In this sermon, Alistair Begg shares personal words of wisdom from the flyleaf of his Bible. He exhorts and encourages us with some foundational truths about Christian living. He points out that Jesus is worth serving well, humility is crucial, prayer is foundational, relationships take time, and perseverance will yield good fruit. As we seek to live for God’s glory, we will be helped if we regularly remind ourselves of these truths.
I recognize that I speak to a variety of people from a whole host of backgrounds and that behind each of your gazes there is a life that is known particularly to you, it’s known somewhat by those who are closest to you, it’s known completely by God, and ultimately, only God and yourself know the thoughts that are in your hearts on this first evening. It would be presumptuous, even for those of us who are closest to you, to think that somehow or another we could describe just how you’re feeling.
Some of you have returned for your final few months—maybe your final year—and you’re full of excitement and anticipation and looking already towards the final tape. Some of you have come in the middle stages, and you’re jaded, and you’re actually a little disillusioned—not with the place; in fact, you can’t quite explain what the source of your discomfiture is. It’s known to God, and you’re wondering about it. And you’re here tonight, and you have questions and considerations. And your heart may be stony, it may be fertile; you may be keen to hear what’s said; you may be saying to yourself, “I’m already looking forward to this evening being over. Indeed, I’m looking forward to the week being over.” Well, isn’t it good that the person next to you doesn’t know that? That only God does and only you do. And what of the freshmen, with all your hopes and dreams? Can’t wait to tell everybody about yourself and all that you’re going to accomplish while you’re here. Haven’t stood on the first rake yet and had it bump you on the nose, and you’re ready for action. Some of you are secretly afraid; you’re lonely already in the vast crowd. You’re waiting for the end of the evening so you can skulk off on your own and hide away in a bathroom somewhere. And you wonder how it is that I would ever know that. I’ve done it! In fact, if truth be told, I still do it on a number of occasions.
But I’m not here to try and psychoanalyze your thoughts, nor am I here to talk simply off the top of my head, but I want to be honest with you and tell you that I want to speak to you this evening from the flyleaf of my Bible. You say, “Well, is this because you haven’t prepared anything?” Well, no, I have prepared to speak to you from the flyleaf of my Bible. And I have written in the flyleaf of my Bible a number of things that I would like to share with you. I’m not sure that I will get through all of them, and you don’t know how many there are in any case, so you’ll never know. But I’ll see how I do, and I think I’ll know how I’m doing; students have a way of making it perfectly obvious. And depending on how I do, we may do a little more tomorrow, or we may all breathe a sigh of relief that the first evening is over and hope for better when a new day dawns.
But the things that I want to share with you are things that are pressingly important to me. They are personal things, they are biblical truths, they are necessary matters.
I have always appreciated the individual who can turn a phrase, and indeed, apt phrases have registered with me throughout all of my life. And so, I have appreciated the likes of my little now-in-heaven friend, T. S. Mooney, who was able to summarize just where he was in a matter of a few phrases. He taught a boys’ Bible class in Londonderry, Northern Ireland, for fifty years, and when I asked him on one occasion—when he was some forty-seven years into the task—I asked him, “What is it that you’re seeking to do with these boys?” And he said, “Well, it is my purpose that I would be able to teach them in such a way that every boy would have a Bible in his hand, a Savior in his heart, and a purpose in his life.” No mistaking it. Absolute clarity. And when I asked him why it was that although he was in his late seventies, he had never married, he said, again with pithy brevity, “That is because, in my case, the desirable has always been unattainable, and the attainable has always been undesirable.” And some of you can identify very much with that this evening. And if you can’t yet, you will one day soon. I liked, for example, the review in the London Times, of Hamlet, where the reviewer, commenting on the way in which the part of the king was played, he wrote these words: “He played the king as if he knew that someone was waiting in the wings to play the ace.” In other words, he didn’t do much of a job of it at all.
Now, on account of that I want to give to you one or two of the statements that have become and remain for me foundational in my life. You should know that I am now forty-six years of age, that I have a son who’s a sophomore at college, a girl who’s a senior in high school, and another girl who is a junior in high school. So in other words, I’m an old man. I have reached the stage where I can refer to young girls as “dear” without any threat of any kind of lawsuit. I can say, “Now, my dear,” and they know that it’s just because I’m an old man that I’ve earned the right to say these things. Okay, we have that clear. All right.
Well, let me turn in somewhat random order, then, to the flyleaf of my Bible and begin with this statement. It’s from C. T. Studd, who was a missionary: “If Jesus Christ be God and died for me, then no sacrifice that I could ever make for him could ever be too great.”
The words of the Kendrick song were an apt introduction, as was the reminder of God’s faithfulness. And I remind you of the source of the song—in the words of Paul in Philippians 3, he writes,
But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead.
C. T. Studd came from a distinguished, an almost noble background. He came from a very prosperous home. His father was a multimillionaire, and Studd inherited the largest part of his father’s fortune. He went to Cambridge University and played cricket for England. He was therefore a man of ability both on the sports field and he had great potential as he entered as an undergraduate into his field of study. But it was along the journey of his life that Jesus Christ arrested him. Christ met with him, and C. T. Studd understood that he was unworthy of God, that he was unfit for heaven, and that he was unable to rectify his condition. And turning his life over to the Lord Jesus Christ, he determined in those early days this foundational, biblical essential truth—summarizing the summary, if you like: “If Jesus Christ is worth serving, he is worth serving well.”
And I want to say to you on this first evening, that will be something of a foundational evening for you—indeed, as my son always reminds me, “You better be good, Dad,” or “You better be looking tidy, Dad, because, remember, you can only make a first impression once”—and in the same way, you will only have a first evening once. And I don’t mean to dramatize the significance of the evening but merely to point out to you that as you sit with all of your future before you, it is going to be the decisions that you make in moments and in nights like this that will have far-reaching implications, not only through your course of study but, indeed, throughout all of your lives. And I want to challenge you, young people, tonight, right from the very beginning to lay hold of this truth and remind yourself, “You know, if Christ is God—as he so clearly is—then no sacrifice that I could ever make for him would ever be regarded as being too great.”
It was a young college student in Wheaton, Illinois, just the age of some of you tonight, who, going away from a session like this, went back to his journal and wrote to himself, as he so frequently had done before, “He is no fool who gives [up] what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.” And Jim Elliot did not realize, one, that he was writing a phrase that would become immortalized in Christian history, but he was also about, within a matter of months, to find that his blood mingled with the Curaray River as he paid the ultimate price in giving his life for the cause of the Lord Jesus Christ.
And in my own background, I think of an aunt that I never met. She died a year before I was born, dying in 1951 in India as a missionary—within twelve months of having reached there, contracting a disease for which there was then no known cure, and writing in pencil a letter that I now have in my possession to her mother back in Glasgow, Scotland, telling her that it would appear that her missionary career was to be a matter of months and her life was to be cut dramatically short. And she penciled these words: “Do not worry, Mother. This is not defeat; this is a glorious victory.” How could it ever be? The only economy that works there is the economy of eternity.
When we think of the sacrifice of the Lord Jesus on our behalf, that he would “bare our [sin] in his own body on the tree,” then Paul says, “In light of God’s mercy to you in Christ, offer your bodies to him as living sacrifices.” Take a walk in these lovely surroundings. Get away by yourself and say to God,
Take my life and let it be
Consecrated, Lord, to thee.
Take my hands and let them move
At the impulse of your love.
Take my feet and let them be
In the right places and at the right time.
Take my tongue and let me sing
Always, only, for my King.
“Take my talents, take me.” And there is no saying what God might choose to do with a life that is wholly yielded to him.
That’s number one on the flyleaf of my Bible. Maybe you’ll put it in the flyleaf of your Bible. And then when you’re old, you can tell someone else the same thing.
Let me change the tune just a little and tell you what I have next. Isaiah 66:2a: “‘This is the man to whom I will look,’ says the Lord. ‘He who is humble and contrite in spirit, and trembles at my word.’”
Now, I put that second because it’s so vitally important. The matter of our heads is an important matter: how we think and how we think about ourselves. Some of us have, if you like, pinheads and need to be helped more realistically about ourselves, insofar as the love of God for us is wonderful, and he has plans and purposes for us, and we think too little of ourselves in light of the provision that God has made for us, both by creation and redemption. But for most of us, the problem is not the “pinhead syndrome,” but it is the “fathead syndrome”—that most of us think a little too much of ourselves.
Oh, of course, we wouldn’t come right out and say it! We would say things like, “No, I am not conceited,” and then under our breaths, say, “although I have every right to be so.” We look forward to writing the book Humility, and How I Attained It. And some of us have great difficulty, already, getting into our bedrooms. There’s not a pillow large enough for our heads; it’s far too large. And we have bought the narcissistic culture of our day, teaching us somehow or another that an inflated view of ourselves is the antidote to all of our difficulties and all of our evils and all of our problems. If we would just think more about ourselves, then all would be well. And we read the Bible, and Paul says, “And in the last days there will be grievous and perilous times. And men will be philautos—lovers of themselves.”
Can I tell you how to amount to virtually nothing for God? Think of yourself more highly than you ought. Tonight, having come from your school—maybe a big fish in a little pond—welcome to the big pond, little fish. There will be people around you who make you mad, ’cause you thought you were the best—and you may have been. Don’t fight it. Thank God for it. One of the greatest detriments to usefulness in God’s kingdom is a proud heart. Uzziah was greatly used of God—a tremendous leader, did awesome things, built up the kingdom, tremendous military expansion, balance of payments exceptional—and the record of him is this: that he was gloriously helped until he became strong, and when he became strong he grew proud to his own destruction.
I’m sure tonight that you understand that humility is the very seedbed in which all of the graces and gifts of God grow to their maturity. That’s why, when Peter writes to the scattered Christians of his day, he says to them, “Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time.” Resist the temptation to push yourself to the front of the queue. Resist the temptation to rush, as it were, to the head of the parade. Resist the temptation for the key seat. “For this is the man and the woman—the young man, the young woman—to whom I will look,” says the Lord: “he or she who is humble and contrite in spirit, and who trembles at my word.”
Thirdly—and I think this fits the theme, if not of the week, of the semester, or perhaps even the year—if our prayer is meager, it is because we believe it to be supplemental and not fundamental.
If you’re like me, of all the things that we don’t want anyone else to find out about in relationship to our spiritual pilgrimage, it is how little we pray. Not how keen we are to pray in the late hours of the evening, when we resolve that we will arise in the early hours when it is still dusk and we will conquer this matter of prayer. Oh no, I understand that. I’m not talking about our resolve, I’m not talking about our desires or our designs; I’m talking about our doing.
And I don’t want to make you feel a wrongful sense of guilt; it would not be a fine start. But I want to confess to you tonight that the hardest things for me, both in life and in ministry, ultimately come here. And when I talk more than I pray, when I study more than I seek God’s help, when I’m tempted to think that when I’m on my feet I’m at my use most useful, and when I’m on my knees I’m sometimes or somehow filling in time that could be more beneficially exercised, then I’m declaring that I’m on the wrong side of this equation.
You see, since prayer is the key area of our relationship with our heavenly Father, it is this area that is most frequently under attack. Indeed, I think I might safely say to you that you will face no greater attack than in this area. Because the Evil One knows that the weaponry that our commander-in-chief—namely, Jesus—has given to us is prayer and the ministry of the Word of God. Therefore, he will come to confront us with our view of Scripture and to seek to call in question the veracity and the sufficiency of God’s Word, and he will at the same time seek to undermine any deep-seated conviction that we have that it is imperative that we come before God and cry out to him, “Abba, Father,” and that we seek his help in every part of our journey.
If you pray only when you feel like it while you’re a student here, you’re not going to pray very much at all. And we need to help one another in this. That’s why God will give to you here in your studies friendships that will long pass your college career. Seek out good friends. Be a good friend. Be prepared, even in a Christian establishment like this, to be thought fanatical for Jesus Christ. A fanatic, in Christian terms, is usually just someone who loves Jesus a little more than I do.
When Paul, again in the Philippian letter, encourages his readers, he says to them, “I want you to rejoice in the Lord always. I’ll say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Don’t be anxious about anything.” There’s a word for most of us, isn’t it? I love the fact that it’s there. Because it’s not a redundancy. He’s not writing about something that is a possibility; he’s writing about something that is an actuality. “Don’t be anxious,” he says. Why would he encourage them not to be anxious? Because their natural response would be to be anxious. And when you come, and you get these reading lists, and you get these professors, and you look at them from row 7, and you wonder what they’re really like and how they’ll grade and what they’ll do, and you wonder how your dog is, having left it behind, and you wonder what your mother’s doing, and you wonder all these things, you can be virtually enveloped in anxiety.
God knows. He says, “There a problem; you should face it.” And then he provides a wonderful pattern for us to follow. He says, “Whatever is true and noble and right and pure and lovely and admirable and excellent and praiseworthy, think about these things.” If you and I fill our minds with verse 8, there will be precious little space left for anxious thoughts. And the promise of God is that as we come to him in this way, his peace will guard and keep our hearts and minds. Indeed, the God of peace will be with us.
Now, I hope I’m making it clear to you that I haven’t come in here to tell you of how successful I am in all these areas. Why would I write these things on the flyleaf of my Bible? To constantly remind me of the challenge that is here. To constantly confront me in relationship to this truth: with the fact that “no [Christian] is greater than his prayer life,” that “the secret of praying is praying in secret,” but in the matter of praying, how tragic that so many have left so much to so few. You’d be surprised how much your experience here can even mitigate against the development of a private prayer life.
If you read and find somewhere in the archives a book by Rosalind Rinker, who worked with the Overseas Missionary Fellowship, she tells the story of having come from Malaysia and gone to the Moody Bible Institute. And she tells how she began to pray in groups, and she found that her mind wandered, and she found that some of her friends were “a walkin’ contradiction, partly truth and partly fiction,” because what they were saying in their prayers, they weren’t living in their lives. That wasn’t their conversation at the meal table; that wasn’t what she heard in casual, overarching speech. And she used to get up early in the morning and go to a broom closet in Moody Bible Institute, and she closed herself in with pails and mops and brushes, and that’s where she developed her conversation with God.
Now, I’m not going to suggest to you that you all go and charge out and try and find broom closets. I’m sure there’s not enough for everybody, nor is there need, I’m sure. If our prayer is meager, it is because we believe it to be supplemental, not fundamental.
Let me give you just two more, shall I? How about this one? “He who finds a wife finds what is good and receives favor from the Lord.” Or we can turn it round and say, “She who finds a husband finds what is good and receives favor from the Lord,” although the Scriptures actually don’t say that in the same way.
I mention this because relationships are vital. And coming into an institution like this and returning to an institution like this, you know that it is rich with opportunity and fraught with difficulty. Relationships are seldom neutral. There are friends in whose company it is easy to be good. And there are friends—and they’re not really friends—but there are acquaintances in whose company it is easy to be bad. And that is particularly true when it comes to relationships with the opposite sex.
Not all of us will be granted the privilege of marriage. Some of us will be blessed with the gift of singleness. I would be surprised if many of you have already concluded that that is the case at this point of your life, although some of you may have chosen to do so. Don’t say it too loudly; you may be missing a great opportunity. I have vivid recollections of girls in my church in Scotland standing up and making these great declarations of how they were married to the Lord Jesus, and he was their only husband, and they were satisfied. And today, they are now married and have five children—and an embarrassment when I remind them of their great declarations. Go steady on this one.
Indeed, go steady on the whole matter of relationships. Resist the temptation to go rushing into things and making extravagant claims and silly protestations of your undying love and affection. Goodness gracious, you don’t even know yourself, let alone the girl that you just met in the hallway or in the cafeteria. Read the biography of Billy Graham, and you will find that he fell in love with frequency. His mother was alarmed that he had a different girl every semester, we are told in the biography. And none of them was the right girl until, of course, Ruth Bell came along. It may well be that you meet your spouse here, and that will be fine. Because there is no relationship in all of life that is capable of greater joy—or deeper sorrow—than the marriage relationship, lived in the parameters that God has established—or violated. And therefore, I caution you in relationship to these things.
I told you that I have a son, and I have two daughters; one is seventeen, and one is sixteen. I don’t have rottweilers—yet—but I’m considering purchasing at least two. When I was sixteen, I met an American girl. She was thirteen. She had blue eyes, and that was about it. But they were lovely. And I started to write letters to her from 300 miles away, and then from 250 miles away, and then from 3,000 miles away. And tonight, this Suzy Jones is at home in Cleveland, trying to prevent a young man like me from deciding that our daughters have lovely blue eyes, and suggesting that he begins to write letters to her. It’s different when you become a dad. You’ll never know until you become a dad.
But there will be tragedies on this campus in the space of your four-year pilgrimage, and they will come in this area. Don’t be one of them. Set your moral compasses now. Take the high ground. Go for the gold. Live for Christ. “There is no good thing that the Lord withholds from those whose walk is blameless.”
The last thing I’ll tell you, for this evening at least, is this: more spiritual progress is made through failure and tears than through success and laughter. More spiritual progress is made through failure and tears than through success and laughter.
Now, don’t misunderstand me. There is no question that you and we who care for you are hoping that your experience here in every realm will be an outstanding success. Indeed, that is your purpose and your goal, and it is right to hold to it. This statement is not to serve as a cop-out for those who’ve determined that they don’t want to do their best, and they’ll just meander along the journey and just eke out their existence and finally leave. No. But I do want to tell you, on the basis of the biblical record and on the experience of my life, that, in fact, more spiritual progress is made through the difficult days than through the successful days.
Read Hebrews 12 to cross-reference this. Think of the heroes of the faith. Consider those who are nameless, who were sawn in two, who were buried alive, who suffered great tragedy, and yet whose testimony is there to encourage us to look unto Jesus and to finish the race. Realize that our temptation will be to run away from the things that make us. And as the Puritan writer has said, “It is in shunning trials that we miss blessings.” Surely this is why James says, “Count it all joy when you face trials of various kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. And when perseverance completes its perfect work, then you will become all that God intends for you to be.”
Just the prayer requests tonight are a reminder to us that in this earthly pilgrimage, while we enjoy a measure of health and strength, while we enjoy the privilege of being here on this evening, with all that opens before us, there are others of our number who are fighting battles—physically; mentally; some of them, doubtless, spiritually. When the sun shines all the time, all you get is desert. You cannot have such lovely vegetation without the rain. Each of us tonight has and will face in the course of our pilgrimage those things which crush us, bruise us, dishearten us. Plan on it. Plan on it. Otherwise, it will take you unawares and knock your house down. And remember, when it comes, seize it—not as an enemy from the Evil One. Seize it as the provision of your heavenly Father, who knows that in the thorns as well as in the roses, he is unfolding the scroll of his plan and his purpose for your life tonight so that you might become all that God intends for you to be.
Father, on this evening, on this crossroads evening, on the threshold of this new semester and academic year, we come to you, a jumble of emotions. Some of us are homesick, and we found it hard to sing the songs because of the lump in our throats, and we thank you that you know all about us. And we’ll make it; we’re just a wee bit shaky.
Others of us, Lord, have come back, and we don’t know how it happened, but along the journey our hearts got a wee bit stony. We’ve grown a little cynical, not just skeptical. And so we pray that you will come and warm our hearts, moisten our eyes, open our ears. Help us, Lord, to know you—to be able to say, “You’re my all, you’re the best. You’re who I love and what I long for.” And while we may not understand all that that means, grant that it may be the declaration of our hearts, and then we’ll spend our days finding out what it is we’ve just said to you and what the implications of that will be.
Help us, then, in relationship to the things we’ve thought of. Ground your Word deep within our lives, we pray, so that looking back on this night, we may have occasion to bless and praise you. And to this end, we give ourselves to you, in Jesus’ name and for his sake. Amen.
 Norman Grubb, C. T. Studd: Athlete and Pioneer (1933; repr., Harrisburg, PA: Evangelical Press, 1943), 145. Paraphrased.
 Graham Kendrick, “Knowing You” (1993).
 Philippians 3:7–11 (NIV 1984).
 Quoted in Elisabeth Elliot, Shadow of the Almighty: The Life and Testament of Jim Elliot (1958; repr., New York: HarperCollins, 1979), 15.
 1 Peter 2:24 (KJV).
 Romans 12:1 (paraphrased).
 Frances Ridley Havergal, “Take My Life, and Let It Be” (1874). Lyrics lightly altered.
 Isaiah 66:2 (paraphrased).
 2 Timothy 3:1–2 (paraphrased).
 See Romans 12:3.
 See 2 Chronicles 26:15–16.
 1 Peter 5:6 (NIV 1984).
 Philippians 4:4–6 (paraphrased).
 Philippians 4:8 (paraphrased).
 Philippians 4:7, 9 (paraphrased).
 Leonard Ravenhill, Why Revival Tarries (1959; repr., Minneapolis: Bethany House, 1987), 25.
 Ravenhill, 26.
 Ravenhill, 26.
 See Rosalind Rinker, Prayer: Conversing with God (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1959).
 Kris Kristofferson, “The Pilgrim” (1971).
 Proverbs 18:22 (NIV 1984).
 Psalm 84:11 (paraphrased).
 See Hebrews 11:35–12:3.
 James 1:2–4 (paraphrased).
 Kendrick, “Knowing You.”
Copyright © 2020, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.