When I heard God’s call and went into full-time Christian ministry back in 1987, I was only 22 and fresh out of university. Young and idealistic about God’s plans for me and how I might used by Him to change the world, I thought I was willing to go anywhere and do anything for Jesus.
At the time, I didn’t have much. My parents gave me a nice used car for college graduation and everything I owned in the world fit inside. Following Jesus into the great unknown cost me nearly nothing in terms of worldly goods and treasures. I had almost nothing to lose because I had almost nothing.
After being in ministry for almost three decades, I’ve met several people who have left comfortable, respected, and lucrative jobs to answer the call of Christ and go into full-time ministry. Many took huge pay cuts and had to radically alter their former ways of life. When Jesus calls, He bids us come and die—die to sin, die to self. But wrapped up in that simple call is the reality that this death includes a lot of forsaking and leaving behind the things of this world as well.
When I went into ministry, I didn’t yet know what it would ultimately cost me. In many ways, I still don’t. But those who leave good jobs, material wealth, and comfortable lifestyles know all too well what they are leaving behind. And they choose to follow Jesus anyway.
James—the names are fictitious, the situations are not—was offered a rare and coveted teaching position at a Christian university near friends and family in the US. He turned it down so he could continue to raise his own meager support and teach at an obscure and struggling school in Asia instead. After ten years of living and teaching there, his wife nearly died, suffering permanent lung damage because of the perpetual toxic air pollution.
Mark left a successful and lucrative medical career and joined a Christian ministry where he had to raise his own salary—enough for his family of nine! He not only left behind the perks and privileges of a comfortable life, he moved his wife and seven children to a crowded, polluted, and “developing” country overseas where he didn’t speak the language.
Luke left a prestigious teaching position at a respected world-class university where his three children would have been able to attend for free. Why? So he could raise support to teach at a university in Asia no one has ever heard of. To add insult to injury, the school disrespected and discounted his area of research expertise. But he knew he was called and remained steadfast in the midst of the discouraging trials.
To count the cost assumes you have something to count, and the more you have to count, the more it’s going to cost you. None of these opportunities and temptations ever crossed my path. Perhaps God knew if I ever was given the chance or found myself in a comfortable situation with an enjoyable job and a fat paycheck, I would never have had the strength to walk away. He saved me from myself and taught me I could live on less before I ever had much to hang on to or give up.
The Apostle Paul, like many of my friends, gave up a lucrative and promising career to follow Jesus. In Philippians 3 he describes all those earthly things as detritus and dung compared to what he gained: rich fellowship with Christ and deep spiritual maturity.
Paul understood that the life we’re truly made for is not one filled with earthly effects and custom comforts. We’re made for intimacy with God. And that only comes through obedience to His call to take up our cross daily and follow Jesus. Just as Jesus gave his life away, we are asked to also come and die.
No one understood this better than Jesus Himself. When He told his disciples that it profits a person nothing to gain the whole world and forfeit one’s soul, it was not a theoretical proposition. Satan, the god of the world, offered Jesus exactly that—the whole world—if He would only forsake His divine calling to give His life away for the salvation of the world.
This is the message of Christmas and this is why Jesus was later described by the author of Hebrews as enduring the cross for the glory and honor of obeying God even unto death. He understood the reasons for His death and so was able to face it with reluctant though still willing resolve.
Dying is never easy, but it’s easier when we understand not only the cost, but also the gain. As we obey, God promises sweet fellowship with Him and an eternal glory that far outweighs all other earthly gains. That’s a price worth paying, no matter the cost.