Counting the Cost, or Provoking Persecution?

This morning’s sermon was from Luke 14, in which Jesus turns to the large crowds following him to Jerusalem and says “Whoever doesn’t hate…family…their own life…and give up all their possessions cannot be my disciple” (paraphrased).  His use of hyperbole here is just pointing out that these are things that are important enough to us that they might compete with the truth and life that Jesus preached.  Jesus knew that he was on his way to his own execution, and he was pretty sure that these eager followers weren’t quite aware of that fact.  So he told them two stories about people who were committing to large undertakings (building a tower, or fighting a battle) who had to “count the cost” of their endeavour.  Basically, Jesus was saying “are you sure you know what you’re getting into by following me?”

I think this is a great story, but I usually feel a little strange reading it in my own context.  There is no persecution of Christians in Canada, and  I won’t have my belongings seized if I’m seen going to church (which is something that happened to early Christians).  But then, in Jesus’ own day there was relative religious freedom as well: as a Jew, Jesus had the freedom to worship in ways not permitted to other peoples conquered by Rome.  And Jesus kept the feasts, attended synagogue, and upheld every other mainstream religious observance of the Jews.  So did his disciples and apostles.  The only things they did not do were the pious observances of the Pharisees, and lots of people didn’t do those things; surely that was not why Jesus was killed.

I come from a Christian family, so there’s no need to `hate` my family; I haven’t lost relationships due to my allegiance to Christ, and in fact I seem to have gained the respect of even my atheist friends because of the little bit that Christ shines through me.  And while I’m  willing to give up my worldly possessions, I don’t have many of those – and we all know that we should probably give more, but don’t anyway.  So there don’t seem to be real connections in most of this section to my actual life.

This troubles me.

This troubles me because I know that the system that nailed Jesus to a cross still exists in many different ways.

I’ve heard a lot of preachers talk about how the gospel is supposed to be “offensive” and that if we aren’t being persecuted it’s because we aren’t actually preaching the gospel.  Now, most of the time the people preaching this imply that the gospel will make us offensive to our neighbours because they will not appreciate our moral lifestyles.  This strikes me as disingenuous: Ned Flanders is annoying, but people don’t persecute him and his family because they’re honest and kind, even when it’s seemingly to a fault.  But this is the only sense we can make of the New Testament if our religious framework is entirely moral.  It says that people will persecute Christians, so if Christianity is all about being moral, then people must hate us for our morality, right?  But what if, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer suggested, Christianity is profoundly ethical but distinctly amoral?  Or, barring that, what if morality simply wasn’t what Jesus died for?

While I feel strange reading this text in my own context because there’s nothing in my world that will persecute me just for being a Christian, it makes me look at Jesus’ context too.  As I said earlier, he was actually free to worship the way he wanted, just because he was Jewish.  He irritated people by his morality, but more often than not it was his seeming lack of morality that infuriated his enemies – because he ate with sinners and the unwashed poor.  No, what got him killed was not his religious identity or his religious morality, it was his religiousethics.  This passage about counting the cost doesn’t make sense outside of the ethical question.

So I’m  left with the question: why am I not persecuted?  I was told today that it’s quite possible for God to place me in a context in which I don’t need to be, and I’m thankful if that’s simply the case; but as I said earlier, the system that nailed Jesus to the cross still exists.  Governments haven’t become perfectly just; economies are still extremely unbalanced, moreso now than they have been in quite a long while; and there are still theologies floating around that ensnare people in a web of legalism, or materialism, or other things that blot out the freedom of Christ.  If Jesus were here and now instead of in ancient Palestine, I’m  not sure his story would end all that much differently (though he probably would have been on terror watch lists and eventually imprisoned and held without charges, rather than arrested and immediately executed).  But Jesus isn’t here in the same way he was there; I’m  here in his place, but I’m not doing what he did.  Jesus was teaching the people how to get out from under their oppressors, and when questioned, he openly denounced the systems that oppressed them.  He didn’t join any particular movement or party, but he spoke out for what was right, no matter the cost.

My moralist theology doesn’t require that of me, and so I am not persecuted.  The implication of this is that, if I’m  not doing what Jesus did, then I may not even be a disciple – because when I count the cost, I get zeroes in every column.  Being a Christian has cost me nothing, mostly because I don’t actually do anything.  It’s not that I want to be persecuted – I sure don’t! – but that by Jesus’ standard I haven’t actually followed him through the parts of discipleship that are costly.  I’m one of the people in the crowd who’s excited to go to Jerusalem, not knowing that it’s a death march because I haven’t actually been paying attention to what Jesus has been doing, and I haven’t actually committed to doing likewise.

I recognize, of course, that I don’t have the public profile that Jesus had – that because I don’t have his level of influence I should not expect the same level of backlash.  Of course I recognize that.  My circles are almost entirely Christian, so there isn’t much of a culture clash to deal with.  I live in the middle of Mennonite territory, so when it comes to being counter-cultural in regard to worldly systems of economy and materialism I’m  a rank amateur.  I may live my entire life in relative obscurity, and the suggestion that I count the cost may always end with a low tally; if that’s what God has for me, so be it!  But what troubles me perhaps more than my recognition that Jesus’ ethics are the costly part of discipleship and that I haven’t been living them is that the only backlash I get as a Christian is for suggesting this very thing, that we be willing to live with such radical ethics that they draw the attention and backlash of the system.  I don’t feel persecuted by Christians, but sometimes people roll their eyes when I tell them I bought a book by Noam Chomsky or Elizabeth May, or kindly warn me against any sort of radical ethic and remind me of the goodness of God in that I’m  not persecuted.  We’ve become used to a theology that demands much of us personally and almost nothing publicly, and by suggesting otherwise I suppose I’m  rocking the boat.  I’m  very far from persecuted, but my answer to Jesus’ ethic is too radical to be comfortable, so it provokes some opposition.  I imagine that if I were to continue to insist upon a more radical ethic, the opposition would get stronger.  I pray that this is not the case.

Jesus’ first opposition was from his own people too.  I don’t find that particularly comforting.


11 thoughts on “Counting the Cost, or Provoking Persecution?

  1. I note that Paul told Timothy to pray that the church might be able to live a peaceable existence. Likely because this is just the context we find ourselves in (and others did as well in ages past). It is not necessarily a critique of our following, but a call to a different circumspect life in light of our more accepting context. In my own family history, my mother was kicked out of her home at the age of 16 for embracing Christ (having been raised in an abusive home where none of her many siblings shared fathers…and men came and went along with the free-flowing alcohol). So there was a very clear cost for my mother through her early years even though later in life a number of her siblings and her own mother committed their ways to the Lord and turned from the way they had lived. I just say this to mention that such things still happen. I recall a time where I was threatened with violence, because I would not defraud a company I was working for and my co-workers were all involved in this illicit activity…and demanded that I join them. It made my job extremely difficult, but I could not bring myself to participate and suffered because of it.

    • Thanks Rick. I don’t mean to imply that such things never happen, but only that it makes more sense from an ethical perspective than a moral one. Your own situation may be an example of where ethics and morals overlap – where your personal morality has social consequences. In our society today, that (thankfully) doesn’t happen all that often.

      Or maybe I’m just a spoiled Christian kid who’s completely ignorant of these costs. I certainly don’t mean to denigrate anyone else’s experience, and I apologize if it comes off that way.

      • It did not come off negatively to me at all. I just thought I’d share a couple of my own experiences with regard to this. By and large, I’ve found thought that we’ve tended to be jerks in our “sharing the good news” and this has been the reason for our “persecution” in the West. It seems the exception when such things as I shared actually happen. I did enjoy your post and thank you for sharing it brother!

  2. Just throwing this out there, I think the gospel still is offensive to our culture. If we believe that everyone is a sinner in need a saviour, that’s not very palatable to our culture’s belief that you just need to be a ‘good person’ to be okay in God’s books. However, there is a huge difference between us being offensive, as Christians have been known to be, and the message being offensive.

    • Thanks Jess, and yeah, I think it still is to some extent. I’m just concerned that perhaps I’ve never really followed Jesus in such a radical way that it might cost me my life, because that seems to be what he’s asking us to do. Again, not that I want to die (though the epistles contain a few statements saying almost exactly that) but that I want to follow Jesus in his ethic as well as in his message.

      Perhaps an analogy for my frustration: I love being aware. I love watching documentaries about social issues. I get passionately indignant about something, mouth off about it on the internet to spread awareness, and then…I move on to the next issue. I do this because I’ve allowed awareness to fulfill or relieve my desire to do something. Awareness and rhetoric replace action.

      In the same way, I feel like the moral message and choices of Christianity replace the ethical demands. They’re still crucial – you can’t have action without awareness – but they satisfy our sense of calling and our understanding of discipleship, and we never really have to go all the way. But that’s precisely what Jesus calls us to: Action, not judgment or rhetoric or awareness or morality or even just preaching. All of these things are good things, but it’s hard enough to go half way that we’ve become convinced that we’re going all the way. It’s hard enough to preach that we think that this must be all that we’re called to. We face just enough persecution to make us think that we’re doing what Jesus did, and we thank God that the world has changed enough to spare us the really hard stuff. I guess I’m just saying that maybe it’s our theology – our understanding of the demands of discipleship – that has changed, rather than the world.

  3. I liked your post for it’s honesty and transparency, told truthfully from where you are and what you see at that moment, right wrong or otherwise.

    I would add this to the discussion table: Jesus was not about ethics or morality, which is inherently legalistic and punitive, rather Jesus was about Grace–radical Love, empowerment of the people and justice that sets people free in every possible aspect of life (sometimes through the guidance of rules and other times not). The Jews were in a legalistic covenant with God, but through Christ we are in a different, non-legalistic, New Covenant with God. Thus, what He grew up in was not what He died for. To stay stuck in Old Covenant thinking is to not be a follower of Christ, is it?

    I grew up in an all-white, suburban, supposedly Christian environment, too, and didn’t experience any persecution for my religion until only recently. When I started living by the Bible for real, a few years ago, my life radically changed and it cost me pretty much every one and every thing I had, at one point I even became suicidal. Admittedly, I have a Joseph Anointing so mine is likely more than most Christians but that said, what I have been through even just in the last 2.5 years would make Joseph think his prison was Trump Tower. When you really start changing your priorities and beliefs to match what God says, stuff will definitely get uncomfortable. Pursuing God with your brain won’t get you to where Jesus was talking about in that verse, you have to pursue Him with your heart. Start reading the Bible with your heart, and see how God changes the way you see what’s around you. All of a sudden you’ll notice things are so much different than you ever realized before, and sadly not for the better. Then, you’ll have to make a choice, ________ or God. The first few aren’t too bad, but it gets harder and harder as you go. Eventually you will understand fully why “crucify yourself” is the phrasing God chose to use. It will feel exactly like that. Not fun, for sure, but what I can tell you is that it’s like blessed torture, oil and water: the worst and best possible experiences co-existing, because while God’s breaking you down He’s simultaneously building you with the most amazing stuff you’ll ever hear. Trust the living God as your teacher more than any professor, book, course or sermon. Let the Book inspire you to pursue a passion for the Living Person that is God, rather than asking God to inspire you to pursue a passion for a Book. Most of the greats listed in Hebrews 11 walked with God, not a book. I’m not advocating against the Bible in any way, I’m only saying be careful that you don’t let a book obscure your realization of the Person. Nobody goes to Disney World and opts for the book rather than Mickey himself. Yes, it feels risky, it feels radical, but you won’t get what others don’t have if you don’t become willing to do what others don’t dare to do. I can assure you, as someone further ahead on the path, you won’t be disappointed (in the end, anyway, when the process is over). Being pleasantly inspired and comforted is pitiful compared to leaping and shouting and throwing things into the air and absolutely bursting with every possible emotion at the same time because God just wowed you so big you can no longer tolerate the binding confines of your own physical body or even the earth itself. And He does it over and over and over again….

    Pursue, my friend, pursue with a radical, white-knuckle grip. You’ll cry, you’ll scream, you’ll shout–and you’ll find out what it truly means to be alive.

    Peace be with you!

    • Interesting thoughts, though I’d like to challenge you on a point right at the beginning of your comment: do not confuse ethics and morality. The difference is not always apparent, but I was challenged when I heard that Dietrich Bonhoeffer once preached that “Christianity is profoundly amoral” – meaning that it is not a moral code; yet at the same time, his writings on Ethics have shaped my understanding of Christian life dramatically. I highly encourage you to pick up his Ethics (volume 6 of Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works). He begins by saying that the question of “how can I be good, or do good” is entirely the wrong question for ethics; rather, the question we must ask is, what is Christ doing, and how can I participate in that? Ethics is about being faced with the commandment of God that is in Jesus Christ and obeying, knowing what it is that being a follower of Christ demands of you and doing it. Ethics is thus not legalistic at all, or need not be. I think that we’ve often confused ethics and morals, and I appreciate Bonhoeffer’s distinction.

      What do you mean when you say to read the Bible with my heart?

      • God makes Himself available to ALL people on earth, NOT just to the intellectuals who have been raised to worship their intelligence above all else. Even the illiterate, even an idiot can come to know God, but a fool will miss Him entirely. Bonhoeffer may or may not be right about the distinction you write about, but on its best day it’s aspiring to tertiary. The greatest commandment is not to “Perform Well and Make Me Proud,” it’s to “Love God With All Your Being.” So until you give up everything to bask in His amazingness and love him with every cell of your body (Mary v. Martha), you’re still mired in some level of pride. If you’re not screaming about him like teen girls over the Beatles in the 60’s, you’re not even half way there. It’s not about taking some pointers from Jesus, admiring Jesus, or impersonating Jesus. He’s not a Vegas act. You have to aim for the point where you no longer want to exist as your own individual entity, but rather want to cease to exist and “meld” into Him somehow. To not even care if anyone, anywhere, at any time even remembers you ever existed because all you want them to ever think about is Jesus. When people interact with you, they should never see you but swear up down and sideways they just met Jesus himself. If you ever say, “I don’t want to die,” you’re headed in the wrong direction, because you’re looking to preserve you. If you are begging to die (not out of grief or depression or anything like that, but simply because you don’t even want to be a speck of dust obscuring His glory) then you’re getting somewhere. God doesn’t care what you DO, if you never do this; He’ll shut everything down if He thinks it’s getting in the way of your love affair with Him. Because He can do in one blink more than you could accomplish in a lifetime anyway. He doesn’t NEED you, He WANTS a family.

        You have to read the Bible with your heart (a.k.a. spirit) because you can’t find God any other way. God is spirit; spirit things go with spirit things and physical things with physical things and intellectual things with intellectual things. So if you only use your intellect, you’ll know ABOUT God but never know Him. Don’t study like you’re going to be tested and graded on the material, cherish and consume it like you would love letters from the most amazing girl on the planet. When you’re in love, no one has to teach you how to think about, regard, respect, or do things for that person. You just automatically do them, you ooze them out of your pores and you’re thrilled to stay awake for three days straight just anticipating what you’ll do next. And you don’t care if you get any credit, you just melt when you see that smile. That’s the only time any “doing” is even relevant, and like I said, at that point things like ethics, morality, etc. are moot because you’ll do everything simply because of love.

        Intellectualism over-complicates what God has made very, very simple.

        I used to be the kind of person who had religion, but not relationship. I had a classmate who was always wide-eyed and grinned like a Cheshire cat. Back then, I thought she was weird and a little creepy, though very sweet. Now, I only wish I could find her again to tell her, “I get it now! I finally get it! And I only wish I had been more willing to listen to you back then, so I could have enjoyed this for so much longer. Nothing else seems worth talking about now!” Some may think I’m weird and creepy, but I’ll just look at them like she looked at me and thank Jesus for never giving up chasing after me until He caught me and courting me until I fell passionately in love with Him. I’m more proud of falling in love with Him than anything else I’ve accomplished in life, and that’s saying a lot. I want the same for you.

      • I think you’ve made a very unfortunate dichotomy between feelings and intellect. What does it mean to love someone the way that you claim to? You make it sound very romantic, and somewhat gnostic, as though you no longer have a body and exist only to experience some sort of blissful being-with. You distinguish between spiritual, physical, and intellectual, with a clear preference for the spiritual; be careful, the church fathers called this Gnosticism, and raged against it.

        Check out Matthew 25:31ff; it’s quite clear that Jesus doesn’t just want our love, he wants our obedience. In fact, in this narrative, that’s the deciding factor. I’d even say that love without obedience is impossible. It’s true that I can do all sorts of wonderful things, but if I don’t have love those things are meaningless; but it’s also true that it’s the servant who says he won’t obey, and ends up obeying, that pleases the master, while the one who says they will obey but end up not doing so does not. Works without faith, and faith without works, are both dead.

        I have love letters from my wife, and when I read them I am filled with a sense of love and devotion. But I also read them to see what they really say, not just to bask in that feeling of love, because my wife includes a lot of content in her letters. She’s not really into “sweet nothings” – sweet somethings, perhaps. My Lord contains an awful lot of content in his messages, and I need my intellect to understand them in order to obey them. Reading the Gospels does fill me with love for him, but what good is cherishing his words if I don’t understand or obey them? What good is it if I cherish them and obey them, but do so wrongly because I don’t understand them? Feelings come and go, but love is much more than a feeling – it is a continual choice to serve another, with all of my heart AND mind.

        I’m happy for your experience of love from and for God – hang on to it. But don’t live in your heart at the expense of your mind and body, because God gave them all to you.

  4. Excellent post regarding Luke 14; I’ve been mediating on that passage recently as well so your post caught by attention.

    I agree with what you are getting at: if I must count the cost, why have I not paid one? I love that Bonhoeffer calls Christianity a “costly grace.” He understood that following Christ was not “cheap” and would result in us being in persecution, hated situations, and more. For Bonhoeffer, that kind of grace meant fighting against the Nazi ideology that swept the church; perhaps we have not met such a moment in North America. A reason behind a lack of this cost for us is a lack of intrusiveness into each others’ lives. North America (I’m from Canada) is a society of less intimate neighbourhoods lives and of non-confrontational conversation. The cost will come when we believe Jesus is worth of cost of being hated, estranged, ridiculed because he is on our lips and in our actions.

    I appreciate the length of post — lots to think of.

    • Thanks! Yes, we Canadians manage to maintain our British reserve when it comes to other people’s business, but it often leaves us disconnected and unimpassioned. Sometimes I’m amazed that we manage to accomplish anything together, rather than just letting everyone go their own way.

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