Reflections on the Seashells Sermon, 18 Years Later

John Piper 4

John Piper  Founder & Teacher, desiringGod.org   Audio Transcript

On May 20, 2000, eighteen years ago today, you preached the famous “seashells sermon” in Memphis. Pastor John, I know you’ll never forget that moment. You were preaching outside to forty thousand college students at the fourth Passion Conference, then called OneDay. It became, of course, one of your most influential sermons. There you introduced us to the world of Bob and Penny and their seashell collection, and pled with the students: “Don’t waste your life.”

That plea would become the title of your book released in 2003, which became a bestselling book that has now sold over 650,000 copies and has become a staple graduation gift handed out to tens of thousands of high school and college graduates. Reflecting back eighteen years to that message in Memphis, what do you remember from OneDay 2000? Did the message seem particularly different to you? What was your experience of it? What surprises you about the message now? And finally, being different from your other books, how do you think the book fits inside your corpus of writings?

Whoa, that’s a lot of questions. As I’ve been thinking about these questions, here’s what has come to my mind. I’ve been thinking about some ironies of the book and that day, and so let me talk about several of these ironies that might get at some of what you’re asking.

Blowin’ in the Wind

I think this is the only book where Bob Dylan figures in (and in a pretty significant way). My point back in 2003 was that his song — “The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind” — really did say the answer. It didn’t say an answer. It didn’t say lots ofanswers. It didn’t say possible answers. It said the answer: “the answer is blowin’ in the wind.”

“Two healthy fifty-somethings wasting their lives collecting shells. That’s a tragedy.”

Now, fifty years later, how ironic is it that John Piper got help from believing that there was the answer blowing in the wind that I desperately wanted to find for the meaning in my life, so that I wouldn’t waste my life — how ironic is it that fifty years later, Bob Dylan wins the Nobel Prize for literature (in 2016) and says in his acceptance speech, which I listened to and read twice to make sure I heard it, “So what does it all mean?”

Looking back over the corpus of his works — “What does it all mean?” Then he answered like this: “My songs can mean a lot of different things. If the song moves you, that’s all that’s important. I don’t have to know what all this means, and I’m not going to worry about it — about what it all means.”

My heart absolutely sank. That’s exactly the opposite of what I wrote my book about. “It doesn’t matter what it all means. You can just let your life mean anything. A thousand ways to waste your life.” I don’t want to come to the end of my life or my readers to come to the end of their lives and say, “Well, it doesn’t really matter what it all means. Wasted or not wasted, it doesn’t really matter. What matters is how you feel about my songs or about my book.”

What a tragic thing for a 76-year-old human being to say when getting ready to meet the living God. I wrote Don’t Waste Your Life to take people in exactly the opposite direction. I wrote it so that people would not to come to the end of their life and say what that old man did sitting on the front pew in my father’s evangelistic crusade after he had pled with him to receive Christ. After putting his face in his hands, the old man said, “I’ve wasted it. I’ve wasted it.” I can remember my dad telling that story over and over, and everything in me as a kid said, “I don’t want that to happen to me. I do not want that to happen to me.”

Seashell Collecting

Here’s another irony. That sermon eighteen years ago on that big field in Memphis to those thousands of students was really an exposition and an application of Galatians 6:14. The irony is that hardly anybody knows that, I think.

If you ask people, “What do you remember from the sermon?” they say, “shell collecting.” What struck people was the certain illustrations that I used, and I’m not sure how many people who were deeply moved by this sermon could remember that this was an exposition of these words: “Far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world” (Galatians 6:14).

I remember leading up to this sermon thinking, “I just want to know what that means so I can tell these students what that means.” Paul is saying, “Don’t boast in anything except the cross.” I thought, “Are you kidding me?” I mean, Paul himself boasts in other things besides the cross, doesn’t he? He boasts in his converts. He boasts in sufferings. He uses the word boast or exalt all over the place for other things besides the cross, it seems.

“Exposition becomes the soil in which illustrations become credible and powerful in a lasting and substantial way.”

So I worked and worked and worked to try to figure out what he means. Here’s what I argued, which is what nobody remembers — at least, it seems like no one remembers. I argued that as hell-bound, God-belittling sinners, none of us deserves one good thing from God — not one. We don’t deserve one millisecond of good health or anything else.

Because of the cross — covering our sin and securing God’s everlasting favor for us as sinners — every single good thing that comes into our life as part of the blessings we will enjoy forever in God’s favor was purchased by the cross. Every painful thing that comes into our life that God turns for good was purchased by the cross. Therefore, the cross is the foundation and the central glory of grace and every moment of our lives. That’s my answer to the meaning of Galatians 6:14.

Here’s my suspicion about this irony that the main point of the sermon is swallowed up by the illustrations. I think that in God’s way of working through preaching — preaching solid, biblically faithful, carefully argued, clearly explained expositions of rich textual meaning — is that this exposition becomes the soil, the preaching soil, in which illustrations become credible and powerful in a lasting and substantial way.

It would be wrong (I’m trying to comfort myself now) to say in my low moments that because the stories in the sermon were remembered and the exegesis wasn’t, therefore the exegesis was peripheral. I think that is profoundly wrong, because I think if a pastor gives himself — after looking at this sermon and thinking, “Oh, it’s the stories that are remembered” — if he gives himself week in and week out to story, story, story, story and begins to marginalize and minimize exposition, those stories will lose their credibility. They will lose their power. There’s my answer to that apparent irony of that message.

Don’t Waste It

Here’s another irony. I preached that sermon in Memphis to thirty thousand or forty thousand? I don’t know how many eighteen- to twenty-five-year-olds there were. It was very difficult, frankly. The wind was blowing my notes off. I was preaching as a one-armed paper hanger. I was bothered by how many people were milling around, going to the bathroom. It was very distracting, but I did preach it to eighteen- to twenty-five-year-olds.

“More people in their fifties and sixties have thanked me for the book that resulted than twenty-somethings have.”

I think more people in the succeeding fifteen years in their fifties and sixties have thanked me for the book that grew out of that sermon than the twenty-somethings have. I think I can say with pretty serious confidence that more people in their fifties and sixties have thanked me for that book. It’s an irony because I wrote the book for college-aged people, hoping that the book would be given as a graduation gift, which I still think is what people should do with it.

I think that irony is that the illustration that most people remembered was the contrast between two pairs of people. The first pair were two eighty-somethings — Ruby Eliason and Laura Edwards, a nurse and a doctor — who had spent their lives serving the poor in Africa in the name of Jesus. One of them had been single all her life. One of them was married but a widow by then. In their eighties, they were still serving. They’re driving a car, and their car’s brakes give out. They fly over a cliff in Cameroon and both of them go into heaven and meet Jesus in their eighties after a lifetime of serving the poor.

Then the other couple was whatever their names were. You mentioned them. I can’t remember their names. These fifty-somethings who took their early retirement, moved to Punta Gorda, Florida — which means, by the way, “Fat Point” — and they devoted themselves to collecting shells and playing softball and riding their thirty-foot yacht.

I asked those thirty thousand young people, “Okay, was the death of these two servants of Christ entering heaven in their eighties through a car crash a tragedy? Was that a waste?” They shouted out, “No!”

“What is a tragedy? I’ll tell you what a tragedy is. Two healthy fifty-somethings wasting their lives collecting shells. That’s a tragedy.” That’s a sentence that everybody remembers — shell collecting. “Look, Jesus, here’s my shell collection that I gathered for you in the last twenty years of my God-given life not to be wasted on your account.”

I suppose it’s not so ironic that the book not only confronts young people with the plea “Don’t get sucked into the so-called American dream!” but also shakes fifty-somethings who were just about to step into it. They were just about to spend the last twenty or thirty years of their lives dinking around.

That message shakes them free from their comfort trance and catapults them, hundreds of them, into something way more significant than collecting shells.

How does the book fit into the overall Piper corpus? I suppose one way to say it would be that virtually everything I write aims to help people not waste their lives. But this one, this book, more than any other, cuts to the chase, puts the finger on the chest, and says, “Don’t do that. Don’t waste your life.”

Not wasting our life is about living to make others glad in God. If we do, our life will be hard, our risks will be high, and our joy will be full.

see also Stride Through Your Life Passionately Involved In Something!