In November of 1887, a boy by the name of William Whiting Borden was born. He’s undoubtedly unknown to you, and that’s probably how he would’ve wanted it. Nevertheless, in his day, Borden was a noteworthy descendant of a significant family. He was born in Chicago, into prominence and affluence, his parents being William and Mary Borden, the owners of a lucrative silver mine in Colorado. But William Borden’s measure of worth would never rest in his wealth. Rather, something far greater would capture and, ultimately, claim his life.
Mary Borden was converted to Christianity at Chicago Avenue Church, the congregation established by evangelist D. L. Moody. Borden himself would soon thereafter respond to the gospel and dedicate his life to Jesus Christ, while under the preaching of R. A. Torrey. Borden was a gifted student, graduating from the esteemed Hill School in Pennsylvania in 1904, at the age of 16. Prior to beginning his university education at Yale, however, Borden’s parents gifted him, perhaps, the most coveted experience a boy could wish for during that time: the gap year.
For almost an entire year, William Borden toured the world with missionary, Walter Erdman. This once-in-a-lifetime experience had a life-altering effect on Borden. As he took in the sights and smells of China and Japan, India and Syria, Egypt and Turkey, his heart was struck with a desire to bring the gospel to the people and places he saw. “I have so much of everything in this life,” he wrote, “and there are so many millions who have nothing and live in darkness.”1 Borden’s aspiration of becoming a missionary quickly turned into an insatiable determination and desire, such that he couldn’t help but share his plans for his life with family and friends back home.
His father, however, didn’t take too well to this new proposition, dismissing the notion as mere adolescent idealism and counseling him to wait until he turned 21 to make such pivotal life decisions. The preposterous notion that the heir to the family fortune was turning down the opportunity to continue living a life of notoriety and prestige must’ve been appalling and embarrassing. But to Borden, he could do nothing else. Despite being told that he was wasting his life and shaming his family, he pushed forward and trusted God’s plan, whatever that may entail. Borden knew that what was he was pursuing was costly, but he determined the cost was worth it. Therefore, he penned a small phrase in the front leaf of his Bible: “No Reserves.”
In 1905, during his freshman year at Yale, Borden was stirred by Samuel Zwemer’s mission work in Egypt, and his further reporting of the 15 million Chinese Muslims that had not heard the good news of Jesus Christ. He quickly contacted China Inland Mission, with the objective to get to the field as quickly as possible, but was told to wait. He would eventually be accepted by the organization in 1912, only after he had successfully finished seminary and had officially been ordained. The waiting season didn’t deter Borden’s sense of urgency, however. The burning passion to go abroad with the gospel was redirected to his classmates, where, during his freshman year, he gathered hundreds of students into weekly Bible studies. Borden was fervent in his pursuit of souls, with one friend commenting of him, “Bill hunts up the worst skunk in college and goes after him.”
The success of his college mission would later lead Borden to establish Yale Hope Mission, in which students were mobilized as local missionaries, bringing the good news of grace to the bars and brothels of New Haven — well frequented spots by the riffraff who passed through that town. New Haven operated as a seaport between Boston and New York and, therefore, attracted all manner of sordid individuals. But it was to these down-and-outers that the gospel would come as Borden and others extended rest and relief to otherwise neglected or forgotten men, women, and children. It’s reported that throughout the course of one year, 14,000 men would attend gospel meetings, 17,000 would receive a warm meal, and 8,000 would find a place to sleep. All through the efforts of Yale Hope Mission.
In 1906, Borden’s father would die, still resoundingly dismissive of Borden’s perceived “calling” to missionary work. It is believed that his father was adamant about Borden never working in the family business again if he continued his pursuit of missions. Others report that despite receiving several worthwhile, profitable job offers, Borden flatly turned them down. He was determined to spend and be spent for God’s glory, never counting the worth of his life in his wealth. About this time, Borden would make a second inscription in his Bible below “No Reserves”: “No Retreats.”
As he advanced in his education, his ministry focus narrowed. Soon, God’s call to foreign missions coalesced in the endeavor to bring the gospel to the Muslim people living in the Gansu province in China. This work, though, necessitated fluency in Arabic. So in December of 1912, now with the backing of China Inland Mission, Borden set sail for Cairo, Egypt to further his education and continue his preparations for the mission field. Barely three months into his linguistic training, however, Borden contracted spinal meningitis. He died April 9, 1913, never making it to China as a missionary. Before he died, though, he penned a third phrase in the front of his Bible: “No Regrets.”
It’s very tempting to look at the course of William Borden’s life and deem it a failure. From a casual onlooker’s perspective, that’s probably true. Borden’s life represents untold potential that was never fully realized. Notwithstanding the exorbitant amount of prosperity and privilege he was granted, Borden seemingly squandered it on an idealistic mission to “evangelize the world.” And despite his great wealth and even greater aspirations to serve God on foreign fields, he would never deliver on his mission. He died before he made it there. He turned down a guaranteed life of luxury to tender the love of God to the lowlifes of whatever context he was in. But was it worth it? Did Borden waste his life?
Upon his death, he left $1 million to China Inland Mission. But far outnumbering those dollars, though, were the amount of persons he affected with the gospel of Christ and the power of grace. Borden not only gave of his wealth, he gave his very life.
Now, I don’t mean to use the biography of William Borden as an illustration to somehow coerce you into leaving everything you have to “do God’s will” in some exotic location. That’s the not the point. His story has a far greater purpose for you and I, more than merely providing the impetus to “be a missionary.” The life of William Borden reminds us all that Jesus is always worth it. In Luke 14, Christ exhorts his disciples to “count the cost” of following him.
Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple. For which of you, wanting to build a tower, doesn’t first sit down and calculate the cost to see if he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, after he has laid the foundation and cannot finish it, all the onlookers will begin to ridicule him, saying, “This man started to build and wasn’t able to finish.” Or what king, going to war against another king, will not first sit down and decide if he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand? If not, while the other is still far off, he sends a delegation and asks for terms of peace. In the same way, therefore, every one of you who does not renounce all his possessions cannot be my disciple. (Lk 14:27–33)
Essentially, Jesus asks them, “Am I worth it? Am I worth your life? Are you really willing to endure the pressure and persecution that follow living for me? Am I that important to you? Is it worth the cost?” No doubt, you’ve asked yourself the same sort of questions. Christ’s appeal to the Twelve, and to us, is for an honest evaluation of what’s worth the time, finances, and effort of life. Is it worth it to follow Jesus? I would hasten to say that every Christian must inquire of themselves the same. Paradoxically, though, God has already spoiled the answer to that question. Even as we ask ourselves, “Is it worth it?” we’re already given the reply, “He is worthy!” “Our Lord and God, you are worthy to receive glory and honor and power, because you have created all things, and by your will they exist and were created.” (Rv 4:11) “Thou art worthy to take the book, and to open the seals thereof: for thou wast slain, and hast redeemed us to God by thy blood out of every kindred, and tongue, and people, and nation; and hast made us unto our God kings and priests: and we shall reign on the earth.” (Rv 5:9–10)
If you sit down to “count the cost” of following Jesus and living for God and proclaiming his grace and truth, you will always come to the conclusion that, yes, he is worth it. A life lived for Jesus is never a waste. He’s the One who made you and the One who died for you. And he’s the same One who makes a way for you to live for him now and with him forever. The One who created you paid the ultimate price for you. His blood was shed for your sins. His life was laid down so that you might find yours. The God of the universe came down to your world and bore your shame, took on your sin, carried your cross, died your death, all so that the ultimate glory would be God’s, in the making of all things new by his grace. (Rv 21:5) Eternity will ring with the echoing refrain, “He is worthy!”
The scars on Jesus’s feet and hands will be the only manmade things in heaven that will eternally testify to the fact that he is worthy. Jesus is always worth it. He’s worth your time and your toil, your endeavors and your efforts. The gospel is the only thing that can free us to declare “no reserves, no retreat, no regrets.” For every scornful remark, for every depressing valley, for every long tear, for every missed promotion, for every lost loved one, for every cutting heartache, Jesus is worth it. No matter how dark the day, no matter how rough the night, no matter how grim this life grows, Jesus is worth it. Indeed, some things are worthwhile, others are worth less, but only one thing is worth it all: the gospel of Christ.
The melody of heaven is, “He is worthy!” The One who gave all for you is worthy of your all. The only person who’s worth your life is the One who wears the insignia of your sin on his death. The good news of Christ crucified and buried and resurrected for you is the death knell of ever finding life in your life. It’s the divine reminder that Jesus “came simply to be the resurrection and the life of those who will take their stand on a death he can use instead of on a life he cannot.”2 Instead of spending our lives piddling around with popularity and power and pleasure, Jesus invites us to let go of our lives and give him our deaths.
You see, the only way to ensure you don’t waste your life is to spend it in pursuit of God. The only way to find your life is to lay it down at the feet of the One who gave his up for you. And it’s his gospel that frees you to do that. It’s only by a knowledge of God’s unconditional and unrelenting grace for you that you will ever be liberated to abandon lives of material gain and temporal pleasure. It’s the Word of God alone that grants us the freedom to let go of our reputations, to end our chasing after prestige, and rest in the worth Christ gives us. Your worth isn’t found in the measure of your wealth or the magnitude of your popularity. It’s found in the mud of Golgotha’s cross.
You see, if you’re ever left questioning whether it’s worth it, just remember the cross. Remember that place where your Savior endured the full force of God’s wrath for your sin. Remember the violence of that scene and you’ll never again question the lengths to which God might go to save you. To make you his own. As you face today, whatever “today” might hold for you, remember that Jesus is always worth it. Even if you’re the only one standing for His sake, take your stand. As the writer to the Hebrews implores, “Let us hold on to the confession of our hope without wavering, since he who promised is faithful.” (Heb 10:23) You can be absolutely certain that your God is infinitely faithful and eternally gracious. Notwithstanding your circumstances, notwithstanding your context, God never moves from you. He’s not going anywhere. He is worthy! You can testify along with the apostle Paul, that, “by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me.” (1 Cor 15:10)
You know, for all intents and purposes, William Borden was a failure. At least according to our standards. But not according to the gospel. Not according to God. Because for all that Borden didn’t do, he accomplished all that God wanted him to — and that was enough. His gravestone is engraved with the words, “Apart from Christ, there is no explanation for such a life.” Indeed, no one but God would orchestrate such a life. One that appeared to be such a fiasco. Yet, in the light of the gospel, Borden’s life was no failure, it was a life of faith. He epitomizes Jesus’s instruction to “count the cost,” exemplifying uncanny faith in the face of disapproval and disparagement.
Borden’s life was exhausted in stirring souls to see their need for Jesus, and seeking out the incorrigible and inferior to console and counsel them with the gospel. His life was wasted on caring for widows, orphans, and those who had made a wreck of their lives. And even though his aspirations for the foreign advance of the gospel were never fulfilled, Borden’s testimony of grace has nevertheless impacted countless lives. Is it worth it? Every time.
Warren Wiersbe, 50 People Every Christian Should Know: Learning from Spiritual Giants of the Faith (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2009), 342.
Robert Capon, The Parables of Grace (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996), 158–59.