‘He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose’ – Jim Elliot

Jim Elliot was a passionate young American Missionary. He was born in Portland, Oregon in October 1927 and died 8th January 1956. His body was found in the Curaray River, Ecuador along with four others, Ed McCully, Roger Youderain, Pete Flemming and Nate Saint. These missionaries were murdered by about 10 members of the Auca tribe who understood that these five young Americans meant them harm. The Auca were one of the most violent cultures ever documented. In the middle of the 1940’s 60% of deaths in this tribe were murders because of family and clan warfare. The word Auca in their own language meant ‘savage’. Jim Elliot was aware of this but he and his friends went to explain the Jesus way of love and forgiveness anyway. Before going to the Auca and on page 174 of his diary of 28th October 1949 Elliot wrote, in reference to his own life ‘he is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose’ and he was probably quoting Philip Henry an English non-conformist preacher (1663—1696). The phrase has shaped much of the modern mission’s movement and the church is bigger now than at any time in history. ‘He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose’ is a succinct statement of what is going on when you follow Jesus Christ.

In reality, the phrase comes out of the words of Jesus when he says, ‘Those who want to come after me must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their lives will lose them, but those who lose their lives for me will find them.’1 What is Jesus saying when he said this?

Save your life and lose it

How can we seek to save our lives and end up losing them? We have huge forces working away inside of us. They are shaping our culture and our own lives. Let me just mention four of them. These are our systems of salvation or the horses we put money on in the hope that these will save our lives. On one level all four look good but each can have dark forces working away within them. In our own way we can be just as dangerous as the Auca Indians if some of these forces are let loose in our lives.

I must achieve my own goals

Simply, the way I will get life is through achieving my hard targets and goals. What is wrong with this? Nothing except for the knowledge that Jesus said, ‘what good is it for you to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit your very self’. In other words what is the price you will pay to achieve your own goals and is there a possibility you may lose yourself in the paying? Do you want to be wealthy? What is the price you are prepared to pay to be wealthy? Will it be at the cost of everything else you value? Do you want a successful career? What price will you pay to be professionally successful? It is sometimes tempting the follow Nike and the Nike swoosh rather than Jesus. Nike was the winged goddess of victory and she helped you achieve your goals but the goals may be damaging and the victory worthless.

I must win rather than lose

Winning means different things to each of us. A few years ago I took my Canadian sister-in-law to watch a football match. I think I made a mistake in taking her to watch Millwall football club in South East London. Her vocabulary of English bad language was expanded in the stand at ‘The Den’. How did the Millwall supporters re-define ‘winning’? This was important because they are not that successful as a football club. You discovered their idea of winning from their distinctive chant. It went, ‘No one likes us, no one likes us, No one likes us, we don’t care, We are Millwall, super Millwall, We are Millwall, from the Den, no one likes us, no one likes us, no one likes us and we don’t care. We are Millwasll, super Millwall, we are Millwall from the Den’. There is some punk inspiration there.

How do we define winning? Personally, I don’t care about winning a Gold medal, the Eurovision song contest or a Nobel Prize but if I had the talent I would have had a go at them all. But I know a little bit of my dark heart in this area. Winning for me is being liked, loved and noticed. I am and extrovert I want attention. So, winning for me is getting an invitation to speak at the right conferences, having influence over the right people, knowing people read my books and maintaining my personal sovereignty. This is always problematic and God has had to wrestle me to the ground on a number of occasions and get me to submit. All of these ‘winning’ snakes in the grass have to be watched and dealt with regularly.

I must be powerful and significant

The great cultural indicator of power and significance is busyness. When someone says to us ‘you are always so busy’ we feel it is a compliment. They may have intended it as an insult but we feel that busyness must be a good thing so we hear it as a compliment. Often our busyness is the twisted expression of a sigh in our hearts that we need to be noticed, we need to get attention and we need to be seen as moving ahead.

In the Old Testament the tower of Babel is the great image of this. Before they built the tower they said, ‘Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves and not be scattered over the face of the earth’.2 They wanted a name and they wanted to address their fear of being nobody so they built a tower of significance. But God came down and scattered them anyway. We build our God-free and self-made towers and through them create a huge ‘face’ which we present to the world. We do this so we may not be scattered and that we may avoid being nobodies. Maybe this is one of the reasons why Jesus hung around with prostitutes and sinners. Maybe he was flagging up to us watch how I do this. I am hanging around with those who have little ‘face’, power or significance and who have already been scattered.

This is why affluence can so seductive. It masks and smears over the cracks plastered on our towers of Babel. Affluence can make you feel powerful and significant when inside fear and loneliness creep silently around your heart.

My desires must be fulfilled

The Americans have their Declaration of Independence. In it Thomas Jefferson wrote about the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. People have latched on to ‘the pursuit of happiness’ phrase. But when Jefferson wrote this he was thinking in terms of not being locked up for being in debt or for being a Quaker or Baptist. But that phrase has morphed into the notion that we have the right to pursue whatever makes us happy.3 But if we just pursue our own dreams and happiness we develop a life where we use people and love things when we are intended to love people and use things.

With only these four things in place you can get the world but lose yourself. Everything is expanding well on the outside but the losses are on the inside, eventually emerging on the outside in relationship at home and work.

Lose your life for me and save it

Jesus addresses his disciples and says, ‘Those who would come after me must deny themselves’. He is addressing those who would be people who would ‘come after’ Him. He is saying you regain your life and true self when you pursue Him. On the voyage of discovery for yourself you find out who you are as you discover Him because every revelation of God to you is a revelation about yourself. Simply, you get your life back when you place it into the loving hands of Father, Son and Holy Spirit then life and revelation begin to take place as you pursue Him. If you just pursue your own goals, the need to win, power, significance and desires you do not get Jesus so do not receive all you were intended to be.

Why? Life is not found in building your own tower of Babel but in entering into the kingdom where Jesus is the King. Jesus is the King and the reason he came was to break the strangle hold of the enemy through his death and resurrection and set up his kingdom. Jesus taught us to pray this, ‘thy kingdom come thy will be done’. Eventually, the whole world will see that he is King of Kings and Lord of Lords as his will in heaven is displayed on earth. It is with this King and in this kingdom that you discover your true self and life.

What is His kingdom like? It looks and feels like:

  • Freedom. Jesus walked into a synagogue and read the text ‘the Spirit of the Lord is on me because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor … freedom for prisoners … recovery of sight to the blind … releasing the oppressed’4 and applied it to himself and what he was doing in the world.
  • Healing. Jesus paid attention to people then they were delivered, restored and healed with some being raised some from the dead.
  • Forgiveness. Jesus told the story of the prodigal son who tried to save his life in his own way but eventually needed the welcome and forgiveness of his Father so he would be free.
  • Celebration. Jesus, offered lavish celebration along with forgiveness. When the prodigal son returns to the Father his response is, ‘Quick bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate’.5
  • Wisdom. Jesus told stories of wisdom. From the story of the wise and foolish builders through to the story of the shrewd manager and all that is said in the Sermon on the Mount, he taught us how to live our lives.
  • Hospitality. Jesus invited people into his company then loved, mentored and instructed them until they are released into the world to do the same with others.
  • Transformed hearts. Jesus focused on the heart so that it will be changed. He knew that being in love with him changed everything. As Pedro Arrupe says, ‘Fall in love with God and let that decide everything’.

If you want to follow Jesus this is – more or less – what it will look and feel like. Because Jesus is King Tom Wright says, ‘he commands his hearers to give up their other dreams and to trust his’.6 It is in this kingdom that you discover your true self and all the freedom, healing, forgiveness, celebration, wisdom, hospitality and transformation he offers.

Take up the cross and follow

How does this work and what is our part in this? We have to make some decisions about Jesus. Is he merely going to be our life accessory? Will we just select him as our lifestyle attachment? Much to my embarrassment years ago I wore a red badge which in bold white letters read, ‘Jesus is my lifestyle’! To find your life means to acknowledge Him as King, which is the first move and then deny yourself which is the inevitable second move.

Thousands of people were put to death by the Romans. They liked crucifixion as a way of keeping order. A condemned criminal was forced to carry one beam of his cross to the place of crucifixion. Once the process was started the condemned man was on a one way journey, he would not be back. If you follow Jesus you can expect both death and resurrection.

Taking up your cross means a daily death to our own self-made goals, ideas of what winning looks like, our hunger for significance and living life just to fulfil our desires. You die to a whole way of life and you do it daily. Self-help is no help at all in this. You go through the death of your self-made life and enter into his reign of freedom, healing, forgiveness, celebration, wisdom, hospitality and a transformed heart. Taking up your cross does not mean the passive acceptance of a difficult life. Anyone can do this and many do. I don’t just take up my cross, I follow him.

  • Taking up the cross can mean I will decentre myself so that others may develop and grow.
  • Taking up the cross can mean I will let God decide who are the winners and losers in life.
  • Taking up the cross can mean that I am willing to take a path of insignificance so that what is really significant may flourish.
  • Taking up the cross can mean that some of the desires I have may never be fulfilled until the new heaven and the new earth emerges.
  • Taking up the cross can mean discovering the Auca tribe in Ecuador, realising they are slaughtering themselves and putting yourself in a place where you might be their next victim. You do this as an act of service so they will hear the message of love and forgiveness in Jesus Christ.

Our lives are found, saved and discovered in the freedom of taking up your cross daily and following Jesus who said, ‘My yoke is easy and my burden is light’. This is how we find ourselves.

Life through death

I was in India in 14 years ago and while speaking at a meeting felt my strength ebbing from me. I felt a pain in my chest and sick in my stomach. I cancelled the meeting and went to lie down. Then I felt a pain in my arm. Up to this point I thought I was responding to curry or jetlag but now I know I needed help. I called out to a friend who brought another friend who had received a heart triple by-pass. He told me I was having a heart attack and we needed to go to hospital. I said if we did that it would ruin everyone’s day but he insisted. After being in intensive care for a little while an Indian doctor came to my bed and said, ‘Mr Thomas, my name is Dr. Vishwenath, you are having a heart attack right now. There are two things we can do. One will work the other may work. What do you want’? I said, ‘let’s do the one that works’. He slapped me on the shoulder and said, ‘good decision’.

As he walked away I felt like someone had taken me to the top of Dorchester hotel in London and had pushed me off the top and I was falling. In those minutes after he left my bed I felt aloneness and fear as I have never felt it before. I felt like I was going to die when I hit the pavement below. In my fall and in my imagination Jesus appeared to me and started falling with me. He held my hand as we fell together. This is what I call my moment of presence. In the middle of the fall he turned the tables on me and began celebrating my life. He told me that I had not lived a perfect life but I had lived my life in the right zone. I was stunned by this. Yet, I was unsure if we were going to hit the ground together and my life would come to an end or what was next?

I was then moved to the operating theatre and discovered I was going to be awake while they did the emergency angioplasty. It was like I was in the valley of the shadow of death. After working away speaking in Hindi and English with his fellow doctors my surgeon turned to me and said, ‘Mr Thomas that was a 100% blockage but the procedure has been 100% successful’. Two hours later he came into my room and said, ‘You are a lucky Bastard’. And he told me not to do it again. I had the blockage in the ‘left arterial descending’ chamber of my heart, otherwise known as the ‘widow maker’. The descent was now over and the sensation was resurrection. No longer the fall or the valley of the shadow of death I was on the rise with God. I may also have been experiencing the euphoria of pharmaceuticals.

The point is the journey. In that heart attack journey I lived through fear and aloneness through to presence and celebration. It can be fearful to die to our own systems of self-salvation, it usually is. The instruction to take up your cross and follow me can look terrifying. Critical in that journey is that he walks with and sustains us on the voyage from death to life. He is with us as we walk away from our self-made lives and learn how to discover life in Him. As Jim Elliott wrote, ‘He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose’.

1 Luke 9:18-27 see also Mathew 10:39-39; 16:24-25; Mark 8:34-35; Luke 14:26-27; 17:33; John 12:25

2 Genesis 11:1-8

3 Jan Johnson, Abundant Simplicity, p.26.

4 Luke 4:18-19

5 Luke 15:22

6 Tom Wright, Simply Jesus, 2011 SPCK p.55

Viv Thomas

Viv Thomas is the founder of Formation. He is passionate about ‘the spectacular ordinary life’ and seeing people flourish into all that they possibly can be. Viv has a national and international speaking and teaching ministry. He is an Associate International Director for OM International and continues to travel the world seeking to see leaders grow. Leadership, Spirituality and Mission are particular passions. See all posts by Viv →