I think we often fail to appreciate the magnificence of that first statement about the cross. "Ah yes," we think, "Jesus died on the cross and we too must be willing to make noble sacrifices in order to follow him. He is, after all, God." But his audience did not know he was God, and they did not know he was going to die on the cross. To them the cross was a form of capital punishment, the way that disreputable criminals died. To better appreciate how this must have struck them, picture Billy Graham getting up in front of a large crowd of people and declaring, "Anyone who does not go to the electric chair for me cannot be my disciple!" What sheer chutzpah, to declare that following you could be more important than the disgrace of being condemned as a criminal and rejected by your family, more important than life itself!
Anyone who does not take up his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. If one of you decides to build a tower, will he not first sit down and calculate the cost to see if he has enough money to complete the project? He will do that for fear of laying the foundation and then not being able to complete the work; for all who saw it would jeer at him, saying, 'That man began to build what he could not finish.' [Luke 14:27-30]
Which makes it especially dramatic that Jesus follows this statement up with a parable about being cautious.
Umm... wait a moment. Didn't he just say following him is more important than life itself? Why is Jesus now telling us to think before we jump? Shouldn't we be jumping headfirst, throwing caution to the wind as we leap eagerly towards whatever He has in mind for us?
No, he says, first you have to count the cost. You have to know what you are getting into.
I've run into trouble in this area before. I relate all too well to that builder who got halfway through and then ran out of money. Every now and then around the house I discover one of the notebooks that I kept from high school on. Invariably I find in these notebooks a list of all the things I need to improve about myself: daily cleaning, reading to the kids, exercise, and so on. I would make the lists and jump headfirst into doing all of them at once, without ever asking myself how hard it would be or whether I could realistically achieve it. I mean, they were obviously the right things to do, so God must want me to do them. When I fell flat on my face, over and over again, I came to the conclusion that I just didn't have enough willpower. I simply wasn't a good enough follower of Jesus, since I couldn't make myself do these things1.
So now I'm trying to be better about this. I'm trying to remember that everything comes with a price. Everything I do demands something of me. Everything requires spoons, and (healthy as I am) I have a finite number of them to go around. I still believe that God gives me what I need to do his will; but now if I think I can't pay the price, that becomes part of the discernment process in whether it's his will at all.
Sometimes we are not the ones who pay the price for our actions. Sometimes, that sacrifice comes down on others.
When we start preaching about the sin of homosexual sex, we must accept that homosexual people will sometimes take that personally and be driven away from God because of our words. When we lobby to make abortion illegal, we must admit that somewhere a young woman will attempt to kill the baby herself, and die because of it, and that we would prefer that over legal abortion. When we take up homeschooling, or breastfeeding, or Catholicism, or growing vegetables, or golf, and especially if we ever get excited and tell others why we did these things, we must realize that some people will take our decisions as a condemnation of theirs, and there will be nothing we can do about it.
I read an article years ago about embryonic stem cell research, where the author insisted that anyone who was against it needed to be willing to look straight into the eye of someone with Parkinson's disease and say, "I know that you might die because I oppose this research,2 but I believe it is worth your life." That's what I mean by 'acknowledge the cost'. If we can't admit that, then we are being weasly. We are trying to have our cake and eat it too. Whether you are Democrat or Republican, religious or atheist, everything has its price. Every position that we could possibly take up demands something uncomfortable from us, and we either acknowledge that price and pay it, or else we are two-faced hypocrites.
We must acknowledge the cost because it is the truth. But we also must accept it, because only then can we work to minimize that price. If we pretend there are no women for whom an unexpected pregnancy is a matter of life and death, then we excuse ourselves from putting our energy into finding those women and saving them. If we pretend no one is hurt by our words because we don't mean them to be hurtful, then we give ourselves leave to spout off whenever and however we feel like instead of crafting our passionate speeches with care and limiting them to those circumstances that God leads us towards. When we acknowledge that there are real people out there dying of diseases that might be cured by embryonic stem cell research, then suddenly we care more about searching for a cure for them from another source.
And when we look honestly at what must be sacrificed, sometimes we will find that the price is too great, and we are not willing to pay it. And other times we will find that the price is as great as the electric chair; but that it will be worth it.
1. There's also the whole aspect of perfectionism and trying to do something on my own instead of letting God do it in me. But part of my failure was naively thinking I could do everything, no matter how difficult.
2. The fact that embryonic stem cell research hasn't actually demonstrated results the way that adult stem cells have is worth making. But this doesn't change the fact that it is a real possibility that embryonic stem cells may turn out to be the only way to cure certain diseases.