The Hardest Choice: The Freedom and Fear of Following Christ

As Jesus went on from there, He saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax office, and He said to him, “Follow Me!” So he got up and followed Him. (Matthew 9:9)

I overheard the conversation between two women. The tone was incensed, the content clearly juicy. One woman spoke of her nephew and how he had broken his mother’s heart.

The irresponsibility of it, she said. The thoughtlessness. How could he do such a thing! How could he be so selfish?

What, I wondered, had this prodigal son done? I pictured a young man on drugs, or joining a gang, or walking out on his marriage. A long-haired twentysomething dropout giving his parents the finger as he pursues his own way at any cost.

But then, somewhere in the course of the gossip, she dropped the actual facts of the matter. They weren’t what I imagined.

The young man in question had moved to a foreign country overseas, taking his wife and three young children with him, to serve as a missionary in response to God’s call.

The Call of Matthew, Down through the Ages

Last week I wrote about the call of Matthew and all it truly entailed, from leaving behind a substantial financial investment to abandoning responsibility to the Roman Empire itself.

To outsiders Matthew’s behavior surely looked irresponsible. In a way, it was. But it wasn’t reckless or selfish. This was not a matter of self-gratification. Matthew wasn’t using the lordship of Jesus as license to do whatever he wanted.

Rather, Matthew’s call — which rings down through the ages and touches every Christian generation, every Christian individual, if we’re listening — reflects the reordering of an entire life based on one truth: if Jesus is Lord, then we are responsible to him.

Every other priority, every other pull on our hearts and our lives, must be placed inside of this perspective.

Jesus summed up this exchange in the Sermon on the Mount:

So don’t worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ For the idolaters eagerly seek all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things will be provided for you. (Matthew 6:31-33)

Tremendously freeing, such a call is also fearsome. It simultaneously sets us free from the world and binds us to God.

And God can, does, and will call us to act in accordance with his lordship.

“Go and Repair My House”

About the year 1202, a young man from a wealthy Italian family sat in prison, sick and reflective. Only twenty years old, up until now he had lived the carefree life of a handsome and witty teenage boy with money and friends, whose greatest concerns were popularity, music, and fine clothing.

Then, like many romantics his age, he’d outfitted himself as a knight and gone charging into a military squabble between Italian city-states. The battle went badly. He was taken prisoner, then locked up in a dungeon until his father could raise a ransom.

Released a year later, the young man went home and resumed his old lifestyle, but something had changed. He seemed distracted, dissatisfied. He became ill again and then had some kind of supernatural vision.

As his priorities shifted, he began giving to beggars out of his family’s wealth, causing ongoing friction with his father. But more and more, his thoughts turned toward the gospel and the call of discipleship.

In 1206, the story goes, the young man was praying in a run-down chapel in San Damiano when he heard Christ speak to him and say, “Go and repair My house which, as you can see, is falling into ruins.”

Later that year, his father dragged him into court to demand restitution for all his son had given to the poor and spent on rebuilding the chapel. In response, Francis of Assisi stripped himself naked, handed his expensive clothes back to his father, and renounced his inheritance. From that day on, he fully embraced the call of discipleship as he perceived it.

Francis’s life before his conversion was not necessarily a life of sin. His family were churchgoing people with an honest trade. He had a responsibility to the family business. He was set to inherit good things.

But he left it all, following a path that certainly looks irresponsible and perhaps at times was, to obey to the best of his ability what he heard God saying. At the time almost everyone thought he had lost his mind.

Centuries later, he is considered one of the greatest reformers and evangelists the church has ever known.

“We Follow Far Off”

One of my personal heroes, Amy Carmichael, was born in Northern Ireland in 1867. Through her work in India she would become of the best-known missionaries of the “the Great Century,” an unprecedented era of Protestant missionary work. But as a young woman she was taken up with other responsibilities.

Amy’s father died when she was only eighteen, and as the oldest of seven children, it fell on her to help her mother hold the family together, financially and emotionally. She undertook the task with good will and ingenuity.

Within a few years the family met Robert Wilson, an influential Quaker they called the “D.O.M.” — the “Dear Old Man.” He became a fast friend to all of them, but especially to Amy. Wilson, who had lost both his wife and a daughter Amy’s age several years before, informally adopted her. He helped provide for her and her family, and he gave her spiritual and practical guidance.

In return, Amy lived in his household and provided him with companionship and practical help in his ministry. She fully intended to remain with him until he died.

But on January 13, 1892, twenty-five-year-old Amy heard the unmistakable call of God to go overseas and undertake missions work among “the heathen.” It was simultaneously thrilling — an answer to the deepest cries of her heart — and absolutely heart-rending for everyone concerned.

Amy felt as though she were abandoning her mother and siblings and breaking faith with her adopted father. Plenty of other people thought so too, and they weren’t shy about saying it.

In a letter, she wrote to her mother,

Mother, isn’t is strange how though we sing so often,

Not my own, oh not my own!
Jesus, I belong to Thee,

we live it so little. We are very much our own, we don’t live as strangers and pilgrims at all, and when the call comes to one to leave all and follow, it seems strange to us. Oh that we may die, not in mere hymn and prayer, but in deed and in truth, to ourselves, to our self-life and self-love. I never knew what it meant before — dead to all one’s natural earthly plans and hopes, dead to all voices, however dear, which would deafen our ears to His — alive unto God. When I think of Christ’s life in its utter self-death, and then think of ours, of mine, the contrast is too terrible. We Christians have been trying to get as much as ever we could out of this life, we have followed our Saviour, it seems to me, very, very far off.

Amy answered the call. Despite lingering bad health and numerous setbacks, she began missionary work in India in 1896 and stayed there until her death in 1951 — fifty-five years without a furlough. The work she began there remains.

The Hardest Choice

Following Jesus means reordering our priorities and being willing to leave things that used to direct us behind.

This is not hard to see when it comes to leaving behind a life of sin or of obviously detrimental behaviors — when the choice is exchanging an obvious “bad” for an obvious “good.” The choice between pigpen and palace is a no-brainer.

The harder choice — perhaps the hardest choice — comes when the call is between one good thing and another good thing, when we are called to leave behind that which seems right to us in order to embrace that which is calling to us.

Matthew made the hardest choice. So did Francis of Assisi. So did Amy Carmichael. So have many others — in more dramatic ways and in less dramatic. They exchanged the responsibilities of a normal life in this world for the higher responsibility of obedience to God in whatever shape that presented itself.

Peter, who himself made the hardest choice when he walked away from his fishing nets to follow Jesus, speaks of the freedom and the fear of following Jesus in his epistle to the diaspora, 1 Peter 1-2:

And if you address as Father the One who judges impartially based on each one’s work, you are to conduct yourselves in fear during the time of your temporary residence. For you know that you were redeemed from your empty way of life inherited from the fathers, not with perishable things like silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without defect or blemish.

This being the case, Peter assures us that it’s not just a matter of kicking off all restraints. Again, the call to follow is not a call to license or reckless irresponsibility. Rather, we should live honorably among our neighbors and bring glory to God.

As God’s slaves, live as free people, but don’t use your freedom as a way to conceal evil. Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the Emperor.

But when God calls, follow. When your responsibilities to God mean turning your back on the world’s demands, turn your back. Living this way may bring suffering, Peter says, especially when our responsibilities to God clash with our apparent responsibilities to the world. But this too is part of fearing and following God.

For you were called to this,
because Christ also suffered for you,
leaving you an example,
so that you should follow in His steps.
(1 Peter 2:21)


I would love to hear from you. Scroll down to leave a comment below!

This is Part 116 in a series on the Gospel of Matthew, which you can access here. Unless otherwise marked, quotes are from the Holman Christian Standard Bible.

By the way, I cowrote a book on living free from fear that talks a lot about the fear of the Lord. You can still get it for free from Amazon, but not for much longer … we have nearly reached our goal of giving away 10,000 free copies. Get yours here: Fearless: Free in Christ in an Age of Anxiety.


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