The Race for the Prize of Life
AS TOLD BY OTTO MÄKELÄ
IT WAS in the early autumn of 1919. I took my place at the starting line for a 3,000-meter race. I did not think of winning or even receiving a prize, because I thought my fellow runners were better than I. When the starting signal was given I was left behind. It was very easy to run, and when we had gone two kilometers without the pace increasing at all, I decided to get closer to the leaders and see what was happening up front. Even though I reached the first group, they still kept running in the same slow way. I was greatly puzzled, but went on to take the lead, still not realizing that the others were just not able to run any faster, and here I was in my best form.
About 400 meters from the winning post I released all my running power and left them all behind, to become the winner. It was a real surprise to learn, too, that my time had been the record for that year in Finland. I rejoiced at the achievement and thought: “Is a great time of success ahead of me and will I soon attain world records?” I still had no way of knowing that by the end of that year the opportunity of running on a better racetrack would open up to me.
EARLIER EVENTS OF MY LIFE
As a child I had always been interested in running, but I had also been interested in the more serious matters about which adults often spoke. When guests who spoke about serious things came to my home I would slip away from the other children, creep unnoticed into some hiding place and listen to the conversation. Some defended God and the Bible, others denied him. I heard them speak about a hell of eternal torment, spiritism and other topics. By the time I had reached eight to ten years of age I already debated in my mind whether to serve God or not. When I awoke at nights and was afraid, the idea of hellfire would worry me.
When I was ten years old I gradually accepted the idea that the Bible was only the imaginings of men and that it had been an instrument used to rule and oppress men. Then when I got to be twelve I heard some young Evangelical-Lutheran missionaries speak on the subject of their departure for pagan lands. What they said deeply impressed me, so much so that I became “converted” and started to read the Bible. My schoolteacher, upon hearing this, was very pleased and promised to enroll me in the missionary school as soon as I was old enough. However, with the years came many changes. My teacher died. I had many problems, though I kept reading the Bible, without understanding too much.
Later I became so fond of sports that the subject filled my mind to the exclusion of practically everything else. Nonetheless, my conscience would bother me from time to time. ‘Would not missionary work be God’s will for you?’ it kept reminding me. I had prayed for that career for ten years already.
One day as I was about to leave for a race, a woman came to the house and offered religious literature. Had I not already agreed to be in the race I would have gladly heard all she had to say. As it was, I purchased the book The Finished Mystery, which, among other things, discussed the Bible book of Revelation. I read avidly, not in the least offended at the Bible’s condemnation of Christendom’s religions. On the other hand, “consecration” (dedication) to God seemed like too much of a step for me. I started to suspect that an application of Christian principles could result in one’s giving up competitive sports. I felt I could never do that, so discontinued reading the book altogether.
Soon after this I attended a public talk given in our village by a representative of the International Bible Students Association. It was far ahead of any sermon I had ever heard, but still no change took place with me; I kept on with sports.
ANOTHER RUNNING TRACK OPENS UP
One of my very good friends, one who shared my interest in sports, was practically an unbeliever. For this reason I had always hesitated about talking religion to him. I feared it might end our friendship. Meeting him again on one occasion after a long separation, I learned that he had changed his mind about marrying a certain girl. His five-word reply to my amazed questioning was: “I am a Bible Student” (as Jehovah’s witnesses were then called). It seems that the girl he planned to marry did not approve of his new religion. He wanted to comply with the Bible’s admonition to marry “only in the Lord,” that is, marry someone of the same faith.—1 Cor. 7:39.
This man really had changed. I wondered how a person could give up even his dearest expectations just because of what the Bible had to say. The deep impression that this circumstance made upon me caused me to consider again the question of dedication. Again the question came to mind, Would I pursue my proposed career in competitive sports? The Bible pointed to a much more appropriate race: “Do you not know that the runners in a race all run, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may attain it. Moreover, every man taking part in a contest exercises self-control in all things. Now they, of course, do it that they may get a corruptible crown, but we an incorruptible one.”—1 Cor. 9:24, 25.
Before me were two racetracks, one offering fame and glory of the world, the other offering the winner God’s approval and everlasting life. I could not run on both. My friend’s experience was a wonderful lesson to me. I made the decision to dedicate my life to God and set about to learn all the rules of my new career.
THE STARTING SIGNAL FOR THE LONG RACE
Soon I procured all seven volumes of Studies in the Scriptures, published by the Watch Tower Society, and by early 1920 had read them all through. I was completely convinced that the Bible hell was no other than the common grave of all mankind, that instead of people possessing souls, each one is a soul. Many other Bible truths now shone forth clearly. In April of that year I submitted to water baptism as an outward symbol of the dedication I had made. To me that was like the starting signal for this new contest, the race for the prize of life.
Things were not easy. My father had died in 1914, and since I was the oldest of six children it was up to me to collaborate with mother to make the family living. It seemed that I would be tied down to this situation for a long time, while I longed to be sharing in missionary work. In those days Bible Students did not all share in house-to-house preaching; only certain full-time representatives of the Watch Tower Society did. However, I determined to have some share in spreading the knowledge I had acquired even though tied down by the small business we were operating. I placed Bible literature with many of our customers and had many interesting discussions. Still I was not satisfied.
During 1920 my aforementioned friend and I were associating with a small group of local Bible Students, mostly women. We were quite shy and relatively new; so the women conducted the study sessions. They urged us to lead in prayer and to undertake the conducting of the meetings, but both of us at first felt that we were quite unequal to the responsibility. When I finally consented I found that it was up to me now to take the lead in the group. We started to do some house-to-house preaching and the congregation grew, first to twenty persons, and then it became so large that three separate groups had to be organized within a radius of ten kilometers (a little more than six miles).
Since our family’s business was quite slack at the first of the year, I decided to spend January and February of 1921 in some distant territory where I could preach to people who had not yet heard about some of the Bible’s marvelous promises. My sister undertook to care for things at home. The territory chosen was about 200 kilometers (120 miles) away. I determined to tell people as much as I could of the things I had learned from the Watch Tower Society’s literature. People were very receptive, gladly talked about the Bible and willingly obtained literature.
Many were the happy experiences I had during those months, and a few quite strange. For example, I met a woman who was in the grip of demons and who threatened to paralyze me so that I would not be able to move. But any attempt to cast a spell was of no avail, and when I explained from the Bible about the demons and the bondage into which they bring humans, she broke down and cried.
NEW FIELDS OPEN UP
Back home after that wonderful two-month interlude in the missionary work, I received a surprising letter from the Helsinki branch of the Watch Tower Society. Could I become one of their special traveling representatives for two weeks, travel the whole length of the land and give Bible lectures in villages, towns and even cities? Though hesitant at first, I reasoned that, if this was the Lord’s will, then I would be able to count on his spirit to aid me. I agreed to accept and had the happy privilege of speaking to huge audiences on the subject “The Antichrist Has Come!—What? When? Where?”
The two weeks passed quickly, and I was back home again. But another unexpected message came from Helsinki, this time inviting me to become a regular traveling representative in what was then called “pilgrim” work. My responsibility to the family loomed as an insurmountable barrier, but, to my great surprise, the members of my family agreed to share the load and release me for the work in which I longed to participate. I was twenty-four years old at the time, and I managed to continue for five years, during the course of which I got to know practically all the Witnesses in Finland. At times I had audiences of up to a thousand. The work was most satisfying; indeed, it was thrilling to see people thus responding to the liberating message of the Bible.
Meantime, the situation at home brought joy too. My mother began to read The Watch Tower regularly. My sister also progressed to the point of dedication. In fact, that small congregation proved to be a training school from which experienced Witnesses left to engage in full-time preaching in other parts of the field. Some went as missionaries to Estonia, and several others, including my oldest friend, were invited into the “pilgrim” service.
At the end of five years I was invited to come to the headquarters office of the Society in Helsinki to assist in the many features of administrative work. Twenty years of such privileged activity I can now look back upon as a fine period of training. Most of all I appreciated the opportunity of observing at close quarters the direction of Jehovah’s spirit in the affairs of his people on earth. Then, too, from that vantage point I could note the thrilling expansion that took place in Finland.
MORE JOYS AND RESPONSIBILITIES
Marriage came when I was forty years of age, and though this would involve added responsibilities it was not to interfere with my full-time ministry. My wife was happy to help in my secular business. Soon we had four children, two boys and two girls. During this period I spent a lot of time at the Society’s Helsinki branch. However, time was spent also with my family each week, training and aiding the young ones to grow up with appreciation for God’s true worship. The two girls eventually became missionaries, as well as one of the boys. Even my wife, with all her added duties, found time to spend a whole month in house-to-house preaching every now and then. Jehovah surely blessed all our efforts.
In 1958, with the exception of one boy, the whole family had the privilege of attending the big international assembly held in New York. What an unforgettable experience that was! The memories and impressions received keep coming to mind again and again. It was refreshing stimulation for the portion of the race for life that still lay ahead.
The years had gone quickly, yes, even decades had rolled by. Twenty-seven years after our marriage, all four of our children were married, each one having chosen a partner dedicated to Jehovah. One of my daughters is still in full-time missionary work, and it is my hope that the others will yet choose that as their life’s career.
Other things have happened too. President Knorr of the Watch Tower Society visited Finland and made some new arrangements for the Kingdom work. I was privileged to serve again as a traveling representative, visiting and aiding congregations to increase and improve their ministry. This greatly contributed to my growth to maturity. I learned to understand the many varied and difficult circumstances in which Witnesses strive to please God. I observed how good example is often more valuable than words. I have rejoiced in the overflowing abundance of spiritual food, as the light upon God’s written Word has shone brighter and brighter.
In 1958 I began to worry about the fact that with age my running in the race would begin to slow down. The Society’s branch representative explained that it would be possible for me to continue in full-time service in one location, if I felt that my strength was no longer equal to the great amount of travel. I took the matter to Jehovah in prayer, for I did not want to take the easy way out at this stage of the race.
About this time the Society’s president, N. H. Knorr, urged the Finnish branch to locate another place and build a new office and factory to care for the expanding work. I remembered an ideal spot for this purpose, and was happy to find my suggestion adopted. A beautiful new branch office and Bethel home was soon constructed. Just this little encouragement seemed to lift me out of that brief period of worry over health. I determined to continue with new wind, as it were. No interruption in purpose, no flagging of zeal until the winning post is reached—that is Jehovah’s will, and it is my greatest happiness to fulfill his will.
So once again I was a traveling representative of the Society, and it seems as if my race is going better than ever. And nine more years have gone by in this work at which I have been privileged to serve for twenty years. I am seventy years old now, and can say that I have been on the racetrack for forty-seven years all together.
Fellow Witnesses who know about this seemingly long race of mine often inquire: “Do you not get tired?” To me it seems that I could continue the race as a full-time preacher or in any other field of service open to me indefinitely. Of course, I realize that much depends upon my physical strength and health, and still more upon what God’s will is for me.
I have now had the experience in two distinct running tracks, and so am able to explain to fellow Witnesses, as I often do, that the race for the prize of life differs radically from the physical race. In the physical race, apart from getting one’s second wind, one’s strength does not increase during the race. But in the race for the grand prize of life Jehovah keeps on giving faithful runners new strength. As Isaiah the prophet was inspired to declare for our encouragement: “He is giving to the tired one power; and to the one without dynamic energy he makes full might abound. Boys will both tire out and grow weary, and young men themselves will without fail stumble, but those who are hoping in Jehovah will regain power. They will mount up with wings like eagles. They will run and not grow weary.”—Isa. 40:29-31.