Counting the Cost in Missions: What’s That Mean, Anyway?

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counting the cost

A friend and I sank animatedly into conversation at a recent Christmas party before even removing our thick jackets. While others milled around with disposable cups of wassail, we discussed her sudden opportunity to move to an unreached nation. 

Considering there are an estimated 3.37 billion, with a B, unreached? This isn’t small.

But we discussed aging parents, family dynamics, seasons of life with kids, and even past trauma.

And I acknowledged to her that these costs were legit. Even as I spoke out loud, I knew the words were for me, too: “When God asks us to ‘count the cost,’ he asks us to count it. Not vault over it.” 

In fact, Jesus knew that for some, counting the cost would mean turning away entirely.

Let’s get this right

In my mind, with “counting the cost,” I’ve got the image of an accountant, carefully tallying up debits and credits to make sure someone can afford what they plan to do.

Apparently, Jesus was not a bait-and-switch kinda guy. One might even wonder if he thought it better for someone to make a wrong decision–a fateful, eternal decision–than one on false pretenses.

(But that’s just my own musing. Still, it’s a valuable consideration for missions, that we must evangelistically woo with more than in-church coffee shops or events flush with bouncy castles.)

Thing is, Jesus is challenging us to weigh the cost-benefit ratio. We do know that as followers of Jesus seeking his will, his presence will go with us.

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? Romans 8:35 Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence? Psalm 139:7

But in Jesus’ request for counting the cost, I also hear his allusion to the reward. As martyr Jim Elliott famously quoted, “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep, to gain what he cannot lose.”

In fact, I love C.S. Lewis’ words on this point:

If we consider the unblushing promises of reward … promised in the Gospels, it would seem that our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at sea. We are far too easily pleased.

See, I’ve got a hunch that if any of us understood the true cost-benefit ratio, the staggering compensation by a generous God–we’d be a lot more like the man selling everything to get that one pearl hidden in a field (Matthew 13:46).

…Does that mean “yes”?

Does that mean every missions-related cost equates to a “heck yes”?

I don’t think so.

Because every aspect of the believer’s life is ideally Gospel-focused, right? What really falls into the categories of “not missions”?

When my husband and I prayerfully determined we needed to return to our passport nation, it was because the Gospel to our kids mattered, too. It was because in God’s kindness, my husband had trained a national to do his job. And we suspected he would be facilitating more and deeper Kingdom work stateside.

We trusted God had good works prepared in advance for us to do (Ephesians 2:10), wherever he led us.

But even returning, there was a cost to count, to follow him.

And now, I find myself evaluating another ministry opportunity.

I asked my husband this week if he’d pray for my discernment, and help me with that discernment. I tend to be a “What cost?! That’s nothin’!” kinda gal.

For someone like me whose overcommitment can affect what kind of Gospel I show people, I must remember the need does not always constitute the call.  

And the ways I fake myself into just doing the “right” thing, and pouring a Bible verse on it, can later come to bite me in resentment, depression, anxiety, or alienation from God.

I long to courageously embrace the good works God has prepared in advance for me (Ephesians 2:10). No greater, no less.

what could “counting the cost” look like?

So along with me, consider steps like these.

  • Creating a complete list of pros and cons, no matter how small or large, and then prayerfully evaluating them.
  • Taking a vision trip, perhaps including your older kids.
  • Making space for conversations with global workers there about your hardest questions. (For me, this was about my kids’ safety.)
  • Gathering around you a “multitude of counselors” (Proverbs 11:14) to help you walk through this process deliberately and thoughtfully. This might be wise, Christ-following family members, friends, church members, former global workers, and others who with an authentic relationship to you (and your spouse, if married).
  • For the areas you can’t resolvemaybe that friend or relative who might not hear about Jesus except through you, or that aging parent, or that child with a disability or allergy–pray specifically for discernment. And if God can’t give clarity, for God’s generous wisdom and the ability to trust it completely (James 1:5-6). Invite knowledgeable, faith-filled friends to speak into this fear.
  • Evaluating whether, if married, your marriage and family can withstand overseas pressures, especially if one of you doesn’t feel as called. (Check out Why to Consider Counseling Before You Head Overseas and Different Strokes? Marital Differences as You Look Overseas.)
  • Not pushing aside your questions as invalid.
  • Doing your homework on your potential sending agency. See our post on Choosing an Emotionally Healthy Missions Organization.
  • Processing Go. Serve. Love’s self-assessments with a mentor, spouse, and/or close friend.
  • Continuing to journal with unflinching honesty about your fears and concerns–not disregarding them!–but also maintaining God as larger than those. Our fears are an opportunity to lean toward God’s presence.

So…What should I do about my fear?

Maybe you wonder about what to do with your fears. Shouldn’t you just ignore them? Isn’t that unbelief?

Consider trauma therapist KJ Ramsey’s thoughts on this front:

At its core, fear is not a lack of faith. It is a lack of perceived safety. Your tight shoulders, pounding heartbeats, and even your panic attacks are all prompts to treat yourself like someone who is truly worthy of safety, love, and belonging. Fear is a physiological prompt to seek safety in the presence of Christ and remember your place in his heart.

….By buying into popular Instagram tropes and clutching uprooted Bible verses, we basically jump from “do not fear” to “do not be human.” What happens when you can’t overcome your fears? … With a “faith over fear” theology, what happens is shame and separation. When we don’t allow ourselves to be human, we don’t create space to grow strong. We end up amplifying the very feelings we most wish to conquer. We end up corroding “the very part of us that believes we are capable of change.”

….If we do not reckon with fear, it will reckon with us.

…Fear is but courage’s fuel.*

Tell us. When it comes to counting the cost, what’s the biggest one you feel right now? Leave a comment below.


Janel Breitenstein is an author, freelance writer, and speaker, as well as the editor for Go. Serve. Love. After five and a half years in East Africa, her family of six has returned to Colorado, where they continue to work on behalf of the poor with Engineering Ministries International. Janel also frequently writes and speaks to global women through Thrive Ministry.

Her book, Permanent Markers: Spiritual Life Skills to Write on Your Kids’ Hearts (Harvest House) released October 2021. You can find her—“The Awkward Mom”—having uncomfortable, important conversations at, and on Instagram @janelbreit. 


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Following Him: Am I “Called”?: Go. Serve. Love’s collection of posts on discerning God’s will 

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Ramsey, K.J. The Lord Is My Courage (p. 144, 145, 146). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.



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