Some of the greatest obstacles to spiritual growth are not sinful.
I once saw a runner, who, anticipating victory, lifted his arms in celebration five or so yards before the finish line. The gesture imperceptibly slowed him, allowing the person in second place to dash past and win.
Sometimes in like fashion, an event occurs in God’s redemptive work, and we prematurely assume it’s the final victory. Like for instance in Luke 14:25, when it says of Jesus, “Great crowds accompanied him.” We would probably stop there, giving one another high-fives. Success means more people, right? Headcount is king.
At that point, a guy like me, overcome with excitement, would hop up and greet the newcomers with my best warm, professional voice. “I’d like to thank you for coming out. Please remember to pick up your free gift on the way out the door!”
Unlike my hypothetical greeting, the one Jesus actually gave the people was radical, like a bucket of cold water thrown on them.
“And he turned and said to them, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:25b-27).
He cautioned them that their choice to follow Him might not stick, that they might never enter the more robust school of learning called “discipleship.” What would stop them? We expect Jesus to warn of distinctly darker things, such as substance abuse, porn, violence. Instead, He names the very things we have enshrined as Christian, and in fact, ones we treat as synonymous with discipleship—family.
There is nothing in this passage that a contemporary Christian would find “family friendly.” Jesus before family? The sound of it bears the hallmark of an extremist cult, especially in this day, where a sentimental, sheltered culture has made family the First Commandment of all.
But when Jesus says to “hate,” it has nothing to do with any moral dimension, for that would immediately conflict with His command to love one another, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself. Instead, it is a comparative statement. That is, compared to our commitment to Him, all else falls to the lowest place of priority.
It is not, as moderns sometimes say, “God first, family second, job third.” Most of us have no idea how to discern and make such rankings in real life decisions, anyway. We might say it, but we live it in exactly the opposite order. Jobs control where people live, family plans and events control the weekly schedule, and whatever scraps are left after these first two are satisfied, go to God.
I know this sounds terribly cynical, but I say it while being guilty of it from time to time myself.
Truly, when the cross appears on the horizon with the situational sacrifice the Lord has called you to make, no opposition to it is stronger than our anchored feelings for the beloved parent, or cherished spouse, or cherubic child.
As a man living in a North American context, I’ve certainly felt it as I took off for foreign shores in spite of the tears of my young bride. I’ve seen others deliberately take pay cuts, and by-pass opportunities for the sake of what they considered the Lord’s calling to a certain place. They literally decided their children would not be wearing designer clothes, that the family wouldn’t be taking yearly Aspen ski trips, that the house purchased would be smaller, and maybe even a fixer-upper where the pipes rattled whenever the toilet was flushed. Not to mention the surrendered dream of being a millionaire by the time of retirement.
That’s probably more like the hate the Lord spoke of—hate for every familial connection or life interest that would influence you to say No to Him.
But it’s also a hate that says to those we love, “Bear this suffering with me, while I honor Christ. It will go somewhere good. I promise.”