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Which hills will you die on?

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 aro…
By Seth Barnes
By Seth Barnes
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.

Comments (8)

  • Wow!! As I read this, I just kept repeating the word “wow” out loud. This rings so true. How often we focus on the physical in the name of “ministry”. And while this is certainly important to the extent that we are portraying the love of Christ, I am repeatedly reminded by the Lord: “It is not about the physical – it is about the spiritual”. Some time ago, as I was praying and asking why someone was going through such hard times physically, I received, in no uncertain terms, the words quoted above. Many times since then, I have been reminded, that what is going on spiritually in someone’s life, is what is important – more important than the physical realm that we all tend to focus on. Our Father is all about the spiritual. And I am reminded that my ministry should focus on this as well. Thank you for the reminder!

  • Melinda & Seth,

    Melinda,I appreciate your comments! Thank you. The “social gospel” got separated from the “salvation gospel” in the early 20th century. As many main line denominational churches became more liberal theologically, moving away from the truth that Christ is the only means God has provided for salvation, and focusing on social issues, other churches went the opposite direction in an attempt to balance. They created a series of documents called “the Fundamentals” in an attempt to restore a biblically accurate view of salvation. Unfortunately, they reacted to the “social gospel” idea (which had been divorced from salvation of the soul). Many of those denominations pushed away the idea of a church that is called to bring God’s kingdom by shifting social structures to reflect God’s love for justice for the poor and oppressed… the kingdom Christ is going to bring to earth. “Social justice” got a bad name. This is called the ModernistFundamentalist split.

    I don’t see this split in Scripture. Jesus fed bodies and souls, in the same motion. He healed spiritual and physical diseases simultaneously. He reached across racial, ethnic, gender, and cultural lines (reconciliation). In his mission statement from Isaiah 61, quoted in Luke 4, he says:
    “The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
    because he has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor.
    He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
    and recovery of sight for the blind,
    to set the oppressed free,
    to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

    The year of the Lord’s favor is a reference to Jubilee– a unique system God created to restore equality among the Israelites so that the gap between rich and poor wouldn’t grow too great, and so there would be justice. I think our evangelism is ineffective at best, and detrimental at worst, when we preach salvation of souls and have no actions that demonstrate that we are people of God’s kingdom.

    A question I’ve been asking myself lately is… “What is heaven going to look like?” In heaven there will be no gap between rich and poor, no racism, no trafficking, no rape, no genocide, no homelessness. As I pray for God to “do on earth as it is in heaven” and for his “kingdom to come”–this idea of the full life God designed for us to have (in relationship to Himself and in relationship to each other, in the context of society) can’t be separated. I can’t believe that God would want me to share the gospel with a child being trafficked and not set her free.

    James 2:18-19 18 “But someone will say, ‘You have faith; I have deeds.’Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds.”

    For an excellent, thought-provoking, biblically grounded treatise on this idea that salvation is a bothand, not an eitheror, see:
    The Hole in Our Gospel, by Richard Stearns (President of World Vision), and The Good News About Injustice by Gary Haugen (President of IJM).

  • Thank you Seth. This is articulated wisdom and it resonates deeply. Through the years I have watched many celebrity and chic “causes” come and go. Sexual trafficking is the latest and on a recent conference call I made the point that “advocacy” is much easier than finding “solutions”. Ministries organized around this sadness are exploding. Books are being printed by those with no experience in the arena except to go to Thailand or Central Europe or wherever and tell in some cases hyperbolic novellas about the pain. I’ve “died” on too many hills not worth the effort. And in the resurrection after the fact I am reminded Jesus knew what hill to die on…and for what cause.

    I love and respect you Seth…

  • “He loves them and they don’t know it”

    This is what I feel Dad pushing into me. It can almost be too overwhelming to see those around me in this way. The King of all time, the great I AM, loves them and they don’t know it.

    That is the hill I feel called to die on*(whether figuratively or literally). There may be different paths to get there whether it be giving water to the thirsty, clothing the naked, teaching English to those who need it to make a better future for their family, or simply sitting with the lonely.

    But ultimately showing those around me His love is what it comes down to.

    Breaking a temporary physical bondage means little if the everlasting spiritual chains are left in place.

    *Often I think we in the safe west use this saying “hill we die on” far too loosely. Most of us will never know what it really means to take this stand, but we throw it around because it sounds good.

  • I appreciate your comment, Shannon. That kind of impact is what spurs me on to write another blog. At 10:02 tonight with no particular inspiration, it keeps me writing.

  • I never understood how the social Gospel got separated from the spiritual Gospel. The poor are the third most talked about topic in the Bible and God even defines PURE religion with caring for orphans and widows in their distress. And in Matt 25 where judgement time is examined, He chooses to go very ‘social’, speaking about giving out cups of cold water, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked. Seth, you know me so you know I know ‘works’ don’t earn us favor before God, and you know I am committed to sharing His Good News and understand the preeminence of Christ, but I still don’t get this dichotomous Western mindset that has to make things one or the other. Can’t I share the Good News as I care for the poor?

  • Great question…”Which hill will you die on?” Your statement really caught my attention when you said; “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.” So true. Thank you for this challenging post.

  • Like a previous poster I just kept saying Wow as I read this. I’m no where near as eloquent as you or even some that have commented but I just have to say thanks for writing this and giving me something to think about. I’ve read your blog for a few months and many times been moved to tears over something but this just really struck me. Thank you.

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Seth Barnes

I'm motivated to join God in his global reclamation project. He's on the move, setting his sons and daughters free from their places of captivity. And he's partnering with those of us who have been freed to go and free others.

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