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 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)
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)