Burn Your Boats: A Warning About FOMO

Kelly Kiernan on Unsplash

Columba was a sixth-century abbot who left his native Ireland with 12 men to bring the good news to the Picts, a pagan people in Scotland. The missionaries founded an abbey on Iona, which would become a vibrant center of literacy and faith for centuries to come.

But shortly after reaching Scotland in an animal-hide-wrapped wicker boat, Columba did something drastic. He knew he and his companions might be tempted to leave when life became uncomfortable or dangerous. And so, the story goes, Columba burned the boat.

After reading about this single-minded commitment, I’ve began noticing how, by contrast, I like to keep my options open, just in case.

One of the hallmarks of my generation is an aversion to commitment. We suffer perpetual FOMO (fear of missing out) and, more seriously, struggle to commit to a marriage or a career. In a world full of potential paths, we have a hard time picking one and remaining on it.

Let Me First Bury My Dad

But while the fear of commitment is trendy, it’s nothing new. Jesus himself engaged would-be disciples with similar struggles:

He said, “Follow me.” But [the man] said, “Lord, let me first go and bury my father.” . . . Yet another said, “I will follow you, Lord, but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” (Luke 9:59, 61).

While these requests may sound understandable, it’s helpful to know that the first man’s father may not have been dead—or even close to dead. In the culture of the day, “Let me bury my father” was often used in an idiomatic way to express, “Let me get my family and personal life in order.” Put in 21st-century terms, it might sound something like, “I’m interested in following Jesus more seriously, but first I want to find a spouse and get some traction in my career.”

One of the most common phrases I hear from would-be disciples on college campuses carries a hint of that first-century hesitation: “When I have children of my own, I’ll make Christianity a bigger part of my life.”

When called to Christ, we sometimes want to hedge our bets, to buy ourselves a little more time. But such responses—even when expressed warmly and kindly—reveal a heart not captured by the wonder that the God of the universe is personally inviting us to himself.

Don’t Look Back

Both men in Luke 9 have a desire to follow but a reluctance to commit. Jesus’s respective responses bear particular poignancy in our FOMO culture:

Leave the dead to bury their own dead. But as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God. (Luke 9:60)

No one who puts his hands to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God. (Luke 9:62)

Jesus didn’t mince words, nor did he lessen the cost of discipleship. He didn’t lower the bar or paint a rosy picture of a life spent following and proclaiming him. He didn’t alter the truth to expand his audience or make a hard pill more palatable to swallow.

Jesus was in the business of full disclosure. But he also knew the sweetness and rewards of a life centered on him would far exceed the inconvenience and discomfort.

In essence, when we decide to follow Jesus, we must burn—and keep burning!—the boat. Tensions and temptations will meet us on this path. We’ll be tempted to look back, and turn back, to an easier way of life. But from the outset, Jesus summons us to commit to him.

Burn the Boats

Columba and his crew had to burn the vessels that might have tempted them to escape back to the familiarity of kin and country. Likewise, each new disciple of Christ has a boat (or fleet of boats) that might lead back to a life more lucrative, more culturally celebrated, or simply more comfortable.

For some, a former relationship that trumped Christ is the boat that beckons backward. For others, the approval of unbelieving family continually whispers, Don’t be a religious fanatic. Loosen your grip on Christ, just a bit. Often in our money-minded culture, the boats that demand burning would drift us back to a more padded retirement fund or some financial frivolity.

Whatever their shape or style, any boats that lead us away from following Christ must be burned as often as they’re built. While this sounds overwhelming and almost impossible, remember that the One who asks for a commitment to himself, his Word, and his ways has also fully committed himself to us.

Committed to Us

Before we were born, before time was wound, the Son of God was committed. He knew he would leave it all so we could have it all in him. Even now, he gives us his Spirit to work within us, coaching, convicting, and comforting.

When we have Christ, we have not missed out on anything. We have gained everything.

By his grace and his power, may we burn the boats that might take us back to a comfortable and cross-less life. May we fix our eyes on him who has gone before us (Heb. 12:1–2). And may we find courage in his constant commitment to us: “Behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:20).


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