EVERY CHRISTIAN FACES THE DANGER THAT a goal, or relationship has become idolatrous. It can happen to the best Believers. How would we know that this has happened? The answer is simple. We will begin to compromise God’s will to serve the idolatrous focus. David Livingstone is a good example. Most students of history think of Dr. Livingstone as an explorer, but if you had asked him he would have answered, “I am a missionary. Yes, I explore, but I do so for the sale of the gospel.”

Livingstone is best known for his meeting with Henry Stanley in 1871. Livingstone had disappeared into the heart of Africa. No one knew if he was dead or alive. The editor of The New York Herald sent Stanley to find him. At their first contact Stanley famously said, “Doctor Livingstone I presume?” 

Livingstone was a great man. He embodied the concentrated focus that is at the heart of masculinity. One day he wrote in his journal, “I determined never to stop until I had come to the end and achieved my purpose.” He was faithful to that determination. Even though he didn’t achieve all of his purposes in his lifetime, most were achieved after his death. 

But like all men he had weaknesses. In fact, this strength was his weakness. At times his focus was so strong it caused him to compromise God’s will.[1] The same can happen to anyone. 

The Explorer

He was the first European to penetrate and map Africa’s unknown interior. It was called the dark continent for good reason. As late as the mid-nineteenth century the center of Africa’s map was blank. The civilized world knew nothing about Africa, and millions of Africans lived with no knowledge of the gospel or the outside world. Moved by compassion Livingstone focused with great intensity on his first great goal—exploring and mapping Africa’s interior so that Christian missionaries could follow. 

But this godly ambition had one obstacle—marriage. In 1845 he married a missionary daughter, Mary Moffat. Stationed in south central Africa together for the first seven years of their marriage, she bore him five children. Four survived, but one died in infancy. 

Meanwhile, Livingstone put together an ambitious plan. He would explore and map south central Africa, the area just north of the great Kalahari Desert. Estimating that it would take two years, he sent Mary and the children home to England. However, two years morphed into four. David had disappeared. Mary had no idea where he was. She didn’t even know if he was alive. 

During those four years Dr. Livingstone travelled close to 5,000 miles on foot through the unexplored wiles of subtropical Africa. He was the first man to traverse the continent from east to west. He discovered and mapped the Zambesi River, including Victoria Falls. He was attacked and mauled by a lion, befriended native tribes, drew detailed maps, suffered from the symptoms of malaria over twenty times, and kept an exhaustive scientific journal of all that he saw and did. 

But during his four-year absence Mary and his four children suffered greatly. Mary was profoundly lonely and socially isolated. She and her children also suffered from poverty. So great was the stress that Mary, a missionary daughter, turned to alcohol in her husband’s absence. 

He returned to London a national hero. After reunification with his family, he published his journals, the income from which lifted them out of poverty.

Even though back in London and reunited with his family, Livingstone was uncomfortable. He loved the solitude of Africa even more than London or his family. So, when an opportunity to return and open the Zambesi River to navigation came up, he jumped on it. European civilization, and especially the gospel, would follow. This time Mary, determined not to be left behind, sailed with him. 

Zambesi Expedition

He now he had three goals in mind: the dissemination of the gospel; the elimination of the African slave trade; and the discovery of the location of the Nile’s headwaters. Summing it up, one African historian wrote, “Livingstone had three wives, but none of them were women.”[2] In the words of another biographer, “His myopic commitment to Africa began to tear his family apart.”[3]

As he and Mary sailed down the west coast of Africa they discovered that she was pregnant with their sixth child. Livingstone left her at Cape Town, promising to return. But once again, two years turned into four. Desperately lonely, and feeling profoundly rejected by her husband, Mary went in search of him. She arrived depressed, addicted to alcohol, and angry at God for the neglectful husband that he had given her. A few months later, she contracted a fever, probably malaria, and died. Livingstone was brokenhearted. Too late, he confessed his sinful neglect of his wife. 

Was Livingstone’s focus on exploration and missionary work admirable? Absolutely. He was single-minded about his life’s work, and the long-term benefit to Africa has been substantial. The British buried him in Westminster Abbey, an immense honor, given only to men of great national importance. 

You can argue, however, that his ambition eventually became idolatrous. He probably should have stayed single. But, he didn’t. He made marriage vows to a wife, and he should have fulfilled them, if necessary, at the expense of his ambitions. “Husbands, love your wife as Christ loved his church and gave himself up for her” (Ephesians 5:25).  Tragically, our hero loved his calling and work more than he loved his wife and children. 


The moral is simple. Although Livingstone was a great man, his relationship with Christ did not always control his focus on the goal at hand. 

I told this story because every ambition, no matter how good, can be a blessing or a curse. The question is who controls it? The will of God or our passions and goals? We all know adults who were abandoned by highly successful fathers. I have interviewed pastor’s children who have sworn to never enter the ministry. Why? Their fathers loved their congregations more than their wives or their children. We all know businessmen that have done the same. 

But the greater problem for most Christians is not too much focus, but too little on the thing that really matters. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, and all of your strength.”

[1] Seethe excellent book by Jay Milbrandt, The Daring Heart of David Livingstone, Thomas Nelson, Kindle Edition 

[2] Elizabeth Isichei, “The Man with Three Wives,” Christian History Magazine, Issue 56, pg. 28

[3] Milbrandt, Jay. The Daring Heart of David Livingstone (p. 45). Thomas Nelson. Kindle Edition.