A chicken and a pig were walking down the road together. They passed a sign for a local diner advertising its breakfast special: “Ham and Eggs – $2.95!” The chicken said, “That’s our whole contribution to society: breakfast food!” The pig replied, “For you, it may be a contribution. For me it’s a total commitment.”
Life in the modern world has programmed us to expect a life of ease. It’s not merely that we want everything to be easy; who wouldn’t want that? What is troubling is that we now expect to receive abundant rewards with minimal effort. If something requires effort or time, it must not be meant to be, and we feel thoroughly justified giving up. Worse yet are those who believe legitimate goals may be sought through illegitimate means, provided that those means offer a short-cut to the goal in mind.
Take, for example, the professional athlete who chooses to illegally enhance his performance through the use of steroids. Not only has he cheapened himself, he has robbed his fellow athletes of any kind of fair competition. He does this simply because he does not want to put in the time and effort necessary to better himself.
This is a dangerous road to travel. Common sense reveals that some of the best things in life demand effort and prove worthy of whatever amount of labor we endure in the pursuit. The best relationships require work. The best businesses have been built on the blood, sweat and tears of their leaders. Even our spiritual growth is reflective of our faithful investment. G.K. Chesterton once quipped, “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult, and left untried.”1
Of course, this is nothing new. Thousands of years ago, God asked, “Who is he who will devote himself to be close to me?” (Jeremiah 30:21). We don’t want to hear it, but the fact of the matter is that following God involves sacrifice, effort, devotion. We much prefer the spiritual growth plans that guarantee complete maturity in “15 minutes a day!”
Mark Oppenheimer has written of the proliferation of these mistaken ideas regarding what is truly involved in personal life-change. These false notions can be found in everything from the Chicken Soup for the Soul books to WWJD bracelets to the awe-inspiring angelic visitations received in the lives of television characters. It all sounds good, but there’s never any kind of demand or call for commitment or life-change involved. “Just Do It” doesn’t really mean, “Just run 100 miles every week like marathon runners do.” “Just Do It” means, “Just buy the shoes – swift feet sure to follow.”2 As if you’ll become magically fit simply by purchasing the proper footwear.
Leaders know that this is not so. Leaders know that such behavior used to have a name; it was called sloth. In “The Other Six Deadly Sins,” Dorothy Sayers said,
In the world it is called tolerance, but in hell it is called despair. It is the accomplice of the other sins and their worst punishment. It is the sin which believes in nothing, cares for nothing, seeks to know nothing, finds purpose in nothing, lives for nothing, and only remains alive because there is nothing it would die for. We have known it far too well for many years. The only thing perhaps that we have not known about it is that it is mortal sin.3
Leaders know the truth of Theodore Roosevelt’s words: “Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs even though checkered by failure, than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much because they live in the gray twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat.” There is a great danger in our time of succumbing to mediocrity not through incompetence or a lack of integrity but simply from a lack of genuine commitment. To live without such commitment is to live in that “gray twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat.”
Godly men and women understand that effective leadership flows from being deeply committed to the right things. As followers of Christ, the single most important commitment of our lives is, obviously, to God. Any lasting success we experience as leaders will flow from that commitment. This is why the apostle Paul writes:
Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God – this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is – his good, pleasing and perfect will.
The word “Therefore” points to all the apostle has written in the previous 11 chapters. In light of God’s mercy, which justifies, sanctifies and will someday glorify us, we are to offer ourselves as living sacrifices to him. In other words, we should allow God’s mercy to accomplish this additional work in our lives. We should let it drive us to absolute commitment.
Those who have been taken captive by the love of God will affirm the lordship of Jesus Christ in their lives by heeding this call to “offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God” (12:1b).
The word “offer” implies that this act, much like a wedding vow, occurs once. It may be renewed, but at some point we should be motivated by God’s mercy to devote ourselves to him. When we take this step, we’re acknowledging Christ’s leadership in our lives. We sacrifice our selfish desires and misguided ambitions as we strive to align ourselves with God’s will. Once this act of commitment occurs, our talents and dreams will be surrendered to his purpose. And the more we give ourselves to him, the more he will bless and use us.
The sequence here is vitally important. In the Old Testament, there are two broad categories of sacrifice that one might offer to God under different circumstances. There were atonement sacrifices and celebration sacrifices. Atonement sacrifices were for the covering of sin with blood and the reconciliation of men with God or one another. These sacrifices were offered as a response to sin and guilt.
On the other hand, the Law of Moses also made provision for sacrifices of joy. When the crops were harvested, when a child was born, when a great deliverance had occurred – the people would come before God to offer gifts of thanksgiving and celebration.
Christians acknowledge one and only one atonement sacrifice: Jesus himself. But we engage in perpetual sacrifices of celebration and thanksgiving to the God who has saved us. While it is true that we offer God our talents, abilities and money, the most fundamental sacrifice we give him is our very bodies. Paul, the writer of this text, will not abide abstract or ethereal religion. Our bodies are the instruments of all our actions in this world. Therefore, it is our bodies themselves which must be yielded to God in every area.
We naturally expect people to conform to their environment. The phrase most often used in this vein is, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” Those of us who have been justified, sanctified and consecrated to God, however, face a different set of expectations. People who have received God’s grace and been transported out of darkness into his kingdom of marvelous light will be shaped and molded by their new experience. Such an overwhelming experience is bound to have some impact on our lives. That is only logical, isn’t it?
In fact, the word translated “spiritual” is the Greek term logikos. The word fundamentally means “rational” or “reasonable.” In view of the mercy of God toward me, it is only rational or reasonable that I should give my heart, mind and body to be shaped by his gracious control. In view of the personal relationship God has purchased and established with me, no mere ceremony or ritual is enough to offer him; he deserves the intelligent and rational surrender of every fiber of my being to him.
Douglas Rumford makes a profound statement in his book SoulShaping. He writes, “We make our commitments, then our commitments make us. Once they are chosen, many other choices follow as a matter of course.”4 Once we commit to follow Jesus, many other decisions in life must fall into line or we overturn our prior commitment.
But how are we to know that our commitment to God will be honored? All of the commitments we make should flow from the commitment God has first made to us. Once God committed himself to our highest good, his will toward us was sealed. God tells us that he is committed to all who are in Christ, and that our relationship with him will last forever. Jeremiah 31:31-36 shows us the covenant of commitment the Lord made with his people:
“The time is coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their forefathers when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them,” declares the Lord.
“This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after that time,” declares the Lord. “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. No longer will a man teach his neighbor, or a man his brother saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,” declares the Lord. “For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.”
This is what the Lord says, he who appoints the sun to shine by day, who decrees the moon and stars to shine by night, who stirs up the sea so that its waves roar – the Lord Almighty is his name: “Only if these decrees vanish from my sight,” declares the Lord, “will the descendants of Israel ever cease to be a nation before me.”
The ultimate basis for security and significance in life relates to commitment (security) and to how long something will last (significance). In these six verses, God provides for his people a sense of both security and significance – a sure word that his commitment to them will never fail.
In spite of the rebelliousness of the people of Judah, the Lord assured them through the prophet Jeremiah that he was committed to their ultimate good. Judgment was inevitable because they had flagrantly violated God’s commands, but the prophet looked beyond this impending condemnation to a time of consolation. There will be a faithful remnant, and God’s people will eventually enjoy the blessings of forgiveness and complete renewal.
In this covenant, God commits himself to the welfare of the house of Israel and Judah and predicts a time when they will all know him and when his law will be written on their hearts. “‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future’” (Jeremiah 29:11).
God’s grace is always previous to our respons e and demonstrates his unshakeable commitment to us. “This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins” (1 John 4:9-10). When we love God, it is “because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19).
Lewis Thomas, scientist and philosopher, described humans best when he said, “We are, perhaps, uniquely among earth’s creatures, the worrying animal. We worry away our lives, fearing the future, discontent with the present, unable to take in the idea of dying, unable to sit still.”5 God’s promise of abiding love and commitment to our well-being enables us to live above worry, above fear. His commitment to us empowers us to follow through on our commitment to him. As Martin Luther said, “It is not imitation which brings about our sonship of God, but our sonship which makes possible imitation.”6
Quality relationships are founded on the rock of commitment, not the shifting sand of feelings or emotions. God calls us to be people of commitment, first to him and then to others. As a great leader of Israel, Joshua’s entire life was marked by commitment. We even hear this in his final words:
“Now fear the Lord and serve him with all faithfulness. Throw away the gods your forefathers worshiped beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord. But if serving the Lord seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your forefathers served beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living. But as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”
Then the people answered, “Far be it from us to forsake the Lord to serve other gods! It was the Lord our God himself who brought us and our fathers up out of Egypt, from that land of slavery, and performed those great signs before our eyes. He protected us on our entire journey and among all the nations through which we traveled. And the Lord drove out before us all the nations, including the Amorites, who lived in the land. We too will serve the Lord, because he is our God.”
Joshua said to the people, “You are not able to serve the Lord. He is a holy God; he is a jealous God. He will not forgive your rebellion and your sins. If you forsake the Lord and serve foreign gods, he will turn and bring disaster on you and make an end of you, after he has been good to you.”
But the people said to Joshua, “No! We will serve the Lord.”
Then Joshua said, “You are witnesses against yourselves that you have chosen to serve the Lord.”
“Yes, we are witnesses,” they replied.
“Now then,” said Joshua, “throw away the foreign gods that are among you and yield your hearts to the Lord, the God of Israel.”
And the people said to Joshua, “We will serve the Lord our God and obey him.”
On that day Joshua made a covenant for the people, and there at Shechem he drew up for them decrees and laws. And Joshua recorded these things in the Book of the Law of God. Then he took a large stone and set it up there under the oak near the holy place of the Lord.
“See!” he said to all the people. “This stone will be a witness against us. It has heard all the words the Lord has said to us. It will be a witness against you if you are untrue to your God.”
Joshua told the people that even if they chose not to serve the Lord, they would still not be exempt from service. If we do not serve the Creator, we will unavoidably serve some part of the creation. But the gods of success, position and possessions are cruel taskmasters and never deliver the profound satisfaction they promise. God alone is the worthy object of our total commitment, and if we direct our highest commitment to anything else, we commit idolatry. We were designed to serve God and to find our deepest satisfaction in him, but we will be half-hearted at best if we try to play by two sets of rules and serve two masters (Luke 16:13).
In the 1991 movie City Slickers, Billy Crystal plays Mitch – a confused, dissatisfied man with a vague sense that life is passing him by. Jack Palance plays the ancient sage Curly – “a saddlebag with eyes.” At a critical moment in the film, Curly asks Mitch if he would like to know the secret of life.
“It’s this,” Curly says, holding up his index finger.
“The secret of life is your finger?” asks Mitch.
“It’s one thing,” Curly replies. “The secret of life is pursuing one thing.”
Something about this strikes a chord deep within Mitch. His life is a mess; he feels pulled by his obligations to his family and his desire for fulfillment at his work – torn between his need for security and his longing for excitement. Like many men, Mitch is divided. His life is about too many different things. Thus, he feels it is about nothing.
He asks Curly to tell him what that one thing is, but the best Curly can do is to tell Mitch, “You have to find it for yourself.”
Believe it or not, the wise, old cowboy is parroting Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, who saw double-mindedness as the primary affliction of modern man. His book Purity of Heart Is to Will One Thing is a meditation on the biblical statement: “Purify your hearts, you double-minded” (James 4:8). The sickness, according to Kierkegaard, is really a failure to achieve an integrated life, a life that is focused on one thing. It is the failure to make an ultimate commitment to “the Good,” to “seeking first the kingdom of God.”7
Many of those who followed Jesus were merely curious. Others were convinced of the truth of what he was teaching, but only a few were fully and personally committed to him. When his uncommitted followers began to leave him in response to his difficult sayings, Jesus turned to the 12 and asked if they wanted to leave with the others. Although it is doubtful that they understood the Lord better than those who were leaving, they realized that once having committed themselves to him, there was no turning back (John 6:60-69). As disciples of Christ, we are called to remain committed to him, even when we don’t fully understand all of his plans for us. Failure to do so leads to misery and a lack of effectiveness in ministry. As François Fénelon wrote,
Woe to those weak and timid souls who are divided between God and their world! They want and they do not want. They are torn by desire and remorse at the same time…. They have a horror of evil and a shame of good. They have the pains of virtue without tasting its sweet consolations. O how wretched they are.8
As a godly leader, “You are [a witness] against [yourself] that you have chosen to serve the Lord” (v. 22). Have you assessed how that commitment has been played out in your life? In what ways has your level of commitment to the Lord been conditioned by your understanding of what he is doing in your life? The call to commitment is a call to constant vigilance in maintaining and understanding the standards of that commitment. No matter what distractions a godly leader may encounter, he or she needs to maintain his or her focus on serving the Lord.
How on earth do leaders establish and retain committed followers? How, in some cases, do we get ourselves committed enough to pay the high price of success? God knows how, and the prophet Habakkuk models an essential truth about God-focused commitment:
Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my Savior.
What a refreshing statement! Many leaders would love to have followers who are this committed to the cause. In fact, many leaders would love to have this level of commitment to their own cause. The key ingredient to Habakkuk’s statement is that it is unidirectional; he promised to maintain his attitude regardless of the payback.
That’s really what “commitment” is. The statement, “I will be committed if” isn’t commitment-making; it’s deal-making. It’s not committing; it’s bargaining. In Habakkuk chapter 2, God explained his justice and his majesty to the prophet. The passage above is the prophet’s response to that revelation of God’s character.
In the absence of a life-consuming ideal, asking for the level of commitment Habakkuk expressed is absurd. Leaders must identify what it is within their organization that is genuinely worthy of commitment. Until leaders complete this definition, they sound rather shallow even talking about it. No sane person will commit to things that don’t really matter. But when an organization’s goals and outcomes are properly related to the living God and its activities honor him, then commitment makes sense. Instead of asking, “How do we get commitment?” effective leaders will begin by asking, “To what (or whom) are we committed?”
What does commitment look like in a leader, and how can we practice it? Jesus reveals his standard of deeper commitment in Matthew’s Gospel:
Then Jesus said to his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it. What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul? Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul?
Jesus spoke these words to his disciples, but they still call us to action today. Through these living words, Jesus makes it clear that he requires total commitment of his followers. He said that unless one commits everything, one loses everything. For the Christian leader, that commitment must remain strong until the end of our earthly walk. Inspirational and motivational speaker Og Mandino expands on the necessity of strong, long-term commitment.
One of Mandino’s 10 common causes of failure is “quitting too soon.” Mandino tells the story of Raphael Solano and his companions, who were looking for diamonds in a dry river bed in Venezuela. Discouraged, and facing the thought of returning home to his very poor family empty-handed, Solano claimed he had picked up about 999,999 rocks and was quitting. His companions said, “Pick up one more and make it a million.” That “millionth” rock was the 155-carat “Liberator,” the largest and purest diamond ever found. Mandino writes,
I think he [Solano] must have known a happiness that went beyond the financial. He had set his course; the odds were against him; he had persevered; he had won. He had not only done what he had set out to do – which is a reward in itself – but he had done it in the face of failure and obscurity.9
Jesus urged his followers, “Take up your cross and follow me.” He knew better than anyone else how elusive the great prize is. But he also knew that anything less than a total commitment to achieving the prize would not suffice. In the Christian life, as in the leader’s organizational life, total commitment to the cause facilitates success.
1 G.K. Chesterton, The Collected Works of G.K. Chesterton ed. George Marlin (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1987), 4:61.
2 Mark Oppenheimer, “Salvation Without Sacrifice,” Charlotte Observer, 30 October 2000, sec. 11A.
3 Dorothy Sayers, “The Other Six Deadly Sins: An Address Given to the Public Morality Council at Claxton Hall, Westminster, on October 23rd, 1941,” (London: Methuen, 1943).
4 Douglas J. Rumford, SoulShaping: Taking Care of Your Spiritual Life (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale, 1996), p. 91.
5 The Medusa & the Snail, quoted in Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, 15th ed. Emily Morison Beck (Boston: Little, Brown, 1980), p. 884.
6 Quoted in Gordon S. Wakefield, The Westminster Dictionary of Christian Spirituality (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1983), p. 209.
7 Soren Kierkegaard, Purity of Heart Is to Will One Thing (New York: Harper Bros., 1938).
8 François Fénelon, Christian Perfection, quoted in Richard Foster and J.B. Smith, eds., Devotional Classics (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1993), p. 48.
9 Adapted from Og Mandino’s University of Success (New York: Bantam Books, 1982), pp. 44-45.