A Famous Person from History and The Question of “What is Worth Your Life?”

Genghis KhanWhat is worth your life? As you think about that, you might try asking yourself another, more unusual question: what do you know about Ghengis Khan?

And now you’re asking, “What does Genghis Khan have to do with how I spend my time, energy, talents, resources, etc.?” Well, quite a bit actually, as I hope to explain.

Today is actually the anniversary of the Genghis Khan’s death. I read a biography of his life not long ago, and found his story to be fascinating. Genghis experienced the death of his father, his family’s subsequent exile from their tribe, his own capture and slavery by a rival tribe, and the kidnapping of his wife (whom he rescued) all by about the age he could legally drive if he were alive today. By alliance and conquest, he would eventually unite many of the nomadic tribes of northeast Asia, and they would collectively become known as the Mongols.

Not content with this, Genghis conducted further campaigns that brought much of China and Central Asia under his rule. Under the direction of his descendants, the Mongol empire soon became the largest contiguous empire in history.

Genghis is far from the type of man I’d want my daughter to marry. He was responsible for untold death and destruction that spilled beyond the world’s largest continent. But in terms of accomplishments, his resume would be difficult for all but a select few in history to top. His conquests would put him in a very small group of history’s greatest military leaders. In that pursuit he showed great facility with new technology, and he became one of the richest people the world has ever seen. He marshaled remarkable political and administrative skill—including establishing a meritocracy—in making and governing an empire that had a huge range of cultural and ethnic diversity. And all this despite beginning his life in difficult and impoverished circumstances.

To summarize all this with an analogy by author Jack Weatherford (and I’m doing this from memory, so this is approximate), Genghis’ life would be something like a slave escaping in North America, only to conquer and establish an empire that would include much of North, Central, and South America.

So back to my question: before reading the above summary, how much did you know about Genghis Khan? I ask because Genghis Khan is literally one of the most famous and accomplished people in all of history. But my guess is that most of us probably couldn’t say much more than we (vaguely?) recognize his name.

For that matter, do we really know all that much more about historical figures closer and more relevant to our own lives? Beyond a few basic facts, what could you really say for sure about even George Washington and Abraham Lincoln? Martin Luther King, Jr.? Bill Gates?

My point at the present isn’t to knock our grasp of history. Rather it’s to say that if these people—despite their titanic achievements—don’t leave an indelible mark on those who follow them in the world, do we really think we will? Despite working hard for fame, fortune, and accomplishment, can we expect to be anything more than a pebble that disturbs the waters of history only for a moment?

Don’t we need a better aim? Hundreds of years ago, the creators of the Westminster Catechism asked a similar question to the one that began this post. They put it this way: what is the chief end of man? Their answer: to glorify God and enjoy him forever.

And that, I submit, is a goal worth investing in. It will likely even include many of the pursuits we focus on now, though it might significantly change our motivations in pursuing them. But ultimately, it will result in surpassing riches and joy that will never fade, as those who went before us might say, “world without end.”

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