“All right guys, I want you to build something beautiful with the materials in front of you,” I instructed. “But whatever you build has to be able to stand the test.”
For an hour these young men created out of the materials I’d provided them. They could build with any combination of modeling clay, copper pipe, lumber, cardboard, rocks, and a host of other options.
When time was up we surveyed the work that had been done. Some creations had an artistic flair and looked like child’s attempt to mimic a Michelangelo piece. Some projects were vertically aimed towers. Miniature Babels. It was clear much effort had been devoted just to keep the creation upright.
With each young man still wearing a smile of pride and accomplishment, I poured lighter fluid on each project and lit them aflame. This fire was the test I told them was coming. The aftermath was entertaining. Besides the shock on the faces of the guys, it was fascinating to watch their creations burn. Depending on what they had used to build, there was more or less that remained once the flame had tested their work.
Now before you start calling me some kind of psychopathic pyromaniac, let’s be clear. The scene I created that afternoon wasn’t an original. Our construction project was actually designed to mirror a biblical text from 1 Corinthians 3:10-15.
Your Life is a Building Project Followed by Arson
According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building upon it. Let each one take care how he builds upon it. For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw—each one's work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If anyone's work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.
Paul is saying to the church at Corinth, “Friends I laid a foundation for you. I brought you the message of Jesus. Now it’s up to you to build on that foundation – for better or for worse.”
Just like my students built with different materials, every Christian, is building on the foundation they have received in Christ. However, the real surprise in Paul’s words is that what we build with our lives will be tested by fire.
There are two judgments described in Scripture. One for believers in Jesus (The Judgment Seat of Christ), and another for those who have not believed (The Great White Throne Judgment).
According to Paul, your life is a building project followed by arson. Jesus is offering us a heads-up that we will stand before him face-to-face. During this conversation, the quality of the story you lived will be revealed. (It is important to note that for Christians, this conversation does not result a verdict of heaven or hell but rather, reward or loss of reward.)
I’m prone to view my life as a smattering of disconnected parts. I can survey the different areas - husband, father, professor, coach, student, writer, athlete – and things seem kind of hodgepodge. But the Bible says that there is a singular and united outcome my life is progressing towards. That product is the finished picture of the story I have lived. That story, this lifelong building project, will either leave me smiling after my conversation with Jesus or it will leave me weeping and He will wipe away those tears.
So what are the materials we have to build with? What is the “gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw” that Paul refers to?
The answer runs deeper than the good things we do or don’t do. The story you live will not ultimately be the sum product of your behavior. The story you live is actually molded by the subterranean desires that drive you forward. When you stand before Jesus, He will test the purity of your affections. Were you pursuing false loves or responding to the lover of your soul? Did you build your life around the true story of the gospel or around a hollow and broken story?
The most important task any of us can ever undertake is to launch a full investigation of these questions. What you find through this personal inquiry might change the trajectory of your life.
Life as a House
The film Life as a House opens with a stunning panorama of the Southern California coastline. We see the sun rise as it peeks over the cliffs and you can hear the waves crashing below. The camera pans and we are introduced to the main character who is facing the ocean, stretching, and urinating off the cliff.
George Monroe is the owner of this magnificent property and his neighbors hate him for it. Surrounded by pristine mansions, his embarrassing shack is in disrepair (and no functioning toilet, thus, the need for the cliff). The great irony is that George is an architect. However, he hates his job. He is divorced and alienated from his drug-loving son.
Early on in the movie, George collapses after being fired. Doctors discover that he has terminal cancer. Mere months remain in his life. With the end in view, he sets to work on the project he’s always dreamed of - pouring his energy and skill into the house. He enlists the help of his son, Sam, who violently opposes the idea but is forced to by his mother. Sam moves in for the summer.
George has not shared the news of his cancer with anyone, but as his condition worsens the secret leaks. Sam begins to soften towards his father. As the cancer slowly kills George, his house is being constructed and repaired. But even better, a relationship between George and Sam blossoms out of the rubble.
As summer fades, George is hospitalized and it is clear that his death is immanent. Sam places Christmas lights on the house so George can see it from a distance in his hospital room.
George dies. The building is finished. The movie ends with a voice-over of his final words to Sam.
“I always thought of myself as a house. I was always what I lived in. It didn't need to be big; it didn't even need to be beautiful; it just needed to be mine. I became what I was meant to be. I built myself a life... I built myself a house…If you were a house, Sam, this is where you would want to be built: on rock, facing the sea. Listening. Listening."
You and I can still build. You are, in fact, building something with your life right now. It’s the story you live.