Leaving a Godly Legacy

by Dr. Ken Boa

The Next Generations and the Brevity of Life

Moses captured the transitory nature of human life in Psalm 90:

Teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom.

Psalm 90:12

In this oldest of Psalms, the only one written by Moses, we have the perspective of a wise and godly man looking back on his journey at the end of a long life. At first, he recalls God’s faithfulness across times and epochs:

Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations.

Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever you had formed the earth and the world,

from everlasting to everlasting you are God.

Psalm 90:12

Moses, by this point in his life, had the wisdom to know we should never live presumptuously but should live in expectation of the Spirit of God working in our lives; he had seen God do so repeatedly, rescuing his children in the wilderness even when they did not deserve it. He contrasts the nature of the everlasting God with human life, which is fleeting and returns to dust (Psalm 90:3).

Moses continues with a perspective on time. A millennium feels long from a human point of view, but for God it’s like a day—a blip on the timeline of eternity. Moses then uses two metaphors to drive home the brevity of life:

You sweep them [generations] away as with a flood; they are like a dream, like grass that is renewed in the morning; in the morning it flourishes and is renewed; in the evening it fades and withers.

Psalm 90:56

The mindset is this: a generation comes, builds its buildings, and achieves some feats. But as soon as everything is built (sometimes even before the work is finished), it’s as though a flood comes and washes it all away. Using another analogy, Moses says each generation is like grass—sprouting anew one day, withered and gone the next.

A. W. Tozer gives a similar metaphor in The Knowledge of the Holy, drawing from a verse in the book of Job. “The days of the years of our lives are few, and swifter than a weaver’s shuttle. Life is a short and fevered rehearsal for a concert we cannot stay to give. Just when we appear to have attained some proficiency we are forced to lay our instruments down.”

Have you seen weavers working a loom? They take the shuttle and shoot it across the loom, then down. This was a brilliant way of fast­ forwarding long before such technology existed. The analogy is that of one day after another whizzing past, and before you know it, the weaving is complete.

Such is the nature of life.

If you’ve ever stood on the ocean shore observing the tide, you’ll catch the vision that both Moses and Tozer are communicating. Humans and all their earthly achievements are like those huge, grand sandcastles—impressive for a moment, but as soon as the tide comes in, they’re swept along with whatever other rubble sur­ rounded them—seaweed, shells, dead jellyfish, ocean debris. Before long you’d never know any of it was there. All that’s left is the foundation.

The question we all wonder is, am I building sandcastles that will be knocked down and forgotten forever once I die? In other words, am I writing my name on water? Or, am I living in a way that will make a permanent mark? Is there a sure foundation I can build on—something I can do or be that will never get swept away?

Scripture contends that our lives do matter, not only collectively but individually, and that each of us can serve as a link from one generation to the next. In other words, we can leave a positive, godly legacy that makes an eternal imprint. And we need not wait to begin building this legacy.

Legacy from God’s Standpoint

The Bible speaks of “legacy” using terms such as inheritance, offspring, generations, and descendants. Some of the most poignant passages about what it means to live and leave a godly legacy are found in the psalms such as Psalm 71:17-18 and and Psalm 145:4-7. Psalm 78, attributed to Asaph, focuses almost exclusively on the coming generation. Notice the warning to those who forget God and refuse to repent and live for him:

He made their days vanish like a breath, and their years in terror.

Psalm 78:33

The lives of these unfaithful people are not only fleeting but end “in terror.” Moreover, the work they accomplished during their earthly sojourns has no lasting meaning—it’s utterly destroyed:

He gave their crops to the destroying locust and the fruit of their labor to the locust.

Psalm 78:46

Of course, all crops and livestock die eventually, but the point is symbolic. The final verdict of their work represents the opposite of what Moses prays for:

Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us, and establish the work of our hands upon us; yes, establish the work of our hands!

Psalm 90:17

Here, we see the first important truth that we must grab hold of if any of us is to have any kind of lasting legacy: it is God who gives us a legacy. He establishes our work (here, we’re referring to work in a broad sense) and makes it meaningful. Try as we might to establish our own legacies, the blessing of having our lives count from a kingdom stand­ point is his to determine.

A second important truth about legacy is closely related to the first. Legacy from a biblical standpoint is about God, not us. If our primary concern is that we are remembered, we’ve missed the point of life. While his people are given the privilege of living forever in his presence, the key to legacy on earth is a desire to honor the Creator, who binds every generation together.

Self- or Christ-Exalting?

Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem “Ozymandias” speaks of a king whose lasting mark was a pedestal containing these words:

My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;

Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay

Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare

The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Focused on making a name for himself, Ozymandias epitomized what he tried so hard not to become: a shattered statue, lifeless and devoid of glory. The poet’s words contrast starkly with those of the psalmist’s:

The righteous flourish like the palm tree

and grow like a cedar in Lebanon.

They are planted in the house of the Lord;

they flourish in the courts of our God.

They still bear fruit in old age;

they are ever full of sap and green,

To declare that the Lord is upright;

he is my rock, and there is no unrighteousness in him.

Psalm 92:12,15

Crumbling, lifeless stone or an ever­living, verdant tree? We can either pursue self importance or Christlikeness, self­ exaltation or Christ exaltation. Our choice determines our final legacy.

Make no mistake, God honors the individual; we’re not lost in a sea of collectivity. But ultimately, all points to him, and a preoccupation with preserving our own memory, for our own sake and name, is not scriptural. Instead, for those who follow and love God, he promises to establish us, our work, and our purpose—for his name’s sake.

What About Children and Grandchildren?

If you ask people what their plans are for their retirement years, those who have a plan almost always mention family—especially children and grandchildren. Investing in the next generation provides one of the greatest senses of satisfaction and lasting significance. And yet even this can have only a fleeting impact if it is not done with a God­centered focus and purpose.

Offspring in the Bible are a good and godly desire (Psalm 127:3­5). Paul goes so far as to say that if we don’t take care of our relatives, we have effectively “denied the faith” and are “worse than an unbeliever” (1 Timothy 5:8).

To be sure, we’re commanded to be fruitful and multiply biologically speaking. But legacy, according to the Bible, goes beyond DNA and blood relations. Psalm 145 never says that our acts of declaring, praising, and singing of God to the next generation have to be done toward children we call our own (biological or adopted). Of course, if we have them, we should do so (1 Timothy 5:8). But our legacy shouldn’t stop there. And if we don’t have earthly progeny, we can still fully answer God’s call to bear lasting fruit.

The question is this: Who are you investing in to ensure that the works of God, the goodness of God, and the faithfulness of God are passed on to the next generation? Who are you investing in to ensure that the works of God, the goodness of God, and the faithfulness of God are passed on to the next generation?

It might be young neighbors, children of friends, the kids in the nursery at church, the young people at the school or college down the road, or the members of the baseball team you coach. It might not even be young people directly—you might be a teacher or mentor or encourager to others who are training the next generation. Or you might be writing books that have an impact on both the current and next generations. The possibilities of spiritual fruitfulness and legacy are endless, and they go far beyond biology.

Don’t Wait or Think It’s Too Late

As we think about legacy, we can make several mistakes. One is to overemphasize our biological progeny as the recipients of our legacy. Another is to overemphasize material belongings, thinking only in terms of wills and estates. A third mistake relates to age and time.

When we’re younger, we tend to overemphasize the future— thinking we’ll get around to doing the things that matter and will make a long­term impact later, after we’re done with the more urgent business of working to make money, support ourselves and our family, and so on.  Our legacy on earth has already begun; it is not built later in life but throughout our lives, every single day, based on how we spend our time, talent, and other resources. We aren’t preparing to leave a legacy; we’re doing so already.

As a result the father who chooses to spend a little less time at the office and a little more time at home while the kids are still young makes a wise sacrifice. Likewise, the young single woman who invests spare time that she has now (and may not have later if and when she marries) is building her legacy as she mentors young girls struggling with self­image and helps them see their worth and value in Christ. The college students who work as Christian camp counselors over the summer are reaching youth in ways that older adults might not be able to; they too are contributing to their legacy. Bottom line: Legacy isn’t just for later.

On the flip side, as we age we can tend to underestimate our older selves and think our best years are behind us. While our health and physical vitality may wane and our circle of influence may shrink, the greatest opportunity to make an impact on the next generations can come toward the end of life. And if we are wise, we will seize the uniqueness of the season called old age and spend it on the things that truly matter. This doesn’t mean we never play golf, take a trip, pursue pleasures, or even spoil the kids and grandkids. Hear us clearly when we say there is nothing necessarily wrong with taking time to golf, helping a grandchild pay for college or even spoiling them a little, or traveling the globe.

It truly is never too early nor too late to leave a lasting legacy.

Recalibrating

Each of us is on earth for a purpose, and God is the one who establishes our legacy. To truly have a lasting impact we need to continually recalibrate our perspective of our time and our resources so that we are living in light of eternity.

God wants to use each of us to make a lasting impact. In his economy it’s not about quantity but quality, trusting that he has the power to multiply the effect of any small effort made with an attitude of submission to him. In this vein, whether we are young or old, asking endgame questions about all our activities can help ensure we will leave a godly legacy rather than pursue our own comfort or fame:

  • Why am I doing this?
  • Is there some other way God is calling me to spend my time, effort, or money?
  • Is there any way I can do this same activity but with more of a God­-centered focus?
  • Am I loving God and others in this?

We need humility when answering these questions. We must be willing to make adjustments, to remain teachable and supple at all times. So many succumb to a hardening of the categories, a worse disease than the hardening of the arteries. With this condition a person becomes nearly immune to any change of thought process or life approach as they age. But no matter how much we think we know, we always have more to learn! God is always taking us even deeper and will use our pursuit of him in ways we don’t always see or understand. We do both ourselves and others a disservice if we drop out of the game and sideline ourselves at any point. Our most effective time of ministry can come at any stage of our lives, for God is not constricted in the ways we are.

As an exercise in recalibration, read and reflect on Psalm 145. You can conclude your reflection time with this or your own prayer:

Lord, help me to know you have created me for a purpose, you love me, and you want to use me to proclaim your name and goodness throughout the world and down through the generations. You will establish the work of my hands when I submit it to you—this is my legacy. May I never take for granted a single day in which you’ve given me life and breath, and may you give me the grace to respond to your loving overtures and guidance with joyful obedience and trust. Amen.

Leaving a Godly Legacy

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