On October 25, 2013, British explorer Ben Saunders and his fellow adventurer Tarka L’Herpiniere set out to retrace one of the most ambitious and dangerous polar expeditions of all time. In 1912, British explorer Robert Falcon Scott attempted to journey 1,800 miles on foot from the edge of Antarctica to the South Pole and back. Scott’s entire team ultimately died due to exhaustion, freezing temps, starvation. It was Saunders’ dream to replicate this journey on foot, a journey that would ultimately take four months in extreme conditions.
Saunders is no stranger to polar exploration. In 2004, he became the youngest person ever to ski solo to the North Pole. But for over 100 years, no one dared retrace the steps of Scott’s failed journey. And for good reason: the expedition amounts to walking 69 marathons back-to-back-to-back with all your gear loaded on your back in one of the most inhospitable terrains on the planet!
If you’re interested in hearing more about Saunders’ journey, you can Google his name; I came across his story by listening to a TED Talk he gave in 2014. (Spoiler alert: he survived and his expedition is the longest human-powered polar journey in history.) But what I want to point out is what Saunders’ says happened when he and Tarka reached the halfway point of their journey.
After 60 days of grueling labor, walking 900 miles through blizzard conditions with, at times, near zero visibility and blinding snow, Saunders and Tarka finally reached the South Pole. Now, there’s not much there at the Pole: there’s an airstrip, a permanent scientific base camp that’s staffed year round, and there’s the pole. When they arrived, Ben and Tarka took a few pictures, used the satellite phone to call home, and then…they turned around and skied back along the same path they used for their arrival. I recently heard an interview Saunders gave and the interviewer pressed him, saying, “Why not stay at the South Pole for a couple of days? Weren’t you hungry? Didn’t you want to at least get a hot shower?” And Saunders replied by saying, “Just to get to the South Pole required such single-minded devotion. To go inside the base camp would just be way too distracting. We needed to get back to the coast.”
Getting to the pole was never the mission.
The mission was to get to the pole and back.
There are plenty of ways you could characterize Saunders’ journey: ambitious, risky, arrogant, courageous, foolish. But no matter what you think of his expedition, you have to admire the single-minded devotion to the mission. This is what compelled Saunders to even attempt such a journey in the first place. He was greatly compelled by his mission. And nothing could dissuade him from that mission. It’s this single-minded devotion that compelled him to shun the comforts that were made available to him at the halfway point of his journey.
For the love of Christ compels us… — 2 Cor. 5.14
Paul affirms the compelling impetus of the love of Christ. We are right to think of this love as the animating force of all Christian activity and thought. It is this love which compels us greatly, drawing us into the mission of our missionary God.
One important distinction here: the idea in this verse is not that we are compelled or motivated by our love for Christ. Rather, the grammar here points to Christ’s love for us as the compelling factor. The word “compel” means that Christ’s love has “pressed in” on our hearts, left an imprint on our hearts. The NRSV says that Christ’s love urges us on. Another good translation would be, “lays claim to us.” The love of Christ has laid claim to our hearts. As Paul reminds us elsewhere, we have been bought with a price (1 Cor. 6:20; 7:23). God has bought us and laid claim to us in Christ Jesus.
The result of this purchase is not merely the removal of our sin. This exchange has implications for the way we live. According to Paul, once we encounter this love, we become a new creation. We are reconciled to God and we are given a ministry: the ministry of reconciliation. A reconciling people will always seek to bring people together, to broker peace in the midst of broken relationships. To be compelled by the love of Christ is to be a part of God’s restoration movement. Sometimes we refer to The Restoration Movement in the past tense, a religious awakening during the pioneer era of our country’s history. But this ministry of ours is present-day. The ministry of reconciliation is yours; it’s mine. Followers of Jesus are God’s restoration movement in the world, seeking to lead others to be reconciled to God. The ministry of Jesus becomes our ministry.
Paul gives added nuance to this when he says that we are Christ’s ambassadors. We’re his emissaries, his representatives in the world. Think about that for a minute: God has loved us through the reconciling work of Jesus; therefore, we are compelled to love others by preaching and practicing reconciliation as well. Jesus gave himself up for the sake of others rather than seeking self-preservation. And we are to be His ambassadors, His representatives. That means our lives are to be shaped by the pattern of the cross. I love William Edwin Orchard’s great line: “It may take a crucified church to bring a crucified Christ before the eyes of the world.” That is what it means to live as Christ’s ambassadors. We have become participants in the mission of God.
In short, we are to live lives determined by the Gospel, the Good News of God’s love. This is what compels us.
So LOVE FIRST as a word about reconciliation and restoration. It’s a word of new creation. And it’s a word about our ministry, our participation in the work of reconciliation compelled by the love of Jesus.