Dallas Willard is responsible for one of the most significant paradigm shifts of my life: realizing that the “cost of discipleship” is actually lower than the cost of non-discipleship. In other words, discipleship to Jesus is the best “deal” we get as human beings.
If the gospel is actually good news, how could it be any other way? It is an amazing bargain that any sober-minded “shopper” would jump at. When we can see it clearly, it will seem too good to be true. Being with Jesus to learn from him how to be like him is the most remarkable opportunity any human ever gets.
Learning from fools
Today in morning prayer, our lectionary had us read Luke 14:25-35 together, where Jesus tells parables about a tower builder and an embattled king. In many English Bibles, this section is titled “The Cost of Discipleship,” or something similar. So I always thought these were pictures of disciples who were “counting the cost.”
But as Andy Crouch points out in an incisive article, this is exactly opposite of Jesus’ point: “Jesus’ first hearers would have known that label was exactly backwards. For these stories are not about disciples, but fools.”
Think about it: the tower builder doesn’t have enough money to finish his project. The king doesn’t have enough troops to win the battle. These aren’t models of discipleship, they’re models of foolishness.
These are pictures of people who can’t possibly pay the costs of the projects they’ve undertaken, people trying to gain security through their own resources and strength, ambitiously building monuments to their own ingenuity and ability. It’s a picture of people trying to become well-liked enough or rich enough or powerful enough to secure a place for themselves. It’s the tower of Babel all over again.
In other words, Jesus is saying, “Stop your foolish pursuit of security and reputation before you go spiritually bankrupt! Can’t you see you’ll never be able to complete your project? You’re being lied to. You’re throwing your life away on a false dream that you’ll never be able to pay for. Give up this foolish tower-building and war-mongering, and come follow me instead.”
Count the cost of discipleship AND the cost of foolishness
Which is exactly the same point Jesus is making when he says, “Whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their life?”
The life you “give up” to follow Jesus is like an ill-fated tower-building project that won’t work out anyway. Leave it behind! It’s much more costly to keep on trying to finish your tower, because in the end you’ll fail, you’ll forfeit your life for a half-baked tower.
To paraphrase Dallas Willard: “If you think it’s hard being a disciple of Jesus, you should try living the other way.” This is exactly what Jesus was saying in these stories: living to make a name for yourself or secure your own future is way too expensive. Stop now before you ruin yourself utterly. Jesus was talking in these stories about the cost of non-discipleship, and it’s breathtakingly high.
Learning from Jesus how to really live
In contrast, living as a disciple of Jesus means that you begin to understand what living really is. You “find your life,” as Jesus tells us. Yet another Willard quote gives us a picture of what we gain as disciples of Jesus:
What an astonishing vision! The water of heaven flows through our being until we are fully changed people. We wake each morning breathing the air of this new world; we experience a new consciousness, and our character is transformed. We drop our deceitful practices, our insincerity, our defensiveness, our envy, and our slander, and we move outward toward others in genuine love.
It isn’t “costly” to obtain this kind of life, you simply give up the old life and receive the new one as a gift. Those who engage in it aren’t spiritual heroes, they’re just responding to the deal of a lifetime, now that they can finally see it clearly. It’s the treasure in the field. Of course you sell everything to buy the field. There’s a treasure in it!
Ben, I appreciate your thoughtful words here. They are illuminating to me. I cannot get enough of Willard either.
Ben Sternke says