For which of you, intending to build a tower, sitteth not dawn first, and counteth the cost, whether he have sufficient to finish it? Lest haply, after he hath laid the foundation, and is not able to finish it, all that behold it begin to mock him, Saying, This man began to build, and was not able to finish (Luke 14:28-30).
Jesus instructed us to count the costs of our dreams and actions. This is a crucially important principle in every area of life. It is not easy to follow this principle. When we do accurately count the costs of our decisions, however, our success becomes far more attainable. Much of the wealth of the modern world is based on the fourteenth-century invention of double-entry bookkeeping. It was no easy task to discover a means of counting the costs of a business’s operations. Double-entry bookkeeping literally revolutionized the world.
Jesus warned us to count the costs in advance. Counting them retroactively can produce a disaster, He said. It can lead to one’s public humiliation. But how can we count anything in advance? We cannot do this with great accuracy. We see the future as through a glass, darkly (I Cor. 13:12). At best, we can make informed estimates about future costs and benefits. We should do our best to consider everything we can think of that might go wrong with our plans. We should acknowledge the reality of the anonymous Murphy’s world-famous law: “If anything can go wrong, it will.” Also its corollary: “At the worst possible time.”
Because men are self-centered, believing that they deserve the best that this world has to offer — and also the next world — we tend to overestimate the future benefits of our actions. Similarly, we tend to underestimate the costs. We think that net returns to us will normally be positive and high. This is a very risky assumption, Jesus warned. To overcome this tendency toward high-risk ventures, He admonished us to estimate the costs. The text indicates that the bad things that can happen to us should be our focus in constructing our plans. That is to say, the good things will take care of themselves. It was Adam’s sin that he refused to count the costs, while he simultaneously over-estimated the benefits. In a sin-filled world, the bad things that can happen should be at the center of our attention as we formulate our plans. This is a fundamental biblical principle of success: try to eliminate the likelihood of the bad things that might reasonably happen. This principle is encapsulated in the investor’s motto: “Cut your losses, and let your profits run.”
Today, we are told about the power of positive thinking. Liberal preacher Norman Vincent Peale — a member of a denomination that is formally Calvinist — wrote a best-selling book with this title in the early 1950’s. This outlook is basic to what is sometimes called the “think and grow rich” movement, the title of a famous book by Napoleon Hill. This movement has proclaimed an almost mystical-magical view of positive thinking: mind over matter, mind over history. This is utterly opposed to Jesus’ message in Luke 14. We are to plan rationally, not visualize hopefully. We are to focus our attention in advance on the bad things that might thwart our plans. We are not to be overwhelmed by the thought of the bad things that can happen, any more than Jesus was overwhelmed at the prospects of His crucifixion. We are to make contingency plans to overcome these bad possibilities. But we totally misread the Scriptures if we see the story of the garden of Gethsemane–the Second Adam’s garden of ethical testing–as “Jesus Goes on a Picnic.” It should be called instead: “Jesus Makes a Depressing Cost-Benefit Estimate.”
Underestimating the Costs of Leadership
It is not easy to count the costs. What is all too easy is to underestimate them. Consider the estimate made by James and John, the sons of Zebedee (Matt. 4:1), regarding the costs of leadership.
Then came to him the mother of Zebedee’s children with her sons, worshipping him, and desiring a certain thing of him. And he said unto her, What wilt thou? She saith unto him, Grant that these my two sons may sit, the one on thy right hand, and the other on the left, in thy kingdom. But Jesus answered and said, Ye know not what ye ask. Are ye able to drink of the cup that I shall drink of, and to-be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with? They say unto him, We are able. And he saith unto them, Ye shall drink indeed of my cup, and be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with: but to sit on my right hand, and on my left, is not mine to give, but it shall be given to them for whom it is prepared of my Father (Matt. 20:20-23).
They would both drink of His cup, they assured Him confidently. Yet what was Jesus’ own assessment of this price, the estimate He made in Gethsemane? “And he went a little farther, and fell on his face, and prayed, saying, O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me: nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt” (Matt. 26:39). He had accurately counted the cost. It was higher than He wanted to pay, but for God’s sake, he offered to pay it. The sons of Zebedee and their mother, however, had not counted the cost. They were only too ready to pay a cost that they had not accurately estimated. Their willingness to rush in where the Son of God feared to tread was matched by the other disciples.
And when the ten heard it, they were moved with indignation against the two brethren. But Jesus called them unto him, and said, Ye know that the princes of the Gentiles exercise dominion over them, and they that are great exercise authority upon them. But it shall not be so among you: but whosoever will be great among you, let him be your minister; And whosoever will be chief among you, let him be your servant: Even as the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many (Matt. 20:24-28).
Jesus reiterated the biblical principle of leadership on another occasion: “And he came to Capernaum: and being in the house he asked them, What was it that ye disputed among yourselves by the way? But they held their peace: for by the way they had disputed among themselves, who should be the greatest. And he sat down, and called the twelve, and saith unto them, lf any man desire to be first, the same shall be last of all, and servant of all” (Mark 9:33-35).
Sacrifice: Covenantal vs. Romantic
We see this principle taken to an illegitimate extreme in the naval principle that a captain should always go down with his ship. This is an evil principle. There is nothing sacred about a tool. A ship has no claim on its captain’s life. A captain should remain on board his sinking ship until everyone else has left it. He is supposed to remain on board, not as a courageous gesture, not as a romantic gesture, but because he alone is authorized to give supreme orders. It is his authority to give orders that necessitates his remaining on board until there is no one else on board to give orders to. Then he should abandon the ship. Not to do so is to waste a precious resource: himself.
The most decisive naval battle of World War II was the Battle of Midway, June 4-6, 1942. At about 10:30 a.m., June 4, American dive bombers attacked three of Japan’s four largest aircraft carriers. The fourth was out of the area; it was attacked and permanently disabled later in the day. All three carriers were destroyed. Yanagimoto, the captain of the stricken Soryu, refused to abandon ship. He was loved and respected by his crew. His men sent a Navy wrestling champion, Chief Petty Officer Abe, to remove the captain from the bridge, forcibly if necessary. But the grim determination of the captain prevented Abe from attempting to carry him to the waiting lifeboat. Abe turned back; as he departed, he heard the captain singing the national anthem. The ship carried 718 bodies to a watery grave, one more than was biblically authorized.
(For the rest of my article, click the link.)