In WW2, when the allies would target a Pacific island held by the enemy, the high ground was everything. Take Iwo Jima, for example. Mount Suribachi was the Japanese stronghold. Take it and you could control the rest of the island.
In the Civil War, General Lee built his battle plans around the high ground. He knew that if he was to win at Gettysburg, he needed to take Little Round Top.
From the high ground, you can see the battlefield. From the vantage point of a hill, you can look down and you can shoot down. For the enemy, it’s tiring and more difficult to go up hill. Your cavalry can’t go there. Your artillery can’t move with your troops. The high ground is costly. You take it with infantry, with bodies.
Down through the centuries, Military commanders have prized the high ground. They weighed the cost of taking and holding a given hill. Good generals assess the costs of taking hills and know the ones they needed to die on.
In our modern times, we too fight battles and, metaphorically speaking, we take hills. We too must assess which hills we’ll die on. But it can be hard to know what “hills” are really important. We have so many options. And truth itself can feel optional. If a challenge seems too difficult, why not walk away?
Thus in missions we prioritize specific issues above the big picture. Human trafficking seizes our imagination while the Great Commission seems less important. Drinking water or orphan care become the hills that we’ll die on.
Of course these issues are important. The social gospel is an important part of Jesus’ Gospel of good news. Hope is usually apprehended in a specific way when a specific need is met. I love orphans! My heart bleeds for those caught in the sex trade. But we follow a Lord who consistently prioritized souls above bodies, spiritual needs above physical needs. We meet their physical needs as a first step in eventually making a new disciple.
If we’re trying to follow Jesus, figuring out the hills we need to die on can seem complicated. Maybe more than necessary. Jesus doesn’t ask us to have it all figured out when we follow him. But he does ask us to walk away from our old lives.
He finds us on life’s battlefield fighting for things that won’t last, fighting to take little, inconsequential hills, and he asks us to walk away and fight for hills worth dying for. Men’s souls for example. “Follow me and I’ll make you fishers of men,” he says. “Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life,” he says. (John 6:27)
Jesus asks us to begin prioritizing, practicing triage, immediately. “Follow me and let the dead bury the dead. You go and preach the kingdom,” he says. (Luke 9:60
As I disciple young people, one of the signs of maturity I look for is this ability to know which hills to die on. I used to want to die on every hill. I wanted to fight for every inch of contested ground.
As I’ve grown older, I’ve learned the wisdom of falling back. Giving up ground and living to fight another day. I pay attention to the value of a given hill in comparison with the other hills I could take. And I look for that same skill in others. It’s worth a lot more than sheer intelligence or personal charisma.
Give me a few people who know the hills worth dying on. Give me a few people whose life focus has narrowed and whose ambitions are no longer small and personal, and together we’ll advance kingdom. And when we die, it is my prayer that we will expend our lives on the hills that God himself has chosen to take.