to God. His journal entry on Oct 28, 1949, after turning 22, has become a classic quotation: “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose.”
Jim Elliot was born in October 1927 and brought up in a godly family. At the age of 19, he spent six weeks in Mexico doing missionary work. Committed to missions, he left for Ecuador when he was only 24, eager to reach out to the Indian tribes, especially the violent Auca tribe. It was while trying to establish contacts with the Auca Indians that Elliot was speared to death, along with four others. He died at the age of 28, a young martyr.
Why did Elliot die so young? He was a gifted and effective preacher, had a good grasp of the Bible, having memorised many parts of it, knew biblical Greek, and was well-versed with the creative writings of many established poets. His deep devotion to God, passion for mission, and numerous gifts would have made him a great instrument in the hands of God. Why did God allow him to die so young? Imagine what he could have contributed had he lived to a ripe old age. Or what about Oswald Chambers?
Born in 1874, Chambers, too, grew up in a godly family, and committed himself to Christ at a young age. He is famous for his still-in-print My Utmost for His Highest, published in 1927, which has inspired generations of Christians. A talented student and preacher, Chambers preached in Japan, America and his native Britain. With his wife Gertrude (“Biddy” to him), he started a Bible Training School in 1911, but when the War broke out in 1914, he left for Egypt to minister to the troops. There, at the age of 43, he tragically died in 1917 from a ruptured appendix. He had delayed seeking medical intervention in order not to take up a hospital bed needed by injured troops.
Chambers was already an effective minister and held greater promise. But an appendix ended his life. His wife, being a great stenographer who could write down faster than most of us can speak, collected his lectures and sermons, and published them. In fact, Chambers personally wrote only one book, Baffled to Fight Better.
Even his My Utmost was published by Biddy. The contents of his thoughts and insights as recorded in his books speak of a depth of spiritual truth that is rarely attained among ministers. No surprise then that his teachings continue to inspire and guide us today. If he had lived longer, how much more he could have achieved. Eric Liddell, the Olympic gold medalist, whose life is told in the film Chariots of Fire, is another Christian who died young. Born in China to missionary parents in 1902, Eric was a robust and gifted athlete, and won the admiration of many for his sportsmanship, humility and commitment to God. He returned to China in 1925 as a young missionary teacher, and served there till he was captured and imprisoned by the Japanese in an internment camp. There he used his skills to bring order and decency among the prisoners and was admired for his godly and unflappable character.
‘God looks at us not so much as instruments to be used, but as persons to be loved. He does His secret work in us, perfecting us with His love, and when He is done, He takes us home.’
Chariots of Fire, is another Christian who died young. Born in China to missionary parents in 1902, Eric was a robust and gifted athlete, and won the admiration of many for his sportsmanship, humility and commitment to God. He returned to China in 1925 as a young missionary teacher, and served there till he was captured and imprisoned by the Japanese in an internment camp. There he used his skills to bring order and decency among the prisoners and was admired for his godly and unflappable character.
When given a chance to be released through a prisoner exchange programme, he offered his place to an expectant mother. Having developed a brain tumour, he died from typhoid fever in 1945 when he had turned 43. Again, why should such a noble character die so young? He could have done so much more.
Born in 1901, John Sung is another example of a premature death. A great revivalist and preacher, Sung brought about a revival among the Chinese in East and Southeast Asia through his unconventional and passionate preaching on sin, repentance and holiness. His diary reveals a man who burned for God and was totally committed to the Gospel and its implications, amid great personal suffering. Sung died of intestinal tuberculosis at the young age of 42. Imagine how the church would be if Sung had gone on preaching till he was, say, 70. But why did he die so young? Each of the above men points us to the same disturbing question. What is God’s answer?
GOD points to another young man, who died tragically at the young age of 33, cut off in his prime. This man, God’s own Son, was strung up on a cross in humiliation. He had done great and wonderful things. God points us to Him, and as we look at His face on the cross, we find the answer to our question.
Why do highly gifted, effective and promising young people die so young? Perhaps we are asking the wrong question. We live in an instrumentalist world where we are taught to look at people in terms of their use to us and our agendas. But God functions differently; He looks at us not so much as instruments to be used, but as persons to be loved. He does His secret work in us, perfecting us with His love, and when He is done, He takes us home. Our usefulness? That is not in His mind. If it appears so, it is only because He loves us.
Did God not say “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts”? (Is. 55:9). God relates with us as our loving Father, not our CEO or Divine Manager. He calms restless people who find their identity in their usefulness by saying, “Be still and know that I am God” (Ps. 46:10), for our worth does not come from our achievements but our relationship with Him.
You are not a digit in God’s bureaucracy, but a son and daughter in His Kingdom. God sees us as friends rather than as servants (Jn. 15:15), and true friendship is not utilitarian or calculative.