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Avoiding Ditches While Following Jesus

By Brandon Lemons



The Not a Fan series calls us to be fully-devoted followers of Jesus. This call is in response to Jesus’ words in Luke 9:23 – “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.” I witnessed many fruitful discussions and changed lives when Friedens Church originally did this series in 2012, and I am seeing similar dynamics now, which is exciting.


That being said, there are unintended consequences that can result from Not a Fan. Almost everything in life carries the potential of unintended consequences, and the call to follow Jesus wholeheartedly is no exception. In relation to Not a Fan, the unintended consequences I have in mind are caused by skewed interpretations of the call to deny ourselves, take up our cross daily, and follow Jesus.


Think of the metaphor of a car traveling along a road with ditches on each side. Obviously, the goal is to keep the car on the road and stay out of the ditches. Going into a ditch would create problems. Even the threat of going into a ditch could cause a problem; think about the common driving mistake of overcorrection, which is when you realize you are getting off course in one direction and in response you steer hard in the other direction but end up veering into oncoming traffic, or even the opposite ditch. With many aspects of life, there are ditches we can slide into if we get too far off-course or if we overcorrect in response to something we are worried about.


With this metaphor in mind, I’m going to share three misconceptions that are metaphorical ditches we can slide into as we are seeking to follow Jesus.



Misconception #1: If we want to follow Jesus wholeheartedly, we must sell everything, quit our job, and move to a smaller house (or perhaps even move to Africa as a missionary).


This is such an easy ditch to fall into with Not a Fan, especially because this is the path that is featured in the Not a Fan videos: the lead character, Eric, gets serious about Jesus and then leads his family to significantly downsize their lifestyle after quitting his lucrative job due to ethical concerns. It’s not only Not a Fan that inspires this unintended misconception; popular books like Crazy Love by Francis Chan do the same, as Crazy Love literally calls Christians to downsize their lives and even to move overseas for missions work. Along the same lines, I was involved in college ministry nearly a decade before Crazy Love and Not a Fan were released, and a concern I heard from many college students as they considered getting serious about Jesus was the worry that if they were serious about Jesus, God would send them to Africa as a missionary.


In the Bible’s account of Jesus’ ministry, it is remarkable to see Jesus’ instructions to different people who expressed interest in following Him. Let me give you two examples.


Example #1: The Rich Young Ruler. In Mark 10:17-31, we see the account of a man described as a “rich young ruler.” He is interested in Jesus and eternal life. Jesus tells him to “sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” (10:21) These instructions give the impression, along with similar accounts of Peter and Levi leaving everything and literally following Jesus (Luke 5:1-11, 27-28), that if we want to be completely faithful in following Jesus, we need to sell everything and make some sort of radical move.


Example #2: The Healed Demoniac. In Luke 8:26-39, we see the account of a man who had been possessed by demons to such a degree that he was a menace to society and lived in isolation. After Jesus healed him, this man “begged to go with him, but Jesus sent him away, saying, ‘Return home and tell how much God has done for you’” (8:38-39). So here is a man who wanted to leave everything and go with Jesus, but Jesus told him instead to go back to his family. Making this even more striking is the account a few paragraphs later of a couple of men who wanted to return to their families (for separate reasons) before following Jesus, and Jesus rebuked both of them for this desire (Luke 9:59-62).


How do we make sense of these examples that appear to conflict with one another? Simply put, Jesus does not call everyone the exact same way. A primary reason is that He knows what is in each of our hearts, and sometimes Jesus needs to confront an idol in a person’s life that would otherwise prevent that person from being dedicated to Him. I believe this is why Jesus told the rich young ruler to sell everything; He knew that wealth had such a grip on this man’s heart that this man would never be dedicated to Jesus while he was still serving money and possessions. Similarly, the two unnamed men in Luke 9 were prioritizing excuses and creature comforts over Jesus, so He called them out on it. But the fact that Jesus said “no” to a man who was passionately ready to follow Him in a literal sense shows that not everyone is called to turn their back on everything in their past.


This idea is validated when we look at how the early church lived. Most of them didn’t quit jobs or move. Some did, but most early Christians continued living in similar arrangements (especially housing and jobs) as they had prior to becoming Christians. At the same time, their priorities changed as they followed Jesus; one way this change was manifested was through sacrificial generosity, with some of them even selling extra houses or fields to support their fellow Christians who were struggling (Acts 4:34). That being said, contentment was a major Christian ideal (1 Timothy 6:6-10), and the apostle Paul told Christians in Thessalonica “to make it your ambition to lead a quiet life: You should mind your own business and work with your hands” (1 Thessalonians 4:11). This verse is certainly not calling all faithful Christians to move overseas or even out of their current house.


In place of Misconception #1, a better understanding is that Jesus calls us to surrender everything to Him, be willing to relinquish anything if He calls us to, be sacrificially generous to others, and live in a way that intentionally prioritizes God.



Misconception #2: If we want to follow Jesus wholeheartedly, we should only spend money on necessities, and nothing more.


There is much more that could be said about this topic than I have space or time to write here (and probably more than you have the attention span to absorb). For instance, there is much that could be said about the historical development of the idea that poverty and godliness go hand-in-hand. They do not. In fact, the famous prayer in Proverbs 30:8 says, “give me neither poverty nor riches.”


But it is important to avoid the ditch represented by Misconception #2. A primary reason is that if we fall into that ditch, we will probably feel guilty and ashamed anytime we have anything that is nice – a nicer car than we absolutely need, a nice vacation, a new pair of shoes, etc. Another problem of this ditch is that it easily becomes a cesspool of judgmentalism, which causes us to criticize others – even if only in our heart – if they get or experience something nice.


The road of following Jesus should include contentment. As 1 Timothy 6:6 says, “Godliness with contentment is great gain,” and Jesus was clear that a person cannot serve both God and money (Matthew 6:24). From these angles, I think the focus of Not a Fan is valuable for us in America, because our culture is very materialistic. Affluence is one of America’s most common idols. Therefore, for most Americans, if we want to follow Jesus wholeheartedly, we will need to release the idol of money. I can speak from experience that there is great freedom and spiritual vitality in not pursuing material possessions. I used to be incredibly materialistic, and there is great freedom and joy in not having my sense of identity, worth, and security tied to having and pursuing lots of nice stuff.


In place of Misconception #2, a better understanding is that Jesus calls us to worship Him alone (in terms of finding our ultimate sense of worth in Him); this gives us the freedom to enjoy the good things God has created without being enslaved to them for our sense of identity, worth, and security. This will also lead to a contentment that helps us be free of guilt when we make a wise purchase, and free of envy or judgmentalism when someone else has something nice.



Misconception #3: All Jesus wants of me is to believe that He died for my sins, and then I’m good.


This is a tricky one, because it is faith alone that reconciles a person with God (Ephesians 2:8-9). Yet the way the Gospel is sometimes presented, it is turned into a “Get Out Of Hell Free” card, where we just need to pray the “sinner’s prayer” or believe in Jesus’ death and resurrection, and then we are good. Frankly, this is not the Gospel. Or at least it’s a severely truncated Gospel compared to what is revealed in Scripture.


Misconception #3 is at the heart of Not a Fan. When we take the New Testament as a whole, it is clear that Jesus expects our livestyle to be impacted by our relationship with Him. The Gospel was not designed to merely be a “Get Out Of Hell Free” card; Jesus intends to transform our lives into His image. This is clear, for instance, in Mark 1:15 when Jesus said, “Repent and believe the good news!” Not only are we called to believe the “good news” (literally, the Gospel); we are called to repent, which speaks of the real-life change that happens when a person follows Jesus.


Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German pastor who was executed by the Nazis in a concentration camp. Before he died, he wrote a book called The Cost of Discipleship. In one section, he compared what he called “cheap grace” and “costly grace.” Bonhoeffer wrote: “Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without repentance.… Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross.… [It leads to the belief that] an intellectual assent [to the Gospel is] of itself sufficient to secure remission of sins. Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man will gladly go and sell all that he has. … Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. … Grace is costly because it compels a man to submit to the yoke of Christ and follow him; it is grace because Jesus says, ‘My yoke is easy and my burden is light.’”


In place of Misconception #3, a better understanding is that Jesus calls us follow Him, meaning that we not only call Him “Lord,” but we do what He says (see Luke 6:46). In this sense, we are living out the truth proclaimed by both Martin Luther and John Calvin, that “Faith alone saves, but saving faith is never alone,” meaning that true faith in Christ, which leads to salvation, is manifested in the way we live on a daily basis.



Conclusion


Jesus truly does call us to deny ourselves, take up our cross daily, and follow Him. This is a call to complete surrender. As Bonhoeffer said, “When Christ calls a man [or woman], he bids [them] come and die” – die to ourselves, our plans, our pleasures, our goals, our sins, our bitterness, our entitlement. Jesus promises that when we do this, we will experience a newness of life (Luke 9:24).


The process of following Jesus can be challenging and messy. We can see this messiness playing out in the Not a Fan videos. Making significant changes in our priorities and lifestyle can be difficult, especially when other people are involved and we are trekking into uncharted territory with God. Using the road metaphor, it can feel like the way ahead of us is a bit foggy. But if we know where the ditches are, it can give us confidence to continue moving forward in surrendering to Jesus.


In closing, one other ditch I will warn us about is the misconception that following Jesus sucks the joy out of life. Yes, there may be some awkwardness and uncertainty as we seek to follow Jesus, and some sacrifices may feel deeply unpleasant in the moment, but the result of following Jesus truly is joy, peace, and hope that nothing in this world can match.

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