Is Following Jesus Really Worth It?

My eight-year-old daughter has many strengths, and I love her dearly. But when she needs to take some medicine that doesn’t taste good to her, I’ve come to suspect that something goes mysteriously wrong with her ability to communicate. I’ll say, “Hannah, you really need to take your medicine.” But judging from the look on her face, what she hears is something like, “Hannah, you need to swim with poisonous jellyfish.” And the high pitched, inarticulate sounds that escape her mouth seem to confirm this. It doesn’t really matter how badly she needs the medicine. She’s just not convinced that whatever benefit she’ll get from it is worth it.

I wonder if the same dynamic can be true of us when it comes to following Christ. Whether consciously or not, we all ask ourselves whether it’s really worth it.

But what does Jesus himself have to say about that question?

First, we should note that it’s one Jesus wants us to think about. In Luke 14, he urges his listeners to count the cost of following him. And what is that cost? Nothing short of everything. He says his followers need to “hate” even their closest relationships in comparison, and “whoever does not carry their cross”—an instrument for giving up one’s life—“and follow me cannot be my disciple.” (See vv. 25-33.)

Moreover, Jesus promises his followers that, just as he was, they will be misunderstood, persecuted, and hated by some because of him (see, e.g., Matthew 10:24-25, John 15:18-20). And if we follow the accounts of his disciples, we’ll find that they were led many times into very difficult circumstances.

On the other hand, that’s not all that Jesus, or the rest of the Bible, has to say about the issue. For example, Jesus tells us that taking his teaching to heart leads to being “set free” from a very real slavery: the oppressive bondage of our sin (John 8:31-36). He also says that he came to give not only life to his people, but life “to the full” (John 10:10). And he says we can actually rejoice when we experience persecution in his name, because “great is your reward in heaven” (Matthew 5:11-12).

In addition to all of this, Jesus clearly teaches that trusting and following him is far from a losing proposition. In a short but vivid parable, he offers, “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field” (Matthew 13:44, my emphasis). Why did the man sell everything with joy? Because he knew he was gaining something far greater.

Likewise, when Peter tells Jesus that he and the other disciples have left everything to follow him, Jesus replies: “Truly I tell you, no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel  will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age: homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields—along with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life” (Mark 10:29-30). Yes, it will mean persecution, but also a return of a hundred times in this life. And on top of this, eternal life in the age to come!

And what does that life look like?  The apostle Paul, one of Jesus’ closest followers, gives us a clue in what I find to be one of the most encouraging passages in the entire Bible: “For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all” (2 Corinthians 4:17). Paul was a person who endured a terrible amount of suffering for the sake of Christ—far more than any of us are likely to experience (see 2 Corinthians 11:21-29). And yet, when compared with the value of the glory he looked forward to, he could view his staggering trials as “light and momentary.”

All of this is what led C.S. Lewis to pen these often-quoted lines:

The New Testament has lots to say about self-denial, but not about self-denial as an end in itself. We are told to deny ourselves and to take up our crosses in order that we may follow Christ; and nearly every description of what we shall ultimately find if we do so contains an appeal to desire. …Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased. (“The Weight of Glory”)

So yes, Jesus calls you to give up your life. But what he offers in return is exactly what we all spend our lives looking for: freedom and fullness, glory and joy. In fact, he offers more of it than we can now imagine, and all of it to be enjoyed forever. Do we really think that, in the end, anyone who follows Jesus will regret it?

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