The Bible is filled with fathers and mothers, prophets and pastors who aimed to build a legacy that would outlive their little lives and names. Such leaders cared greatly about whether grass or thorns grew over their graves — about whether, long after they left the land of the living, the sun shone upon a world better off because of them. Consider Abraham, for whom one hundred years well lived was not enough. He yearned for a son — and, beyond him, the promise of offspring greater than the stars, more numerous than the sand (Genesis 15:1–6).
Imagine that you receive a word from a trustworthy prophet. It begins hopefully enough: “You will live long and die in peace, and your name will be remembered for centuries.” But then comes a turn: “A few generations after you die, devastation will visit your family and your church. Your descendants will lie in ruins.” How might you respond?
In an individualistic society like ours, whose generational vision has grown dim, many may indulge the same thought that passed through King Hezekiah’s heart when he received a similar prophecy. “Hear the word of the Lord,” the prophet Isaiah told the king. One day, the treasures of Israel will adorn the palace of Babylon — and some of your sons will serve, castrated, their captors’ king. Your throne, Hezekiah, will belong to your family no more. The prophecy placed the king on a thin threshold between a lost past and a mutilated future (2 Kings 20:16–18). For now, however, he was safe.
We might expect sackcloth and ashes, confession and earnest prayer — the same kind of desperation Hezekiah had showed before (2 Kings 19:14–19). Instead, we hear a sigh of relief: “Why not,” the king asks himself, “if there will be peace and security in my days?” (2 Kings 20:19). Dead men don’t feel pain. Why worry about an army marching over your grave?
The world today knows many such leaders, who live for their own passing lives with little care for the generations to come. Our families and churches, however, desperately need leaders who will live for the welfare of days they’ll never see.
No doubt, the individualistic air we breathe in the West reminds us of some important truths. God knit together every person uniquely (Psalm 139:13). We must respond, each one of us, to the preaching of the gospel (Romans 10:9). We will stand as individuals “before the judgment seat of Christ” (2 Corinthians 5:10).
Yet that same individualistic air can have a way of choking precious virtues, virtues that would have been assumed in biblical societies (despite the occasional Hezekiah). Biblical saints saw themselves as branches on a tree whose roots stretched farther than memory and whose limbs would keep growing long after they were gone. They walked, self-consciously, in the land between “our fathers” (Psalm 78:3) and “the children yet unborn” (Psalm 78:6). And at their best, they lived to pass on the godly legacy of their parents to descendants they would never meet (Psalm 78:5–7).
We, however, tutored by individualistic impulses, so often act like plants whose roots begin at our birth and whose fruit will die when we will. In both family and church, we struggle to live in light of a future we won’t personally experience.
In the family, many in our generation need to be convinced that kids, especially several kids, are worth the present cost. Under our breath, we ask questions prior generations rarely would have. Why give our twenties and thirties — decades of peak energy and strength — to rocking sleepless infants and pushing tricycles? Why build a family when we could build a career — or take on dependents when we could travel the continents? Generational legacies are buried, increasingly it seems, beneath today’s priorities.
In the church, too, we may subconsciously wonder if the benefits of patient, next-generation discipleship really outweigh the costs. Yes, we could train others to teach — but then we wouldn’t teach as much. Yes, we could find our Peter, James, and John and devote our days to discipling them — but only by devoting less time to our own discipleship. Yes, we could give others leadership and a platform — but only at the expense of our own.
Sometimes, this prizing of me today over them tomorrow happens innocently, with the best of intentions. Other times, the individualism around us becomes an excuse for the selfishness within us, and we forgo a Christlike legacy for the sake of present comfort, freedom, or power. Personally, I fear I have been shaped much by this Hezekiah spirit. I need another leader to follow.