The Cost of Following God
By: Alistair Brown
I didn’t set out to become President of a seminary. I didn’t plan to live in the United States. But God has often caught me by surprise, with purposes that were never in my mind. I’ve never been disappointed before and won’t be now.
I took up this work exactly a year ago. I don’t pretend to know everything about Northern, and in fact never will. (If the senior figure knows everything going on in an organization, then it’s either a very small organization or he/she is doing work best left to others.) But I know a lot more than I did, and I have brilliant colleagues who honor my position, give me honest feedback, and work hard out of a deep commitment to Northern’s mission. We’re getting there!
I’ve also come to know great students. Northern’s students range in age from early 20s to an age people don’t like to mention. Our main intakes are from those in their 20s and those in their late 40s or early 50s. Let me divert to say that I went once to be fitted for a new golf driver. I was handed a club to try, and my first shot went way off right and my second went way off left, at which point the golf pro muttered, “On average, then, you’re straight down the middle.” Averages, I learned, can be misleading. So it would be misleading to say Northern’s average new students are in their 30s, but some are.
Not many are full-time. Northern’s students mostly commute in after work, typically for classes at 4 pm or 7 pm. They get my respect big time. After a long day at work, they grab a coffee and sit down to learn in class, perhaps go to the library afterwards, and only then drive home. When they’ve no classes, they’ll be reading or doing an assignment. They work hard.
Many accept a lot of sacrifices to follow their call. Time is given up. And, though Northern has many ways to help, there is financial cost. But they accept these things. Following God’s leading isn’t a leisure cruise, and the ministry that lies in the future won’t be without its own collection of hardships.
So here’s my question. Despite all I’ve written, from some people I still hear words like, “I know God wants me to train for ministry, but it’s a lot of work and a lot of cost. I don’t think I can do that.” How can someone know God’s call on their life and sidestep it because it will involve sacrifice?
These things seem to me always true:
First, that a life owned by God is his, always and completely his. He decides direction, purpose, duration, and cost, and none of those are up for rejection or negotiation. When I was young my family didn’t have a car. But my aunt, my mother’s sister, told my parents, “I’m giving you my car to use. Go on outings, vacation, trips to church or store. However, please remember that it is my car so I will need it back when I have something else I want to do with it.” That last point was fair for it was her car. We got to use it most of the time, but she could take it back when there was something she needed it for. When we tell God “I’m giving you my life…” are we adding “but it is my life, so I can take it back when I want to do something else with it”? Or, rather, we take it back when he plans something with it and we don’t like the direction or the cost?
Second, that there is no discipleship without sacrifice. Jesus said following him would always involve a cross. There would be death to self. A cross means pain. It hurts to deny self. I worry how many evangelists ‘sold’ Christianity to us as a great experience, a deep joy, an answer to life’s struggles, and didn’t fill in the rest of the picture. Knowing and following Jesus is wonderful, but laying down my own ambitions, living years of hardship, finding your ministry unappreciated, will never feel fun. Following Jesus costs a lot.
So, are those of us who are preachers telling it like it really is? Are we giving the whole picture of discipleship? And when we hear people wondering if they can face the cost of following God’s call, are we helping them accept the realities of what it means to have died to self and to live for God?
Are any of us who are facing a hard choice open to hearing from God, doing his will no matter what? Or are we really open only to God’s will when it fits with our will?
I don’t always live out the right answer to my own questions. But I try.
It’s about 18 months ago now that we began to tell friends that we believed God was calling us to a new role which meant moving from the UK to the States. People learned that meant we’d be giving up our homeland, letting go all the normal securities, being separated from our support structures of friends and church, and leaving four children and two grandchildren behind. Many said, “I don’t think I could do that”. I understood why they said those words. Yet I don’t understand how they could say those words. The call of God is non-negotiable, no matter what.