I just recently celebrated my 27th birthday. It was by far the best of every one of them that I can remember. The obvious reason was that it was my first as a married man. Being blessed with the loveliest of women for a wife, it would take millions of demons working round the clock to ruin this one. I thought it would be a quiet day just like I’ve always liked it, but she had other plans. After almost tearing me up with this sweet note she left before leaving for work, she came back in the evening with a sumptuous surprise cake I never saw coming. My blindness must have made sport of Bartimaeus’ in the Bible to have thought to myself that this woman wouldn’t pull a surprise on me.
She successfully etched 3rd Feb, 2017 on my ‘forever’ mental folder. Exactly like she emblazoned ‘till death’ on my heart that day she said ‘I do.’ But there are other things about my birthday too that made it special. While a hang out with friends would have been more fitting for a day like this one, I found myself opting to withdraw instead. I did spend some considerable time on social media relishing every well wish I would be sent and returning thank you notes, but my moments away from the world felt more fulfilling. There was this focus on the eternal that far surpassed any ephemeral blessing a birthday could bring.
While many wished me to blow many more candles, I felt this obsession with a longing to wear many crowns without number instead. If the flickering light of the candles could take me to the stars, and the stars to the glorious God who made them, then I wish I blew thousands of them. But no one makes it to heaven with simply a wish. We make it there with life; a life of daily dying to self and becoming more like Christ. That’s what I felt God requiring of me on my birthday, and particularly in the following three ways.
Death to my love for praise
Since clearing university, I have been in full-time ministry. Granted, I have by the grace of God shared life with more people than I might know. The blog, and the occasional posts on Facebook have ensured a wider sphere of influence than I would ever have imagined. To the best of my knowledge, I have ministered faithfully as called. But sometime last year, God began showing me a subtle strain of unfaithfulness I had been oblivious to. Without realizing, there was this growing expectation in me for the acknowledgment of men. If I did a post and it didn’t receive many likes, comments or shares, I would have this obscured sense of disappointment.
Even though I may have been faithful in my execution of the call I had received, I realized just how terribly unfaithful I was at seeking the reward for it. All I did was simply minister to men (which is a commendable thing), but unfortunately for men. God’s requirement however, is that I will minister to people for Him, for His glory. The Pharisees were found guilty of such hypocrisy. They would pray out loud and perform alms so that men could see – Matthew 6:5. While praying and performing alms were good things God required of men to do, their motive to earn the praise of men soiled their works.
I was no different from them. I may not have left a PS beneath every post reading “please comment, like, and share,” but my quiet expectations said just that. Faithfulness doesn’t just demand good actions alone; it demands good motives as well. I was falling short, and my birthday would offer a perfect opportunity to overcome. “How?” you ask. Several months before my birthday I made a daily prayer to God. My request was simple; “have no one post anything on Facebook about how big a blessing I’ve been to them.”
If He thought that I would handle it and would let someone do that, then I was fine with it. But if He knew that my sinful desire still thrived in me, then my prayer was that no one acknowledges anything about me. It would only feed the sin within, and I didn’t want that. I did not want my fulfillment coming from men acknowledging how faithful I am, but rather how gracious the One who called me is. His praises should never go through me, but from me. He didn’t create me to be a conduit of His praises, but an instrument of them. Thankfully, only one friend I can remember shared that I had been a blessing in his post on my timeline. I thought it will be really satisfying someday when I near my death and in retrospect look back to realize I lived like this; so much like Jesus who never did anything for Himself but for the Father who sent Him – see John 6:38.
I fed my heart, not my tummy
My birthday luckily fell on a day that my wife Isla and I had decided we would fast. It had been a while since I last fasted, and we had no idea we had picked a day for this privileged discipline that would coincide with my birthday. For a moment that morning I thought about moving the fast to another day. Would I really stare back harmlessly at that bread and fruits calling at me from that kitchen? I almost gave in to the temptation, but I realized that there wouldn’t be a better thing for my birthday than set myself apart this way.
Wouldn’t it be awesome celebrating the day you were born by dying? I believed it would be a good thing dying to the self. Even though the bread and fruit would have done my flesh some good, my spirit deserved more the renewal that comes with fasting. Preparing my heart for when I will someday die would reward more than stuffing my tummy to commemorate the day I was born.
Another way I chose to feed my heart was purposing to serve my wife. It’s easy to want to be the center of all attention on a day as special as a birthday. People are always kind to us, and more favor than normal is directed our way. Friends will offer to take you out for a treat, and if you are blessed with a spouse like myself, they just might treat you to an awesome surprise and prepare you your favorite meal like my wife thought to do. These are always fun, and there’s no harm whatsoever in enjoying them.
Some people though, do wisely come up with ways to serve on their birthdays rather than wait to be served. I’ve had friends who went to orphanages and shared the joy of life with the kids there. Quite a wonderful thing to do. But why did I choose my wife instead of some kids at an orphanage? When Jesus washed His disciples’ feet – see John 13:1-17, He finished by asking them to serve each other the same way. Ever wondered why He didn’t ask them to serve others in the world instead? I think that He knew if they successfully served each other, then their ministry to the world would be automatically taken care of. They would only lay down their lives (wants and preferences) for the rest in the world if they first laid them down for each other.
It’s usually not as hard serving people we don’t interact with daily. All we might ever interact with them might be at the medical camp or during the feeding program. But when it comes to people we spend each day of our lives with, serving them won’t come naturally. It will always take a choice; a resolve to serve them. These friends and family will hurt us, and sometimes we will take them plain for granted. Whenever they hurt us, they will automatically become the least deserving of our sacrificial service. Interestingly, that’s when they are the most eligible. This is because the best form of service is not the one deservedly earned, but graciously given.
It is good to be compassionate. Jesus was driven by a great compassion during His ministry years here on earth, but we must realize that it first was an act of grace that He came. He first forgave the undeserving sinner before compassionately healing them of their hurt. I did not choose to serve my wife because she had done something wrong and I felt she didn’t deserve it. I chose her because she’s the one I could have most easily ignored. I chose her because I know that if I can perfect the discipline of washing her feet (maybe by relieving her of the cleaning burden sometimes, or cooking), then I will almost naturally feed the hungry on the street.
She might not even have realized what I did to serve her. It wasn’t anything forby as I have done it a couple times before. Still, in my eyes it stood as service because it’s not what I would have normally done on my birthday. And since I knew that in serving I would be becoming more like Jesus for the day when this tent of a body I leave and to Him forever belong, it felt even more rewarding.
The birth of a friend
The best gift I received for my birthday (please Isla forgive me for this) was the salvation of this friend of mine from childhood about a week or so earlier. It seems God had been using His graces in my life to draw this guy to Himself. He had known me as a sinner, and he perfectly knew the family background I had. To be anything I am this day, he must have realized it could only have taken God. So he desired Yahweh in his most trying of moments. If you had seen the shock in my eyes when he texted me that he had asked Jesus into his life, you would understand the joy I’m feeling.
Isla’s cake was great, her sweet note nearly perfect, but not even those will stand beside my friend’s soul in heaven worshiping the Lamb who was slain and is now worthy of His reward – see Revelation 5:11. The best gift for my birthday could have only been the only eternal one of all I had to choose from; the spiritual birth of a friend.
That’s how my birthday was, and how I hope they’ll always be if God grants me to live more years. I hope that every time I will dance to the sweet birthday songs from family and friends here on earth, my deepest longing will be to join with them in singing the Song of Moses – see Deuteronomy 32:1-43, in heaven above.