Jim’s voice was a strange combination of wistfulness and challenge as he asked me, “Does Christ have favorites?” Why do some Christians radiate such joy while others seem so grim and uptight? Does Christ bless some people more than others?”
I resisted the temptation to answer until I knew what was behind the question. It was obvious that Jim was not putting me on. He really wanted to know. So I asked, “Jim, is that sort of a general question? Or do you have something more specific in mind?”
“Well,” he answered thoughtfully, “I guess it’s really my own personal question. Some Christians I know are vital and dynamic. But the Christian faith has never been that exciting to me. About six months ago, I heard you tell on television about the joy people in your church are discovering. So I decided to come and see for myself. I’ve been here every Sunday since. You’re right — there are a lot of joyful Christians here. What’s the secret?”
In just those few words, Jim had given me an important clue. He had been in the worship services for six months. That’s at least twenty-four Sundays in which an invitation had been given for people to commit their lives to Christ. I could have put him on the defensive by asking why he hadn’t responded, so I put my request a different way. “Jim, tell me, when did you become a Christian and what’s happened since?
“That’s just it…. I can’t pinpoint a time when I became a Christian.”
Jim went on to share a story I hear often. He had been raised in a church in his hometown, attended a Christian college, married a fine woman from a Christian family, and begun a career as an engineer. Now he has a lovely family, lives in a beautiful home, and appears to be a successful, respected person.
After hearing his story, I said, “My friend, week after week you’ve heard me talk about the secret of receiving Christ’s joy. I’ve said that fullness of joy is the result of receiving Christ’s love and forgiveness and being filled with His Spirit, and all we have to do to begin is accept His gift and give ourselves unreservedly to Him. How have you felt when you’ve heard me give that invitation?”
“Well, to be honest,” Jim said, “I’ve had a different question each week. What would my wife think? What would Christ require of me if I did commit my life to Him? Would my friends think I’d become a religious fanatic? Would I lose control of my life? By the time I’ve mulled over the question I pose to myself each week, the service is finished and I can put off the challenge until the next Sunday. But now I’ve run out of questions — excuses — I guess.”
Jim and I went on to talk a long time that day, and he did surrender his life to Christ. The joy he had longed for is being given him in greater measure than he’d imagined possible. And now he wonders why he had put it off so long. Unfortunately, churches are filled with people like Jim. They become so adept at evading Christ’s call to discipleship that they don’t hear it anymore.
The Conjunction That Resists
There’s a three-letter word, a conjunction of condition, that we use repeatedly to resist a two-word hard saying of Jesus, “Follow Me.” The word is “but.” We want to become His followers, but ….
Eventually, though, we “butt up” against our “buts.” We all have personal reasons for saying “but,” yet Jesus is constantly seeking to preempt our particular set of priorities with His call to follow Him. Our “buts” keep us from following Him. Actually, we try to preempt His priorities.
In Luke 9:57-62 we meet three men who responded to Jesus’ “Follow Me” with different expressions of reservation. The first two did not use the conjunction; yet it was expressed in their attitudes. The third stated his “but” quite openly. How Jesus dealt with all three shows us how He preempts our priorities. His responses give us three more hard sayings that reveal the deeper meaning of His call to commitment.
The Cost of Following the Master
The Master was on His way to Jerusalem and the cross. Now His oft-repeated “Follow Me” was quickened in intensity and urgency. It also carried much more demanding implications of the cost of discipleship. With Him were the inner circle of the disciples who had heard and responded to the call. Walking along were others who were still uncertain about their responses. Luke tells us that as they were on their way through Samaria enroute to Jerusalem, one Samaritan village refused to receive Jesus.
We join the group as they move on down the road, and we watch the reactions of the would-be followers. The first pushes his way through the group and pulls Jesus by the arm. Jesus stops and looks at him intently. The whole procession pauses to listen to their conversation.
“Lord, I will follow You wherever You go,” the man says proudly. We notice from his attire that he is a scribe.1 That’s quite a promise of faithfulness from one of the scribes who, along with the Pharisees, had so constantly disputed Jesus’ claims and so forcefully discredited His ministry. It must have taken a great deal of courage for him to leave the ranks of Jesus’ critics and join His groups of followers. Perhaps he had come along to get more evidence against Him. Whatever the case, he’s obviously had a change of attitude.
Jesus’ response is startling. “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head.” Isn’t that a bit abrupt for this scribe’s first expression of loyalty? But Jesus sees something we haven’t observed. We’re so satisfied with whatever little loyalty we’ve given Him and so delighted with the least response of people today that we want to compliment the scribe for the first stirring in him to be a follower. Not Jesus. He wanted the scribe to count the cost.
And He wanted something else. The scribes and Pharisees had rejected Jesus’ claim that He was the Messiah — the Son of Man — sent by God to reveal perfect manhood and with divine authority to judge and forgive sins. His deliberate use of the title “Son of Man” in His response to the scribe indicates that Jesus sensed what was lacking. Apparently, the scribe admired Jesus as an inspiring leader, but he hadn’t accepted His teaching. He was not committed to Jesus as the divine Son of Man. His “but” of reservation, though not spoken, was expressed by what he didn’t say.
Further, we sense that what troubled Jesus about the man was his self-assertiveness. While He hadn’t specifically said to the man, “Follow Me,” the scribe assumed he was worthy of that invitation.
Jesus often confronted this kind of human presumption. This man obviously had his own set of personal priorities. Probably he was still preoccupied with his religious legalism and traditionalism. He had not come to grips with what Jesus had clearly said about being “delivered into the hands of men” (Luke 9:44), the inevitability of the cross, and the childlike humility He wanted as the measure of greatness in His followers (Luke 8:48).
This scribe is like so many Christians today whose religious enthusiasm or participation in the church has become their best defense against making an unreserved commitment of their total lives to Christ.
A Life-Changing Personal Experience
I know. My own early years as a Christian were filled with self-generated religious enthusiasm rather than self-surrendering, honest commitment. I was carried along by the excitement of being part of a movement with adventuresome friends. When I went to New College in Edinburgh, Scotland, to complete my postgraduate studies, my relationship to Christ was bordered north, south, east, and west by Lloyd. My inner need to have Christ transform my personality had been avoided in the frantic rush of Christian activities, meetings, and the thrill of being a clergyperson. With all of this busyness, I hadn’t really faced my deep need for the transforming power of Christ’s cross, nor had I taken up my own cross of absolute obedience.
One day in a class taught by Thomas Torrence, I evaded the penetrating thrust of his teaching with carefully stated questions. Dr. Torrence saw my need. “Mr. Ogilvie, you can’t sneak around Golgotha. You must die!”
I listened in shocked attention while my professor explained what it meant to die to self — pride, plans, priorities, personality. It meant giving over my total life to Christ, including my insecurity, which came across in self-assertiveness. With the surrender of my life, Christ’s death for me on Calvary would not only become real, but my only hope.
After the class, Dr. Torrence helped me to make the surrender he’d described so vividly. That was the beginning of authentic joy for me. What happened that winter day in 1955 was only the beginning of the ever-increasing joy I’ve experienced through the years.
It also accounts for why, throughout my ministry, I’ve shared, taught, and preached the absolute necessity of death to self as an irreducible requisite in any authentic commitment to Christ. We must die with Him in our own Calvary before we can be raised with Him in a resurrection to new life and an infilling of His Spirit.
I see the transforming power of that experience as the great need in contemporary Christianity in America. The lack of that death to self and subsequent infilling of the Spirit explains the powerlessness of so many church people. It also accounts for the absence of joyous discipleship. Churches are overpopulated with people like the scribe whose self-motivated religion was keeping him from true commitment. The obstacle is an unspoken, but firmly held, defensive “but.”
Secondary Loyalties
Let’s rejoin Jesus on the road to Jerusalem as He turns to another man and gives the clarion call, “Follow Me.” We wonder at the man’s glib response, “Lord, let me first go and bury my father.” Since the man has been traveling with Jesus for several days and since people were usually buried before sunset of the day of their death, it seems improbable that the man’s father had died that morning. Had the man joined Jesus’ band with the intention of leaving momentarily to go home for the burial? That’s unlikely.
Rather, the man was using a proverbial saying about the tradition of caring for an aged person until death. The saying is still used today in the Middle East. What the man meant was, “I want to follow You, Master, but I have an aged father. I must take care of him until he dies. Then I will follow You as Your disciple.” While his father was alive, he would not leave him to follow Jesus.
Now we can understand why Jesus answered the man the way he did: “Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and preach the Kingdom of God.” The obvious meaning of the proverb “Let the dead bury the dead” is that the spiritually dead should bury the physically dead. Jesus has met the man on his level: a proverb for a proverbial saying. He sees the man’s easy dexterity with glib excuses. If he is that concerned with care for his father, why is he not at home now?
What does this exchange mean to us? For one thing, it certainly exposes our quickly worded excuses, whatever they are. On a deeper level, however, I can’t help but ask if Jesus would call us to neglect our family responsibilities. Most of us have obligations to family and friends. Are we to walk away from these duties to serve Christ?
The Real Issue
It’s what we put first that is the real issue. Jesus confronts us with the absolute necessity of making our commitment to Him and then sharing His love with others as our first priority. Then we can seek His will for our responsibilities to the people of our lives. Whenever anyone becomes more important to us than Jesus, we have made that person a little god. And when his or her plans for us, opinions of us, or reservations about how we live our faith dominate our thinking, we lose our freedom to follow Christ.
So often, people in our lives try to control us by affirming or criticizing our behavior. And because our feelings of insecurity create in us such a desperate need for their approval, we are tempted to let their opinions determine the shape of our commitment to Christ.
When that is allowed to happen, both we and the people around us suffer. We use them as excuses for not following Christ and His priorities unreservedly. Then we have very little to give them. But when we put Him first, He fills us with His love and power. Then we are equipped to care more profoundly and to serve more unselfishly than when we put people before Christ.
A woman who had fought her husband’s commitment to Christ later said, “I lost a husband I could control and manipulate and gained a free man who loves and cares for me in a way beyond my fondest dreams. When I saw what Christ did with my husband when he put Him first, I wanted to find the same joy. Finally that led me to Christ. I shudder to think what might have happened if my husband had given in to my badgering. Think what I would have missed!”
That challenges us to think of people whom we have allowed to hold us back. And what about people we may be keeping from pulling out all the stops as followers of Christ?
I remember a “Christian” marketing analyst who told me I’d never make it as a television communicator unless I changed my thrust from Christ-centered, biblical messages to more acceptable “pop” psychology. My answer was, “If changing what I’ve done for thirty years is the price of easy success, then I’m prepared not to make it. But I’m counting on the fact that people in America long for Christ’s love and power. I’d rather raise the spiritually dead than bury the spiritually dead!”
The Trouble with Looking Backward
Let’s look in again on the band of disciples and inquirers who were walking along the road with Jesus. After a time He turned to another potential disciple and said, “Follow Me.” This man’s excuse tumbled out almost as quickly as the previous man’s equivocation. Note, however, that his “but” is not implied; it is flatly stated. “Lord, I will follow You, but let me first go and bid them farewell who are at my house.”
Upon first hearing, that sounds like the excuse of the second man. He has to take care of an aging father; this one has to say goodbye to his family and friends at home. We discover the difference in their excuses from Jesus’ discerning response. To this third man He says, “No one, having put his hand to the plow, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God.” In answering as He did, Jesus gives us another one of His hard sayings.
In our mind’s eye we can see what would happen if a person looked back while plowing a furrow. The furrow would be crooked. Plowing a straight furrow requires keeping the eyes focused on a point out ahead. Jesus’ words “looking back” really mean “constantly looking back” in the Greek. Anyone who plowed that way through a field would surely run a zigzag course.
By use of this simple agricultural proverb, Jesus has given this man and us a very profound spiritual truth. Constantly looking back makes us unfit for the demanding challenges of not only the future, but the present. The word for “fit” in Greek is euthetos, meaning “ready for use, adapted, well-placed.” The man who wants to go home to say farewell to his family, friends and neighbors isn’t really ready to follow Jesus as the leader of his life. He is more concerned about what he has to leave behind.
The Master sees beneath the words of the man’s “but.” He understands with divine insight what’s in the man’s heart. If he goes home, he will probably never come back. Jesus senses that he wants to go home to do more than say farewell. The word “farewell” in Greek is apotaxasthai from apotasso. It means “to detach” or “to separate,” but it also can be used as a military term for assignments to a detachment of soldiers.
I suspect the man wants to straighten out his relationships so he can be sure everything will go according to his plans. Perhaps he has some broken relationships to mend and perhaps some hurts to heal. Here is a man who has his anchor stuck in the mud of the unforgiven and the unresolved. He is thinking about the past rather than the future.
So often we set limits on our own response to Jesus because of what’s happened to us in the past. We constantly try to “fix it” with either guilt or self-justification. Again and again, we go back over unhealed memories or make a determined effort to repeat past successes. We constantly try to atone for the first and draw false security from the second. We make the past a haunting monster or a false idol. In either case, we are still in control and constantly looking back. What we miss is the sublime opportunity of the present and the exciting adventure of the future.
Like this third man, a lot of us find it difficult to accept Christ’s forgiveness for past failures. We think there’s something more we can do to set things right. It is no less debilitating to hang onto our glories of our past, thinking we have to achieve continued success to qualify for the kingdom. And equally frustrating is our inability to entrust to Christ the future welfare of loved ones. We entertain the idea that they won’t make it unless we remain in charge of their destiny.
When we’re looking for excuses to resist a commitment to Christ, there are so many worthy things that we can say we must do before we surrender our lives. And after we have committed our lives, it’s equally tempting to think that Christ has stopped loving us because of something we’ve done and that He will return His acceptance only after we complete some act that we’ve set up as a qualification.
The Joy of Surrendering Our Excuses
We all have our own personal, carefully rehearsed brand of “buts” in response to Christ’s hard saying “Follow Me.” We don’t know what happened to those three men on the road after they offered their excuses, and that doesn’t matter. What’s important is how we respond. After the three men in our story have turned away, the Master looks at us. Suddenly we know that no excuse will work. We long for the joy and peace that only unreserved response to Him makes possible. And with all our hearts we cry out,
The dearest idol I have known,
Whate’er that idol be;
Help me to tear it from Thy throne,
And worship only thee.2
The Greatest Miracle
I opened with the story of Jim’s excuses and final breakthrough to the joy of commitment. Mary’s story, though different, also shows what can happen when Christ overcomes our excuses.
“It’s got to be a miracle!” Mary said to me after a Sunday morning service. “I’ve been on a quest for an authentic spiritual life for years. A hunger’s been gnawing at me, an anxious longing to know the Lord. But I’ve been afraid of what it might cost me. I’ve tried so many churches and so many self-help, human potential groups. Nothing seemed to work. Christ’s words “Follow Me” still haunted me.
“A few weeks ago one of your members invited me to come here to church with her. For five weeks I’ve listened to your invitation to commit my life to Christ. And today I couldn’t remain in my pew any longer. I got up, went forward, and accepted Christ’s call. Now He is my Savior and Lord. And He’s got all of me that there is.”
Many people think of miracles as some physical healing or impossible intervention in some problem. For Mary, after all the years of searching and making excuses, the greatest miracle was that she could respond. She had thought it was something she had to do. Actually, the Lord set her free to surrender her life. And with all the resistance of the years, it’s amazing that He got through to her so she could hear that she is loved, forgiven, and cherished. And now that she’s responded she says, “I feel great all over. It’s a real miracle!”
1. “A certain scribe,” Matthew 8:19.
2. William Cowper, O for a Closer Walk with God, 1772
From The Other Jesus by Lloyd Ogilvie. Copyright (c) 1986 by Word, Inc. Used by permission.

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