Each month we ask two writers to reflect on a quote by Dr. Stanley. For August, Jamie A. Hughes and Joseph Miller explore what constitutes a life well-lived—and how our mistakes impact the legacy we leave behind. Here’s an excerpt from Dr. Stanley’s sermon “A Promising Beginning”:
One of the most heartbreaking things that I’ve ever had to witness as pastor is this: Young men God has called into the ministry, and some [to whom] He’s given other vocations, and they start out so right. They’re promising—they’ve got everything going for them, and then overnight a disintegration process begins to set in. A few years go by and you look back, asking, “What in the world happened? How could that ever have taken place? How could a person who had so much going for him—so much talent, ability, and everything anybody could ask for, turn out like this? Listen to me carefully: It doesn’t matter how you start out. What matters is how you end your life.
by Jamie A. Hughes
You likely don’t know the name Thomas A. Tarrants, but a cursory glance at his life proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that Dr. Stanley is absolutely correct when he says, “It isn’t how we begin but how we end up in life that really matters.”
Tarrants, born and raised in Mobile, Alabama, bitterly opposed the Civil Rights movement and directed his hatred toward Jews, who he believed were leading a Communist plot to overthrow America. Eventually, he found his way into the KKK, which shared his views and encouraged him to fall even more deeply into the rabbit hole of racism, antisemitism, and xenophobia.
Because he showed a talent for making explosives, he became a member of the White Knights—one of the most dangerous and violent groups in the Klan—and participated in roughly 30 bombings of synagogues, churches, and private homes before he was arrested in Meridian, Mississippi, and sentenced to 30 years at Parchman Farm, a maximum-security prison.
He began his incarceration reading books like Mein Kampf, which only fueled his hatred and confirmed his warped way of thinking. But thankfully, volumes of philosophy by Plato and Aristotle followed, and eventually, a Bible found its way into his hands. Reading through it, Tarrants realized he had been led astray and that everything he’d believed was deeply antithetical to the things of God.
Reading through the Bible, Tarrants realized he had been led astray and that everything he’d believed was deeply antithetical to the things of God.
Thanks to a Jewish community leader who was convinced the inmate was a radically changed man, Tarrants was released from prison after only eight years. He moved to Washington, D.C., where he earned a doctorate and began pastoring a multi-racial nondenominational church. Tarrants, now an author with three books to his name, currently serves as the President Emeritus of the C. S. Lewis Institute, a Christian nonprofit geared toward educating and developing Christians from all walks of life to better live out their faith.
His transformation is so radical it almost defies belief. How does a violent Klansman become a gentle, thoughtful soul and a tireless advocate for racial reconciliation? No answer makes sense except “By the will of God.” And though Tarrants’s work is far from over, thankfully the later chapters of his life will look nothing like the first.
by Joseph E. Miller
In my mid-20s I had the opportunity to be part of a discipleship group with guys my age, led by a man a couple of decades our senior. Together, we read the Bible, spent hours in prayer, and even practiced spiritual disciplines like fasting. We were still starry-eyed about the hopes and dreams we had for the Lord’s work in our lives. Even if beset by doubts and insecurities, we had youthful optimism on our side. Looking back, I think our mentor understood this, and of all the lessons he taught us, there’s one unrelenting message he wanted to get through: to finish the race of life well.
When I think of Dr. Stanley’s reflection, I can’t help but be saddened. I recently heard news that a famous Christian leader had dark secret life, posthumously revealed. And this story isn’t an isolated incident—the downfall of major Christian figures has been news fodder for decades. While outsiders can look on and think, Another hypocrite, believers experience the pain of squandered legacies. We’re left holding the pieces, wondering, Did anything they teach contain truth? Did they actually believe what they preached?
The downfall of major Christian figures has been news fodder for decades. While outsiders can look on and think, Another hypocrite, believers experience the pain of squandered legacies.
Neither young nor old, I sit here in the middle of my life, reflecting on the advice of my mentor from years ago. I’ve realized I don’t think about it enough. The days are filled with work, parenting small children, and helping my wife around the house. “Today” so often consumes my mind that I don’t think about the future—of what legacy I will leave behind.
I’m not the head of some major ministry—I’m just a writer, husband, and dad. But that doesn’t mean I get a pass on living faithfully to the calling of Jesus. Though the term “accountability partner” now sounds like a cheesy term of yesteryear, I do have several close friends who help me keep my eyes fixed on God throughout life’s challenges. In the book of Micah, the prophet writes, “He has told you, mortal one, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Mic. 6:8). I can say with all honesty that I want my life to reflect this.
When my time on earth comes to a close, I hope I can echo Paul in his letter to Timothy: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith” (2 Tim. 4:7).
Illustration by Adam Cruft