You gotta count the cost
If you’re gonna be a believer
You gotta know that the price
Is the one you can afford
You gotta count the cost
If you’re gonna be a believer
You gotta go all the way
If you really love the Lord.
Count The Cost, David Meece
An interesting and little known fact in publishing is this: If you quote a biblical passage in a book—or on a blog like this—Christians will not read it. Their mind takes their eyes right over it and onto the next part of the text. The unspoken rationale in the mind of the reader is this: “This is from the Bible, and so I’ve already read it.” Crazy, I know, but it’s true. So I want to ask you to stop and read this passageÂ before we get into the meat of what I want to discuss. It’s from Luke’s Gospel.
28Â For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it?Â 29Â Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him,Â 30Â saying, â€˜This man began to build and was not able to finish.â€™Â 31Â Or what king, going out to encounter another king in war, will not sit down first and deliberate whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand?Â 32Â And if not, while the other is yet a great way off, he sends a delegation and asks for terms of peace.Â 33Â So therefore, any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple (Luke 14: 28-33, ESV).
Ok, got it? Thanks for actually reading it. Now, let’s look at how we have read this passage upside-down for so long.
The David Meece lyrics I quote above reflect what so many think Jesus is saying to the crowd. “If you are really serious about being a disciple, if you really love God, you’ll count the cost before you get started.” Again, this is upside-down thinking.
This passage in Luke is easily one of the most misunderstood parables taught by Jesus. In many of your Bibles you have a subhead just before this passage that reads “Count the cost of discipleship.” And that’s how it has been taught for so long. Before you decide to commit as a disciple of Jesus, you need to count the cost. “Do you really have what it will take? The road as a disciple is difficult, you know. You don’t want to Â look back. You don’t want to turn around once you have put your hand to the plow.” The way this passage is taught should come with a bumper sticker or t-shirt that reads, If it is to be, it’s up to me.
How have we ever come to interpret this passage thus? How is it we have made walking with Jesus something that is dependent on our possessions, abilities and strengths?
First of all, this has led to a very false and harmful dichotomy: That there is a difference between a “disciple” and a “regular Christian.” You know—If you don’t think you can make it as a “disciple,” don’t commit. Just be a regular Christian like most everyone else. As Â far as I can tell, Jesus offered one invitation only: Follow me. Well, ok, he elaborated on that in various ways, Â like “eat my flesh and drink my blood” and “pick up your cross and die” and “hate your father and mother and spouse and kids,” but these were all a part of the journey of following Jesus. These were not various levels of attainment like in a video game or degrees like the Masons. There is, in the end, one collection with Jesus: Those who follow him. There are no “super-Christians, ” those who counted the cost and found that they did, indeed, have what it took to finish the job.
We misread this passage to say we need to take a personal inventory to see if we have what it takes to really follow Jesus. “Don’t start off if you can’t complete the job” is the message we hear. We see the tower builder and the king with his army as models of disciples who “get it.” Balderdash. I read a great article in Christianity Today by Andy Crouch about this some years ago. In it he says,
Make no mistake. The tower builder and the king are not models of discipleship. When does Jesus ever speak of discipleship as if it were a construction project, carefully calculated and accounted for, or a war, in which we marshal our own forces and find them adequate for the battle? Biblical faith is the abandonment of our tower building, the surrender of our ambitions to foolishly fight our way to security. These two men are at risk of becoming fools in the full biblical senseâ€”blinded by their prosperity and power to the most basic form of common sense, not to mention the ultimate reality of their dependence on God.
Who among us has even the slightest skill, talent, or possession to impress God? Which one of us can say, “I have what it takes to follow Jesus for one year? One month? One week? Day? Hour? Second?” No, not even one second. No, you don’t. Don’t even tell me how you have it in you to follow Jesus for one brief second. You don’t. I don’t. The tower builder didn’t. Neither did the king.
And that is just what Jesus was teaching. Go ahead and take an inventory of your money and possessions if you want, but you don’t have what it takes. You will fail if you set off on your own to do what only God can do. This is not a story of the cost of discipleship. No—it is about the cost of non-discipleship. It is about the folly of not abandoning all to follow Jesus. All. Give it all up, starting with your precious “family values.” Continue on to the talents and skills you have developed in building things. All the tools you have acquired. Then let’s look at the strength of the army you have surrounded yourself with. None of it is worth talking about, Jesus says. Don’t be bringing fruit punch to a whisky party.
The point Jesus is making here is this: You can’t do it. If you try on your own, you will be stuck with a half-built empty shell of a tower. Or you will march your pitiful army out into battle against God’s army. Guess who wins that one?
Andy Crouch continues,
Jesus invites the crowds following him to sit down and count the costâ€”not of discipleship, but of non-discipleship. Non-discipleship means believing that we will be able to complete our insane Babel of self-provision; non-discipleship means blindly rushing into battle as enemies of God, having vastly overestimated our ability to prevail. Discipleship is the process of soberly counting our assets and coming to terms with their insufficiency to carry us through a life lived apart from God. It is not discipleship, in the end, that is costlyâ€”it is folly.
It is sheer folly to think the toy sword you have in your hand is of any interest or value to the Lord. Why are you continuing to grasp and clutch that when he has a real blade to give you, one that can actually defeat the very real enemy you are about to face? And only a fool looks at what he possesses and says, “Sure, I’ve got enough to get the job done.” Fool. Before you can even send out the invitations for your tower-warming party, God will send a mighty wind to knock it down, showing just what a fine craftsman you really are.
So what is Jesus looking for if not for those who are ready to buckle up their chin straps and give it their best effort? He is looking for quitters. He is looking for losers who know they don’t have what it will take. He is looking for the poor in spirit—poor because they have renounced all, given up on ever having enough to even make it one second on their own strength. He is looking for those he had just talked about who were invited to the fancy dinner party he had just talked about. The poor and outcast and misfits and losers who were brought in to take the place of “winners” who just didn’t have the time or inclination to sit down for a shebang right then.
Do you have what it takes to be a disciple of Jesus? No, you don’t. Not now, not tomorrow, not ever. And that is the best news you could hear.