Does Jesus Really Want Me to Hate My Family?

I can’t count the times he said to me, “I like you, Robinson, but I can certainly do without your religion”—“religion” meaning my commitment to Christ. He held a particular disdain for claims that the Bible is the Word of God.

One day, my friend and fellow newspaper reporter showed up at my desk with a sardonic grin on his face and an open Bible in his hands. This was going to be one of those conversations I enjoyed much less than our debates over the greatest all-time college football player (it’s Herschel Walker).

“I found something that proves the Bible contradicts itself,” he said. “Jesus is supposed to be all about love and peace, right? Well, listen to this.” He slowly read Luke 14:26, verbally underscoring one word:

If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.

No doubt, it is one of the most staggering phrases to come from Jesus’s lips. I don’t recall my response, but my colleague raised a valid question. What does Jesus mean by “hate” here?

Hate Speech?

After all, this is gentle Jesus, meek and mild. The Jesus who summons us to love our enemies (Matt. 5:43–46); the one Isaiah calls the Prince of Peace (Isa. 9:6); the Jesus who promised the world will know his followers by their love (John 13:35). And yet this Jesus is asking me to hate my wife, my children, and my parents? Elsewhere, Scripture commands me to love my wife (Eph. 5:25), my children (Eph. 6:4), my parents (Exod. 20:12). What could our Savior possibly mean by this incendiary—and seemingly contradictory—ultimatum?

If we take a closer look at the surrounding context, the nutshell meaning of his distressing words is as clear and concise as it is radical and revolutionary. Jesus is telling his followers: “If you would be a Christian, I must have it all.” We may be scandalized by the “hate” speech, but I suspect in stumbling over Jesus’s plain talk, we can miss the real scandal of this text: There will be rivals warring for supremacy over the throne of our hearts, but our love for King Jesus must defeat every one.

Matthew 10:37 may provide the interpretational key to unlock what Jesus means by “hate” here: “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.” Yes, we are to exhibit deep affections for our closest earthly kin, but Jesus is saying we must love even them less than we do him if we would prove to be genuine disciples. Of course, it’s also true that I will love my family and friends well in direct to proportion to the depth of my love for Jesus.

Sell All and Buy Christ 

Jesus is not demanding that you literally hate your family. He is using hyperbole to illustrate the steep cost of following him. Any prospective follower must be glad to give up everything, to love him unreservedly—to sell all in order to have him as your highest treasure (Matt. 13:44–46). Our affections for Christ must be of such an intensity and quality that, by comparison, all other loves seem like hate.

This is the first of three sobering warnings in Luke 14:26-33 against making a hasty decision to follow Jesus. A genuine disciple must:

  1. Love Jesus even more than your earthly family (v. 26).
  2. Take up your cross and follow him (v. 27).
  3. Be willing to lay down everything—even your life—and go hard after him (v. 33).

As a skilled expositor, the Lord illustrates his point with two pictures: A wise builder won’t construct a tower unless he’s first made certain he has enough materials to complete it. A wise king won’t go to war unless he knows his army possesses enough firepower to have a fighting chance at repelling the enemy.

God gives us a vivid application or illustration—perhaps even more shocking than Jesus’s words—of the potential cost of discipleship in Genesis 22.

Is Gift or Giver Supreme?

God gave Abraham and Sarah their first son when they were senior citizens. The long-awaited son was the one through whom God would bring a greater son to rescue his people from sin and death. But God did something that must have stretched Abraham’s faith to a breaking point: He told the patriarch to take the boy to Mount Moriah and sacrifice him as an act of worship.

It’s a test none of us would want to endure. Would Abraham love the gift more than the Giver? Of course, we know how it turned out. Abraham trusted God, who provided a substitute—a ram to sacrifice in Isaac’s place, giving us one of the clearest gospel pictures in the Old Testament.

Abraham’s faith, displayed in his obedience, powerfully illustrates what our Lord is driving at in Luke 14:26: “Yes, your spouse and kids and relatives are good gifts from my hands, but to which will you give your heart: them or me?”

That’s what Jesus is driving at in Luke 14:26. But how, then, should we live in light of it?

What Does It Mean for Us?

It means at least four things for us.

1. In speaking the gospel, tell them to count the cost. 

Three times, Jesus uses a conditional “if . . . cannot” formula, concluding in verse 33: “So therefore, any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple.” In other words, “If I do not have all of you, you will have none of me.” When we proclaim the gospel, we must avoid communicating cheap grace. Following Jesus demands our life, our soul, our all—otherwise, Jesus said, “you cannot be my disciple.”

We must explain the cost as Jesus explained it to the rich young ruler. It was love that drove Jesus to unmask the young man’s hypocrisy: he hadn’t kept God’s law because he was guilty of loving his wealth more than his neighbor (Mark 10:21).

2. Following Jesus may not make your life easier.

Much popular preaching promises that believing in Jesus will make your life easier. Perhaps a desire to see as many people as possible converted to Christ drives such preaching, I hope so. And there is profound joy in following Christ; there are pleasures forevermore at his right hand (Ps. 16:10). But if we would hear the message of Luke 14, we must admit there’s a real sense in which your trouble may be just beginning when you follow Jesus.

For one thing, it may not make your family life better. “I came not to bring peace but a sword,” Jesus declared. “For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household” (Matt. 10:34–36). As J. C. Ryle put it, a Christian must be willing to offend his family rather than offend his King. Think of the many who’ve been disowned by parents after spurning Allah, Buddha, or the Watchtower Society in favor of Christ. On his way to Moriah, it’s doubtful Abraham thought, My best life is now.

3. Clinging to Christ loosens our grip on even our most intimate earthly relations.

Losing close family members and friends is heartbreaking; but even so, we can rejoice in Christ. My father died 27 years ago. My mother died in January. I think of dad daily, and the wounds are still fresh from saying goodbye to mom. Even so, I will always have Christ—and he must be enough.

4. They who trust him wholly, find him wholly true.

Can you imagine Abraham’s journey up that mountain? He was no supersaint. The obedience must have been agonizing. Yet he trusted God when it seemed impossible. And God provided a lamb, just as he has for us.

I’m not sure how my former colleague would respond to the answer I’ve given here nearly three decades later. But I know Luke 14:26 is a  deliberately unsettling way for my Savior to call me to love him supremely—even if it costs my life. No matter what, it’s worth it.