Dangerous Gospel: Hating Your Family, by Jonathan Storment
Of all the disturbing things that Jesus says, the top of the list for most Western people has got to be, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple.”
For the longest time, I was embarrassed by what seemed to be an over the top requirement for what it means to be a disciple. I have more than once, heard preachers wax eloquent around this verse and before they were done with it Jesus was towing the Dr. Dobson line again.
Isn’t Jesus after all, a big family guy?
And yet there it is, in red letters and everything, Jesus telling us to hate our family and follow Him. So what do we do with that?
I have been doing a review of John Nugent’s great new book Endangered Gospel for the past few weeks, and how Nugent dealt with this passage is one of the points that I appreciated the most in the book.
Here is what he says:
In English, the word “hate” is extremely strong. It carries tremendous emotional weight. Given the opportunity, many people would go out of their way to hurt someone they hated. We certainly don’t use the word “hate” lightly. Like its counterpart, “love,” we try to use it sparingly. This is not how this language functions in Scripture. In much of Scripture, to “love” means to choose, while to “hate” means to leave unchosen. To love is to prioritize; to hate is not to prioritize. In this sense, God loved Jacob and hated Esau (Mal 1:2–3), and Jacob loved Rachel and hated Leah (Gen 29:30–33). Though God cared for and even prospered both men, only Jacob was chosen to carry forward God’s promise to Abraham. Though Jacob provided for and fathered sons with both wives, Rachel was the wife he chose and therefore favored. To love people is to direct more of our time, energy, and resources toward them. To hate people, in this sense, means to give comparatively less of our time, energy, and resources to them. Such hatred does not mean that someone is loathsome to us or that we shouldn’t honor them. To feel hated is to feel left out while others are included. Jesus sometimes made his family feel that way.
Nugent’s point throughout the book, is that Christians have, for a variety of reasons stopped prioritizing the Christian community. By our unintentional neglect we have created a kind of lukewarm fellowship that may keep the institutional doors open, but does little else because we have all chosen something else.
It is not, by this definition, atheists and secular people who hate the church, as much as it is the Christians who have better things to do than share their time with other Christians for a deep and different kind of fellowship.
This may sound harsh and judgmental, but I don’t mean it that way, and I certainly wouldn’t say it if it wasn’t in the Gospels. But it is, and I think Nugent is right in the way he explains it.
To be clear, I’m not saying this as a pastor, trying to grow my church so that more people will hear my wonderful sermons. I’m not trying to get Jesus to endorse the particular institutional model of church that I adhere to. I’m talking about the global world-wide church in all her forms.
From the church that meets under Mango trees and in strip malls and in Cathedrals, old malls and around living room tables, whatever shape Christian community looks like in your life…embrace that wholeheartedly.
Interestingly enough, the reason Jesus says this is because the crowds that are following Him are getting too big, and Jesus is trying to help people know just what they are signing up for.
His very next sentence is that anyone who follows Him must take up a cross, and that is not nearly as offensive, because none of us have a cross, but most all of us have a family.
He goes on to make clear, this way of life, isn’t for everyone. It certainly isn’t something to be mandated or legislated. Who could force someone to love a group of people who were so different than them in so many ways?
Jesus is saying this way of life, this community is both a gift and a choice. He just wants us to make sure we know what we are signing up for.
Here’s Nugent Again:
Such talk about loving and hating, prioritizing some and not others may seem a bit over the top. Why draw such sharp lines? Why not just love everyone equally? Why not embrace the universal family of all God’s creatures?… [Because] The church’s primary mission is to cultivate a life together that is itself the better place into which God invites all people. The church is called to be the one space where self-giving love bubbles over in abundance regardless of birth family, social standing, and personal accomplishments. It is the kingdom of God breaking into world history. People will never experience true love in our midst if kingdom citizens attempt to spend their affections equally upon all people everywhere or concentrate their time, energy, and resources on blood relatives or some other affinity group.
This rubs Western people the wrong way, we love to keep our options open, and we tend to believe that unlimited options are a divine right given to all.
But at least let’s be honest, this kind of life comes at a steep cost.
The Paradox of Choice
Maybe you saw this TED talk by Barry Schwartz a few years ago called “The Paradox of Choice” Schwartz talks about all the benefits of choice, and the many ways that the world has improved by the options that we all have these days.
But then he points out that for all the benefits our ever-widening possibilities have given us, they have also given us a kind of analysis paralysis. We can do anything, and so we often are left with an overwhelming weight of indecisive immobility.
And so Schwartz ends his TED on the paradox of choice with the image of a fish in a fishbowl, and he asks: How free is that fish?
Yes, of course the fish is confined, but to shatter the fishbowl, to remove all constraints, would not improve the fish’s situation. In fact, it would destroy it.
Schwartz says, “The absence of some metaphorical fishbowl is a recipe for misery, and, I suspect, for disaster.”
I think this is why Jesus creates a community before He dies and asks us to lay down our lives serving one another. He knows the human heart. He knows how easy it is for us to view ourselves as loving people, without having to love real actual people.
Jesus is trying to create a community of differences that are trumped by their allegiance to Him. It is a community that honors the shamed, prioritizes the forgotten, celebrates the wounded, and shares life together.
Just yesterday I heard one of our church leaders tell a small crowd of people interested in joining the church I serve that he grew up in a family that wasn’t very loving, and was often critical. And he told them that he was closer to the people in his small group than he was his biological family, and he thanked God that they taught him how to be loved and be loving.
Can I tell you, as a pastor, one of my greatest privileges in life? Time and time again I have done the funeral of a senior saint, and their kids have told me something that sounded like this, “When we were growing up, mom or dad made our life so frustrating. Whenever our team had a game on Sunday, or there was some event on a Wednesday night we knew that we couldn’t make it, because we had church.
They might complain about those times that they had to go and mow the widow’s lawn and weren’t allowed to get paid, or those times they had to go along to the hospital to visit someone who was sick.
They tend to laugh about all the stuff that they had to miss, and then they almost always say something like this, “And at the time we didn’t get it, but now we do. Now that we are giving our mom or dad back to God and the living cloud of witnesses, we understand. They were teaching us what really mattered, they were teaching us who really mattered, and we wouldn’t trade that for the world.”
They were teaching them how to love, and according to Jesus, how to hate.