The Cost of Discipleship

Scripture Readings

Once again, we shouldn’t take the words of today’s gospel in their common contemporary literal meaning. To do so would do damage to Jesus’s message. The gospel says that a disciple needs to “hate” “father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, and even [their] own life.” For the ancient Hebrews and Greeks, to “love” one thing and “hate” another is a figure of speech—a hyperbole. It’s a stronger way of saying you need to prefer one thing to another. What the gospel passage is really saying is that for someone who wants to follow Jesus, discipleship needs to take precedence over everything else, regardless of the cost.

That leaves us with a difficult question. What’s the most important thing in your life? I think that each of us has both a theoretical and a practical answer to that question. If it were Jesus asking the question, any Christian might answer something like, “Following you is the most important thing in my life.” For most of us, that would be the theoretical answer.

However, if you were to look closely at most people’s lives, the practical answer—the lived answer—might be quite different. Their lives might testify to the fact that their family, their jobs and careers, or their favorite sports, would actually take first place among their concerns. For many, God might not even get honorable mention. If we pointed that fact out to them, I’m sure they’d protest that those things needed their attention…God could certainly take care of himself.

Jesus never meant to suggest that every follower of his—everyone who aspired to enter the Kingdom of God—must give up family, livelihood, and interests. However, he did warn those who glibly followed him—the groupies and hangers-on—that discipleship comes at a cost. Being a Christian is not a free ride. But the cost is not primarily external. Giving up relationships, money, property, or prestige is not the price of admission to the Kingdom. We may, at some point, be willing to leave some or all of these things behind, but such deprivation is not a requirement.

No, the cost of discipleship is different. It’s the surrendering of our egos. That means, first and foremost, accepting the real world exactly as it is, and letting go of all the ways we wish it were different. For example, making things illegal that we don’t like won’t make them go away. Punishing people for doing things that we disapprove of won’t change their minds. Avoiding difficult subjects won’t make them easier and ignoring painful events doesn’t mean they didn’t happen. The world can be an ugly, painful place and humanity can be cruel and vengeful. Yet, with all its flaws, this is the only world we’ve got. The ego may want it to be otherwise, but the ego’s way is not God’s way.

Surrendering our egos as the price for discipleship means that we don’t get to have our own way. It means letting go of the illusion of control. I mean those words literally…because all control is an illusion. We don’t have final say in anything. If we’re honest, when we look back on those things we may consider our greatest achievements, we’ll see that our efforts bore fruit partly because of many things that happened to us without our intending them, and many more things that could have happened, but didn’t. As much as we plan and labor, the results are never under our control. When we take personal credit for these things, we’re giving in to our egos, but our egos are liars.

Does this mean that all our efforts are in vain if we wish to be Jesus’s disciples? Does it mean that all outcomes are predetermined anyway? Does it mean that we shouldn’t dream or plan or strive? Not at all. Properly used, our free will is still the most powerful force in the universe. Even God can’t change our minds. We can dream dreams. Whatever advances the human race has made in wisdom and virtue are all the results of our dreams for a better, more humane, more loving future. We can make plans because that’s how we use our God-given intellect to move forward toward our dreams. We can strive because we’ve been given the gift of strength and we can focus our energies toward the fulfillment of the will of God. In this, we ourselves are co-creators.

What’s not under our control is the outcome of our dreams, our plans, and our strivings. The cost of discipleship—like any spiritual reality—is both simple and profound. We agree to pay the price of discipleship every time we pray the words, “Thy will be done.” If we truly mean that, then how can there be any fear, anger, resentment, disappointment, or shame? Discipleship boils down to two simple prayers: praying for knowledge of God’s will for us and praying for the power to carry that out. Notice that there’s nothing about outcomes in those prayers. It’s not about what we want, it’s about what God wants, and God’s not letting us see the big picture in advance.

So, the cost of discipleship is the surrender of our egos. God only asks that we not take on that cost too lightly. Remember that Jesus said, “Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.” Jesus’s prayer, “Thy will be done,” led him to Calvary and to the resurrection. We shouldn’t underestimate what surrendering to God’s will might entail. I started this out by saying that “Giving up relationships, money, property, or prestige is not the price of admission to the Kingdom of God.” Although that’s true, when we pray, “Thy will be done,” in effect we put all that on the table. We set aside our fears and expectations, and we move into radical trust in the care of God our loving Father.

If we would be disciples, if we would surrender our egos and live in trust, what should we expect? We should expect to live in grace, and we should expect to live in gratitude for a life of peace and joy beyond our imaginings, a peace the ego cannot give.

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