The Joy of Being Left Behind

Releasing Children to Follow Jesus

A late middle-aged father is standing next to his boat and a pile of partly mended fishing nets, watching his two sons. He has always assumed that his sons would someday take over his fishing business and help provide for him and his wife when they grew too old to work. But now he watches them do something he never expected: they walk down the shoreline with a young rabbi who has called them to leave their fishing vocation — and their father — in order to follow him.

Suddenly, his envisioned future for him and his sons has become a swirl of uncertainty. What is he feeling? What are his sons feeling?

You may recognize this scene. It comes from Matthew 4:21–22:

Going on from there [Jesus] saw two other brothers, James the son of Zebedee and John his brother, in the boat with Zebedee their father, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him.

When I read this story as a younger man, I didn’t give much thought to Zebedee. I tended to put myself in the place of James and John, following Jesus into a future of fishing for men. The uncertainty of it all felt adventurous and exciting. But now, as a late middle-aged father of adult children, I can’t help but put myself in Zebedee’s place.

Recently, I was discussing with my twentysomething son and daughter-in-law the possible call they’re discerning to follow Jesus to another country for the sake of the gospel. I do feel excited for them, but it’s significantly different when the cost is not leaving to follow Jesus, but being left as my son follows Jesus. I find myself wanting to talk to Zebedee about his experience and get his counsel.

Unless You Hate Your Father

Zebedee’s experience casts these words of Jesus in a whole different light:

If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple. (Luke 14:26–27)

As a younger man, I mainly heard these words pertaining to my father and mother and siblings and friends. Now, I hear them significantly pertaining to me as a father. In order to follow Jesus faithfully, my children must “hate” me for his sake.

Of course, when Jesus says “hate” here, he’s not talking about the kind of affectional hatred we usually mean when we use that word. He’s talking about treasuring, as he does in this text:

No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money. (Matthew 6:24)

Jesus doesn’t mean here that we should feel revulsive animosity toward money. He’s saying we can’t treasure God and treasure money, because “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:21). The hatred Jesus is talking about looks like this:

The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. (Matthew 13:44)

The man in this parable doesn’t feel revulsive animosity toward “all that he has.” He just values the treasure he’s found more than all that he has. So, he “hates” his former possessions by selling them. He knows what’s most valuable and important.

To be a Christian father or mother means not only that we must treasure Jesus more than we treasure our earthly loved ones; it means we must joyfully accept being the object of our Christian child’s “hatred” in this sense. We are part of the “all” that our child is willing to “sell” for the joy of discovering the treasure that is Jesus.

Willing to Be ‘Hated’

As you probably know, we at Desiring God want you (and everyone) to be a Christian Hedonist. We believe the Bible clearly teaches that God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him. But there’s another side to Christian Hedonism. As we pursue our highest joy in God, we also help others pursue their highest joy in God. Which naturally means we want them to treasure God far above the way they treasure us.

The rubber meets the road most when it comes to fathers and mothers and other dear loved ones. There’s a real felt cost when we actively make difficult, even painful choices to treasure Jesus and his call on our lives more than those precious relationships.

But there’s also a real felt cost when we are on the passive side of such an equation — when we are the father or mother or loved one whom a Christian must “hate” (in the treasuring sense) in order to follow Jesus’s call on their lives. It’s a different experience to count ourselves among the earthly treasures someone must “sell” in order to pursue the joy of the supreme Treasure. It’s a different experience to be sacrificed than it is to sacrifice.

But it’s not any less Christian Hedonistic — not when we truly treasure our children’s pursuit of the greatest Treasure. As Jesus’s disciples, we too must “hate” lesser treasures we truly love (like our children’s nearness) in order to have him. Our willingness to be sacrificed is what this paradoxical hatred looks like from the passive side of the call, when we are not the ones leaving, but the ones who are left. At such a moment, we must keep in mind the whole nature of Jesus’s call:

If anyone comes to me and does not hate . . . even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple. (Luke 14:26–27)

Fellowship of the Left Behind

Releasing our children to follow Jesus’s kingdom call is part of how we, as parents, hate our own lives and bear our own cross for Jesus’s sake. And part of what makes his call paradoxical is that this “hating” is not affectional hatred at all. In fact, it’s what love looks like. For as my friend John Piper says,

Love is the overflow of joy in God that meets the needs of others. The overflow is experienced consciously as the pursuit of our joy in the joy of another. (Desiring God, 141)

So, in being left by our children as they pursue their highest joy in the greatest Treasure, we pursue the same prize by hating our own lives in this earthly age. It’s one way we join Jesus on the Calvary road of self-sacrifice for the joy set before us (Hebrews 12:2).

The Calvary road is not an easy road. Jesus told us that “the way is hard that leads to life” (Matthew 7:14). And one of the hard moments on this road is when we’re called to join Zebedee in the fellowship of the left behind, the lesser treasures who release loved ones to pursue their highest joy in the greatest Treasure.

But as it turns out, being left behind isn’t merely, or even mainly, passive — not when we turn this painful experience into an active pursuit of our own highest joy in our greatest Treasure.