Following the announcement of Tim Keller’s death last Friday, many of us in pastoral ministry have been reflecting on his life and legacy. One aspect of his story for which I am especially grateful is the godly way he ended it.
As I noted in my Daily Article yesterday, many who begin well don’t end that way. Dr. Keller’s faithfulness and integrity, by contrast, honored his Lord and enhanced his legacy to the last day of his earthly walk.
Why is ending well so difficult and so important?
The devil is a great economist
Some years ago, my church invited the writer and speaker Steve Farrar to address our men’s Bible study. Farrar, author of the outstanding book Finishing Strong: Going the Distance for Your Family, cited a number of celebrity ministers who fell into disrepute toward the end of their ministries. He encouraged us to make the proactive commitment to live with character and conviction to the end of our days. I joined the men that day in making such a resolution.
Upon reflection over the years, however, I have realized that my resolution was flawed. It’s not enough to decide we want to “finish strong,” to emulate Tim Keller and others who finished the race well. Such a resolution, kept in human strength, is insufficient for the challenges it must defeat.
Few, if any, of the pastors we could cite who fell into disrepute intended to do so. Few thought they would fail before they did. The fact is, Satan is better at tempting than we are at resisting. As a wise counselor once told me, the devil is a great economist who hates to waste his time on temptations he knows we can resist in our abilities. Consequently, every temptation we face is one we cannot defeat in our strength or we would not be facing it.
But Satan doesn’t want us to know this. He deceives us into believing we can defeat this temptation so we will resist in our strength until it’s too late.
The antidote is to develop the reflex of turning every temptation into prayer, immediately seeking God’s strength, protection, and victory. As Erasmus noted, Satan hates nothing so much as for his evil to be used for good. In this way, spiritual attacks become ammunition for sanctification.
Apart from such immediate intercession, however, our failure is inevitable.
The danger of presumption
I say all of this to warn us against the sin of presumption, the belief that because we truly want to finish strong, we will.
The further we climb up the ladder of ministerial success and visibility, the harder and more damaging our fall. But the more we depend daily on the filling of the Spirit (Ephesians 5:18) to make us more like Jesus (Romans 8:29), the more likely we will finish our race the way we intend.
Presumption is especially tempting in a secularized culture. The further our society slides from biblical morality, the more self-congratulatory we can become when we embrace biblical authority. The more churches and entire denominations compromise on biblical truth, the more complacent we can become when we maintain biblical orthodoxy.
“The man who was a seer of the gods”
As a case in point, consider the prophet Balaam, one of the most fascinating and troubling characters in Scripture.
As an apologist, I am grateful to report that Balaam is the subject of important extra-biblical evidence: an eighth-century BC inscription found in Jordan begins, “Inscription of Balaam the son of Beor, the man who was a seer of the gods.” As the English Standard Version Study Bible notes, “This is certainly the same person spoken of in Numbers.”
As a biblical communicator, I am inspired by his response when leaders from Moab tried to hire him to curse the Israelites as they journeyed toward the promised land: “Lodge here tonight, and I will bring back word to you, as the Lᴏʀᴅ speaks to me” (Numbers 22:8). He later testified, “Though Balak were to give me his house full of silver and gold, I could not go beyond the command of the Lᴏʀᴅ my God to do less or more” (v. 18).
He continued to seek a word from God before speaking a word for God (cf. vv. 19, 38; 23:5, 12). This pronouncement is especially powerful: “All that the LORD says, that I must do” (23:26; cf. 24:13). He described himself thus: “The oracle of Balaam the son of Beor, the oracle of the man whose eye is opened, the oracle of him who hears the words of God, and knows the knowledge of the Most High, who sees the vision of the Almighty, falling down with his eyes uncovered” (vv. 15–16).
Who of us would not want the same to be said of us?
How not to become a “stumbling block”
But that’s not how his story ends.
In Numbers 25, “the people began to whore with the daughters of Moab” (v. 1), which led to divine judgment and the death of twenty-four thousand Israelites (v. 9). We learn later that this strategy was “on Balaam’s advice” and “caused the people of Israel to act treacherously against the Lᴏʀᴅ” (Numbers 31:16).
Jesus says that Balaam “taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, so that they might eat food sacrificed to idols and practice sexual immorality” (Revelation 2:14). For his part in this debacle, the Israelites “killed Balaam the son of Beor with the sword” (Numbers 31:8). Peter described his foundational sin: he “loved gain from wrongdoing” (2 Peter 2:15). As a result of his influence, the people “abandoned themselves for the sake of gain to Balaam’s error” (Jude 11).
Here’s my point: if we are convinced that Balaam’s story cannot become our story, it probably will.
Today is a good day to ask the Lord to help us emulate Tim Keller by finishing strong as he did. Let’s pray for the Spirit to expose any presumption in our hearts, any self-reliance that could be used by the Enemy to lead us into moral and spiritual failure. And let’s ask our Lord to glorify himself by empowering us to live for his glory as long as we live.