The Last Arrow:
Save Nothing for the Next Life
Hardback: WaterBrook, 2017
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Reviewed by Andy Johnson III
While Erwin McManus was finishing his writing of The Last Arrow, the message of the book took on deeper meaning when he was diagnosed with cancer. Although he did not write the book intending to describe it as his “last arrow” processing this life-threatening situation accentuated the insight that we are all living with a terminal condition. The question is not if but when we will die. McManus writes, “It’s only when when we realize we are terminal that we start treating time with the respect it deserves.” (96)
The Last Arrow aims to challenges its readers to save nothing for the next life. How do we give everything to the life that we’ve been entrusted with so that we reach the end without regrets? McManus recommends that we do so by finishing life with an empty quiver, having shot every arrow we had by living out a life of purpose with God and fighting for the future instead of being tied down by the past.
McManus expresses the significance of the arrow to this message, “What I love about arrows, in contrast to other ancient weapons, is that while you may use a sword, it never leaves your hand, but the arrow only has value if you release it and it travels where you have not gone yourself. The arrow extends your range of impact and only fulfills its purpose when it is set into flight. We are not supposed to die with our quivers full. In fact, our greatest aspiration should be to die with our quiver empty. Those who never settle have the mind-set that they are saving nothing for the next life.” (11)
The Last Arrow draws its inspiration from the biblical exchange between Elisha and King Jehoash in 2 Kings 13:14-19. The prophet instructed the king to shoot an arrow out a window and then said that the arrow symbolized the king’s impending victory over Syria. Elisha then instructed the king to shoot arrows into the ground and Jehoash shot three arrows and then quit. Elisha disappointedly told the king that he should have shot every arrow and that since he had stopped he would see a limit to God’s intervention on his behalf against Israel’s enemies.
Drawing upon this narrative and other scenes in the life of Elisha, McManus describes what it takes to save nothing for the next life. Like Elisha burning his oxen and the plow that represented his previous life in order to follow Elijah, we are challenged to choose the future and to set the past on fire in its pursuit, not by burning bridges but by letting go of things that hold us back. (49) We must live without a plan B because our backup tends to become our primary goal when we give ourselves an easier way out.
When Elijah was nearing death, he told Elisha repeatedly to stay back as he moved on but the younger prophet refused to be left behind. Courageously moving forward into an uncertain future that is not limited to what feels like a safe extension of our past, is the only way to empty a quiver of its last arrow. Fear drives us to run from what we are afraid of but refusing to be left behind when God is moving requires the faith to move beyond what we fear.
McManus points out that the church needs to fight for the future rather than against it. He writes, “No wonder we have lost our power to change the world. No wonder the church has lost its magnetism to a world searching for hope. We are seen as the guardians of the tradition. The church is know for fighting the future rather than creating the future that humanity desperately needs.” (140) Fighting for the future requires the hope to believe that there is a future worth fighting for and this hope should characterize those who follow Jesus. Engaging the fight for the future also requires finding our people. Like an entrepreneur whose early attempts at business fail before achieving later success working with the people who joined the initial venture and became a team, we need to see the people whom we work with not as holding us back but as essential to fulfilling our callings.
Summing up the message of the book, McManus writes, ““To live a life in which you strike your last arrow, where you never settle for less, you have to know what you want. And when you know what you want, you have to muster up the courage and faith to pursue it with all your might.” (175) One critique of The Last Arrow is that the message calling people to go all in on what they are called to do is often misconstrued by interpreting personal ambition as the vision of God. While encouraging ambition, it might have been helpful to point out indicators for the difference between the call of God and the pursuit of personal power and prestige in the name of God.
I’m currently in a time of transition and reading The Last Arrow has inspired me to embrace the uncertainty of this season and to choose to walk forward into the future rather than turning back in fear. Stories and examples shared throughout the book keeps the text colorful and engaging. For those who have felt locked down by indecision or for whom there is a nagging fear that the future will be full of regret, The Last Arrow is a book that will inspire and equip the reader to stop holding back and to release their arrows in the direction that they’ve been avoiding and to which God has called them.
Andy Johnson III works with Bethel Seminary helping to shape the future of theological training by focusing on the seminary’s online offerings. Andy is researching the history of theological education in America as a way of understanding the path forward for training ministers in changing times. Find more of his writing at www.TheNextSeminary.com or on Twitter @thenextseminary.