A Triumphant Life: William Borden
Five years ago I received an e-mail from our friends Pat and Rakel Thurman, who had been corresponding with a tour group that was going to Egypt. This group had a special request: they hoped to find the humble grave of missionary William Borden, which was mentioned in my book The Treasure Principle. Pat and Rakel, who were missionaries in Egypt for several years, later received an e-mail and a photo from the group after they successfully found Borden's grave.
Here's what they wrote:
Thanks so much for helping us find the grave of William Borden. After visiting the Cairo Museum and seeing King Tut's riches in the morning of May 5, we came here that afternoon. What a contrast! This was a highlight of our trip. We sang together here, "I'd rather have Jesus than silver or gold, I'd rather be His than have riches untold, I'd rather have Jesus than houses or lands, I'd rather be led by His nail-pierced hand, Than to be the king of a vast domain, and be held in sin's dread sway, I'd rather have Jesus than anything this world affords today." Many of us could not keep the tears back as we sang and prayed.
Here's the story I told that prompted them to find Borden's tomb, and then to write the Thurmans and us:
In 1988, when our daughters were seven and nine, Nanci and I and the girls took a two month trip in which we visited missionaries in Egypt, Kenya, Greece and Austria. It was during that trip, while staying with Pat and Rakel in Egypt, that we saw Borden's grave.
The streets of Cairo were hot and dusty. Our missionary friends took us down an alley. We drove past Arabic signs to a gate that opened to a plot of overgrown grass. It was a graveyard for American missionaries.
As my family and I followed, Pat pointed to a sun-scorched tombstone that read: “William Borden, 1887–1913.”
Borden, a Yale graduate and heir to great wealth, rejected a life of ease in order to bring the gospel to Muslims. Refusing even to buy himself a car, Borden gave away hundreds of thousands of dollars to missions. After only four months of zealous ministry in Egypt, he contracted spinal meningitis and died at the age of twenty-five.
I dusted off the epitaph on Borden’s grave. After describing his love and sacrifices for the kingdom of God and for Muslim people, the inscription ended with a phrase I’ve never forgotten: “Apart from faith in Christ, there is no explanation for such a life.”
The Thurmans took us straight from Borden’s grave to the Egyptian National Museum. The King Tut exhibit was mind-boggling.
Tutankhamen, the boy king, was only seventeen when he died. He was buried with solid gold chariots and thousands of golden artifacts. His gold coffin was found within gold tombs within gold tombs within gold tombs. The burial site was filled with tons of gold.
The Egyptians believed in an afterlife—one where they could take earthly treasures. But all the treasures intended for King Tut’s eternal enjoyment stayed right where they were until Howard Carter discovered the burial chamber in 1922. They hadn’t been touched for more than three thousand years.
I was struck by the contrast between these two graves. Borden’s was obscure, dusty, and hidden off the back alley of a street littered with garbage. Tutankhamen’s tomb glittered with unimaginable wealth. Yet where are these two young men now? One, who lived in opulence and called himself king, is in the misery of a Christless eternity. The other, who lived a modest life on earth in service of the one true King, is enjoying his everlasting reward in the presence of his Lord.
Tut’s life was tragic because of an awful truth discovered too late—he couldn’t take his treasures with him. William Borden’s life was triumphant. Why? Because instead of leaving behind his treasures, he sent them on ahead.
William Borden’s is a timeless story of what we view as a radical Christian life. But Borden himself viewed it simply as his calling from God, and not as something extraordinary the way we tend to see it. If we looked at people like Borden and Jim Elliot and Amy Carmichael as normal followers of Jesus who took Him as seriously as we should, be might better enter into their wholehearted devotion to Christ ourselves. We need to celebrate such people as Borden, not forget them, that we can see and walk in their footsteps, helping us to better walk in His.