What would you do if you were told that you had only one year left to live?
Think seriously about this for a minute. How would you spend that year?
Another scenario: What if you somehow learned that you would die in a week? If you were given just seven days to think back over your life, what would be your assessment? How satisfied would you be with what you had accomplished?
What would you regret having left undone?
If your eternal judgment were based only on what you had done to this moment, what do you think that judgment would be?
Usually we are too immersed in daily concerns to consider such questions. But if you never stop and do this kind of self-examination, you are likely taking your time for granted and failing to fulfill your potential as a man.
Are you really spending your life on something that makes a difference? Are the truly important matters getting enough of your attention? What draws you away from those things? How much time are you squandering? What can you trim, push aside or cut out?
Moses was contemplating these types of questions when he wrote Psalm 90: “[W]e spend our years as a tale that is told. The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labour and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away” (verses 9-10).
Then he drew this poignant conclusion, beseeching God: “So teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom” (verse 12).
Recognize the brevity of your life and you gain clarity in your thoughts. Look at yourself. Honestly evaluate how you are using your days, hours and minutes. Are you just marking time—or are you truly numbering your days so you can apply your heart to wisdom? Are you devoting enough energy and effort to the significant things? Are you prodding yourself, aiming high in order to truly use your life, fulfilling your God-given potential?
When your life is done, what will you be known for? What sort of legacy will you leave? “The memory of the just is blessed: but the name of the wicked shall rot” (Proverbs 10:7). How will you be remembered? How would you want to be remembered? Are you living in a way that will get you there?
Honest self-examination is essential to the Christian life. You cannot grow without it. And for it to be truly effective, you need God’s help.
Self-examination means looking into the mirror and seeing what is wrong. That mirror is God’s perfect law of love, and the perfection of Jesus Christ (James 1:22-25). When you examine yourself in that mirror, you can see what needs to change so you can become more like God.
In the first century, the Church members in Corinth had become puffed up, prideful in their knowledge, and judgmental. They even criticized the Apostle Paul for what they perceived as his weak speaking. Paul responded with a challenge: “Examine yourselves, whether ye be in the faith; prove your own selves” (2 Corinthians 13:5). You’ve been examining me, he said; turn that same examination on yourselves. It’s easy to stand in judgment of others, but God really wants us to judge ourselves.
Examine here means to test, prove or scrutinize to see whether a thing is genuine or not. When you take an examination in school, you are tested on your knowledge and your progress. In a courtroom, when a witness is examined, the lawyer presses him with questions to bring out the truth of a matter. If the witness is lying, the lawyer tries to pin him down and expose that. Sometimes we must do this with our heart, which is deceitful above all things (Jeremiah 17:9).
Take a good, hard look at yourself, Paul says. What is going on deep down? How deep does your religion go? Don’t be content with a panoramic view, or with looking only at how others perceive you. Look into the recesses of your thoughts that only God knows about. Examine not just your actions but also your motives.
This is work. It’s not enjoyable, because generally there is a lot in each of us that is ugly. That is why we shy away from self-examination. It is also why we need to ask for God’s guidance in this process (e.g. verse 10; Psalm 26:2).
Consider the poem “Self-Examination” by Isaac Watts:
Let not soft slumber close your eyes,
Before you’ve collected thrice
The train of action through the day!
Where have my feet chose out their way?
What have I learnt, where’er I’ve been,
From all I’ve heard, from all I’ve seen?
What have I more that’s worth the knowing?
What have I done that’s worth the doing?
What have I sought that I should shun?
What duty have I left undone,
Or into what new follies run?
These self-inquiries are the road
That lead to virtue and to God.
Honest self-examination helps you remove self-deception and see yourself as you actually are, as God sees you. It reveals flaws that need to change and areas where you need to grow. Though it can be sobering, it should not be discouraging. It is beginning to reveal a path forward. “Ponder the path of thy feet, and let all thy ways be established” (Proverbs 4:26).
Know Your Purpose
Give real thought to the kind of man you want to be. Pray about it, think about it, visualize it. Picture yourself a year from now, then five years from now, then 10 years from now. Picture yourself at the end of your life. Who is that man?
Think of the qualities you would like to build more of. Perhaps you want to become more positive and encouraging toward others. You may want to be more wise, productive, passionate, bold, decisive, generous, self-sacrificing and kind-hearted. Make a list.
Now list your characteristics that you want to reduce: perhaps negative, judgmental, disorganized, lazy, selfish, petty, oversensitive, impatient, unreliable—surely there are others.
Talk to God about these things. Write about them in a journal, and get specific. Decide on practical steps—even small acts—that will move you in the direction you want to go. Ask for God’s help in following through, and then take action.
Ponder your most important relationships. Are they as strong as they should be? Consider how you could make them stronger, more satisfying and enriching. Think about the qualities you appreciate in your friends and family, or even those you would like to see more of in them. Then ask yourself whether you could take the initiative and exhibit more of those qualities toward them. Quality relationships require genuine unselfishness and loving concern. Contemplate whether you are giving enough of yourself, dedicating enough time to your relationships.
Think of the legacy you will leave. Think of your role with your friends, in your congregation, within your family. Be sure to have your affairs in order so your loved ones will be taken care of when you are gone. Give thought to how your children will remember you and what more you can do to sweeten those memories. How can you preserve the wisdom or other treasures you would like to bequeath to them? “A good man leaveth an inheritance to his children’s children …” (Proverbs 13:22). God wants you to think long-term, even to multiple generations.
How strong is your sense of purpose in this physical life? What does God want to accomplish with you specifically? Think about your career. Is it challenging you and helping you grow? Does it align with your values? Is it what God wants you to be doing? How well are you fulfilling His purpose for you? You are a unique individual with unique contributions to make, and you have a duty to not leave them undone.
Ask yourself: What are you really passionate about? What is it about these things that stirs and excites you? How do they benefit others? How much could you help others, even change the world, if only a little, if you focused more attention on these things?
These are marvelous questions to contemplate. Failing to consider them can leave a man mired in mediocrity, complacent and stagnant, oblivious to opportunity. Pray about them. Seek counsel from those who know you, and from people you respect.
The better you know yourself, the more alert you will be to doors God may open for you to better fulfill your true potential.
Jesus Christ had a dominating, unwavering focus on His purpose: “My meat is to do the will of him that sent me, and to finish his work,” He said (John 4:34). He never allowed that purpose to escape the forefront of His mind. It guided Him absolutely in even His tiniest decisions. Nothing could throw Him off course, not even the most excruciating pain of the stake.
A true appreciation of your purpose and calling inspires a determination to use each day to fulfill it, whatever the obstacles.
A successful life demands being purposeful and driven in your activities. Your time—which is your life—is your most valuable asset. You don’t even know how much or little you have, all you know for certain is that supply is limited.
The devil knows your time is limited. He has built modern society to consume your attention with trivialities, swallow your time, and draw you away from what matters. If you just do what comes naturally and what is easiest, you will be buried under a torrent of distraction taking you far from anywhere you want to be.
Herbert W. Armstrong explained how setting a right goal is the first law of success. Without goals, you are aimless.
Setting correct priorities in life is work. You must establish your priorities and trudge toward them, step by step, against resistance, daily, hourly. Regularly evaluate what you are doing and make sure you are heading in the right direction. Do not let your priorities fade and disappear, then replace them with new priorities that you also let fade and disappear. Once you establish your priorities, led by God, sprint, scrap, crawl, climb and fight toward them until you have achieved them.
Don’t get trapped in trivial, quickly forgotten busyness. Look at your daily tasks and ask yourself tough questions about each one: Is this really important? How will this further a long-term goal? Will this have an impact that will last beyond this week or this month? What will have the most long-term significance? Does this fit with and advance my real purpose in life? Is it diffusing my energy and preventing me from accomplishing what I need to? If so, can I delegate it or cut it?
With your goals and priorities firmly in mind, plan your tasks so you are doing things each day to advance those goals. Then you can far more readily avoid getting caught up in unessential things. Always aim to devote as much time as possible to work of lasting value. Focus on what is truly important. Focus will determine your success in achieving it more than anything else. If you can’t focus on something, you won’t accomplish it. If you can, you will.
For fruit trees to reach maximum yield, they must be regularly pruned. Christ said growth in your life also requires constantly pruning what isn’t producing. “Every branch in Me that does not bear fruit He [the Father] takes away; and every branch that bears fruit He prunes, that it may bear more fruit” (John 15:2; nkjv).
Unwanted, unhelpful growth is natural. Extra obligations, diversions, projects and preoccupations bud and blossom all the time. This is why pruning is so critical and why it must be continual. “Our life is frittered away by detail,” Henry David Thoreau wrote. “Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand.”
At any moment, stop and ask yourself: What am I doing right now? Is it really what I need to be doing? Busyness is not the same as productivity. And productivity is not the same as effectiveness. Look at the fruit. Is your effort producing results? Are they good results? Are they building your family? Are they helping others? Is it advancing God’s Work and God’s cause? Are you putting the resources He has entrusted to you to their best use? God wants to help you answer these questions.
You cannot afford to waste time. You must prune the nonsense—anything that is stealing your minutes and not contributing to what you produce. Set limits on what you consume and do. Eliminate the unessential. Cross off what’s not really important. Postpone things that don’t need to be done right away. In order to focus on the important things, the less you think about other things, the better. Keep your focus locked on what is really important and prune everything else.
This is a continual process. Prune, then prune again, then again. Prune monthly, weekly, even daily.
This is how to maximize your time and energy. If you are doing something important, then you are moving in the right direction, even if slowly. As Earl Nightingale said, “Never give up on a dream just because of the time it will take to accomplish it. The time will pass anyway.”
Know What You Stand For
People naturally want to live. Some will do just about anything to remain alive—undergo chemotherapy to stave off cancer; take on hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt to pay medical expenses; ignore a wounded crime victim to avoid provoking a violent criminal; betray a friend to comply with a dictator’s unjust demands; surrender to a tyrant rather than wage war.
You need to ask yourself what you would be willing to die for.
What are your foundational values? Is your sense of what is right and what is wrong so wholehearted and elemental that you would stake your life on it? To live a truly honorable life, you need to prove and then be guided and governed by unshakable beliefs—principles you refuse to compromise, no matter the cost.
Three young Jews had resolved to remain faithful to God whatever the consequences. As they faced the most powerful, fearsome man on Earth, who was about to kill them for refusing to worship an idol, they spoke with flinty conviction: “O Nebuchadnezzar, we are not careful to answer thee in this matter. If it be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of thine hand, O king. But if not, be it known unto thee, O king, that we will not serve thy gods, nor worship the golden image which thou hast set up” (Daniel 3:16-18). The outraged king then pitched Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego alive into a blazing inferno. Only then, after proving themselves unbreakable, did God deliver them.
If staying true to your beliefs gets you killed, that is an honorable death. Many of the prophets did it. Stephen did it (Acts 7:58). John the Baptist did it (Mark 6:27). Most of the apostles did it. These men all await a resurrection to glory and eternal positions of honor in God’s Family. Who among us wouldn’t trade places with any of them?
It was that conviction that motivated Jesus Christ to pray to the point of sweating blood in order to avoid sin (Luke 22:44; Hebrews 12:3-4)—and to sacrifice His life so that you could live.
You may think you will never be called upon to die for a cause, but that is a foolish assumption. The world is growing more dangerous. Look at global conditions and you see savagery spreading, even unexpectedly besieging seemingly peaceful areas. This trend is not going to improve. The time remaining in this age of man is growing short.
You need to establish and lock down your core beliefs, to prove them beyond doubt, or you will soon find yourself in circumstances where they are tested past their breaking point. As Winston Churchill said, “Virtuous motives, trammeled by inertia and timidity, are no match for armed and resolute wickedness.”
This is worth taking real time to pray and to think earnestly about. Write down your thoughts on the true guiding principles by which you can make decisions, establish priorities, evaluate your actions, measure success and failure, and assess your life. Think about what you would consider it an honor to die defending. This is not an exercise in morbidity but in clarity.
Consider the physical example of the United States Navy seals. They must do this, because they stare down death as a regular part of their job. If they are not absolutely convicted of the cause, they will not perform their duty when called upon. And they cement that conviction in a specific, practical way: by having every seal memorize the U.S. Navy seal Ethos.
This says, in part, “My loyalty to country and team is beyond reproach. I humbly serve as a guardian to my fellow Americans always ready to defend those who are unable to defend themselves. I do not advertise the nature of my work, nor seek recognition for my actions. I voluntarily accept the inherent hazards of my profession, placing the welfare and security of others before my own. I serve with honor on and off the battlefield. The ability to control my emotions and my actions, regardless of circumstance, sets me apart from other men. Uncompromising integrity is my standard. My character and honor are steadfast. My word is my bond.
“We expect to lead and be led. In the absence of orders I will take charge, lead my teammates, and accomplish the mission. I lead by example in all situations. I will never quit. I persevere and thrive on adversity. My nation expects me to be physically harder and mentally stronger than my enemies. If knocked down, I will get back up, every time. I will draw on every remaining ounce of strength to protect my teammates and to accomplish our mission. I am never out of the fight.
“We demand discipline. We expect innovation. The lives of my teammates and the success of our mission depend on me—my technical skill, tactical proficiency, and attention to detail. My training is never complete.”
This shows the power of articulating and codifying such beliefs. These words, burned into a seal’s mind, drive him onward in the most grueling conditions. He commits to them, and proves his commitment through the daily grind of drills, training, labor, sweat and pain. Then, when true crisis arises, this guiding ethos is so ingrained into his fiber as a man that he is able to accomplish acts of uncommon valor and grit.
This is the kind of clarity of purpose, and commitment to that purpose, needed for true biblical manhood.
Make a Difference
The world is full of men leading unexamined lives, giving no serious thought to life’s larger questions.
You are not one of those men.
You can devote your life to endeavors of consequence. You can be a hero to your own family. You can lift the lives of those around you. You can make a difference in your corner of the world. You can leave the world better for your having lived in it.
Just act, and act with purpose, and act today. Your time is short. Don’t be a man who will die with regret. Throw yourself into fulfilling your life’s purpose. Then you will be able to stand on the threshold of death, look back, and, like Paul in 2 Timothy 4:6-8, say, “For I am now ready to be offered, and the time of my departure is at hand. I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith: Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give me at that day: and not to me only, but unto all them also that love his appearing.”