The phrase “finishing well” means different things to different people. For some, finishing well means ending life with a long, cushy retirement. For those who believe “he who dies with the most toys wins,” finishing well means having lots of stuff. For still others, it means ending with a pain-free death.
When we use the phrase, “finishing well,” we mean following Christ to the very end of our lives, finishing his assignments for us and hearing his “well done, good and faithful servant.”
How then do we finish well? Much has been written about this topic in the past decade. We’d like to add a few of our own thoughts. So what does it take?
Let’s start with grace. We finish well by the grace of God. That is also how we start the race. That is what keeps us in the race. And that is what takes us to the end. As John Newton put it in his famous hymn, “Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home.”
When all is said and done, grace is the ultimate explanation for why any of us make it. We are kept by the grace of God. It is then very appropriate to pray, “Lord, give me the grace to finish well.”
From this foundation, there is more to be said. We have observed six characteristics of those who finish well.
First, those who finish well have a Christ-centered life. They know they are saved by him, and they never get over it. He is their life source. He is the center of their affections. As Graham Kendrick put it in a one recent hymn, they know “there is no greater joy” than knowing him. Consequently, they focus more on loving Christ than avoiding sins. They know that a vibrant personal relationship with Jesus and a daily walk with him are essential to everything. He is the spring from which comes all spiritual fruit. He is the vine; we draw our life from him. When we plateau in our spiritual lives, we must come back to him and seek renewal. Why? Because he is “the author and perfecter of our faith” (Hebrews 12:2).
Second, those who finish well have a focused life. They are focused first on him, but second on the task that he has given to us. Call this the “focus factor!” They not only know the purpose of life (to know, love, serve and glorify the Lord), but they also know the purpose of their lives. They have an accurate understanding of the gifts he has given them, the call he has given them, and often even the specific assignments he has for them.
They have a focused life and not a scattered life. Most people live scattered lives. They do not know the purpose of life, or the purpose for their lives. By contrast, those who finish well have a clarity of purpose and a constancy of purpose.
I (George) began to sense my own life purpose listening to different people preach at my church growing up. In the year 1941, there was a particular series of revival meetings. My wife and I went for 41 nights straight, not missing an evening, listening to the preaching of evangelist George T. Stevens. It was there that we dedicated our lives to Christ to do whatever he wanted. I knew then that I was called to be an evangelist and Bible teacher. That is when I began preaching and drawing in public. I was a pretty good artist. A friend built me an easel. I would draw and then preach a Bible message. The local rescue missions in New York City and northern New Jersey would have me in — more for my drawing than for my preaching in those days. But I knew I was called to this ministry of evangelism and teaching. It was my life purpose. That has been my constant theme whether as an evangelist, pastor or educator.
The phrase from Paul “this one thing I do” (Philippians 3:13 KJV) is very important in my life. It became my motto. Paul said, “this one thing I do,” not “these 50 things I dabble in.” That’s because he had a focused life rather than a scattered one. It’s a characteristic of those who finish well.
Third, those who end well have disciplined lives. That’s the other side of being focused. To be focused, you have to eliminate the unnecessary.
To get this point across, the New Testament uses numerous athletic images. In 1 Corinthians 9, Paul pictures a runner. He said run in such a way that you may win. But then he added, “Every athlete exercises self-control in all things.” Therefore he said, “I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified” (vv. 25-27 ESV). The writer to the Hebrews said, “Since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us” (Hebrews 12:1). He too is talking about discipline.
A Christian who finishes well will practice spiritual disciplines. As Dallas Willard, Richard Foster, and others have enumerated, there will be the disciplines of abstinence such as fasting, silence, solitude, frugality, sacrifice and chastity. But there will also be the disciplines of engagement such as prayer, fellowship, worship, study, service, confession and submission.
These will help guard our inner lives. The disciplines will not become an end in themselves. For they are really disciplines in response to God’s grace. Grace and discipline are spiritual friends, when kept in the right order. Spiritual disciplines become a means of grace that help us get to the finish line.
A fourth characteristic of those who finish well is that they have a teachable spirit through life. “Teachable” means that they maintain a humble posture and are open to receiving midcourse corrections. Those who finish well never stop doing this. They are lifelong learners. They learn from reading, from watching and listening to others, and from life itself. This keeps them from plateauing. Paul was like this. At the very end of his life, in the closing request of his last letter, he says to Timothy, “When you come… also bring my books” (2 Timothy 4:13 NLT). He was still learning and teachable, right to the very end. Amazing.
A fifth characteristic of those who finish well is that they have a well-networked life. We’ve written on this earlier, that you can’t run this race alone. Success in the journey depends upon a network of key relationships. Those who finish well have had not just one but numerous mentors. There are people who pray for you. There is personal and group accountability. There is shepherding by pastors and encouragement by spiritual friends — co-travelers on the path to help you get there.
Sixth, along with all these other traits, those who finish well have what I call a lifelong perspective. They try to take the long view of life — to look at things with the end in mind. This is not to say they didn’t at times become disoriented or tempted to launch out on detours. All of us do that. But when tempted, certain life disciplines helped them stay on course.
John Stott told about how when he was appointed rector of All Souls at age 29, the urgent regularly crowded out the important. Events would often overtake him. Those of us who are in leadership know exactly what he’s talking about. At one point, not far from a serious breakdown, he attended a pastors conference where one of the teachers said that every pastor should take a quiet day once a month to allow God to draw him up into his heart and mind — to look at his work from a divine perspective, focus on the important, and adjust his priorities accordingly.
This is exactly what Stott needed to be told. So he went through his diary and wrote the letter Q for quiet, one day a month. Someone got him a quiet room with meals so he could be alone. Only his secretary knew where he was. He would leave home early in the morning so he had 10 to 12 hours in quiet.
Stott says he reserved for that day any matter that needed uninterrupted time. Yet he made sure there was time to pray and think about his own life and the life of the church. It was a season each month to seek God’s mind and discern his priorities for the ministry. After beginning this discipline, Stott said, the burden of responsibility for the church was lifted from his shoulders. This monthly Q day became so valuable that eventually he had a Q day every week!
A Q day is only one way to regain this lifelong perspective. Others take minisabbaticals, or make sure there is some Sabbath rest built into their lives to listen to God. There are multiple ways to think about life with your end in view. The point is, do something to get this perspective. It will keep you from being sidetracked and give you an enlarged perspective.
Each of these characteristics play a part in helping us finish well — by God’s grace, a Christ-centered life, a focused life, a disciplined life, a teachable life, a networked life, and a lifelong perspective. All play a part in our staying on track so we can finish our race. So that in the end we hear our master say, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” Do you long to hear those words?
This excerpt from “How to Finish the Christian Life” by Donald W. Sweeting & George Sweeting (Moody Publishers, 2012) appeared in the NAE Insight.