Sunk Costs and the Value of Letting Go

Read Mark 10:17-27 and 1 Corinthians 1:18-31 to start.

Many years ago when I was in university, my first year of university, in fact, I took a course in economics. It was the only course in economics that I took, and I remember little from it, aside from the fact that I didn’t want to learn any more economics. I do however remember a few economic concepts. One of those is the idea of sunk costs.

This has nothing to do with how much it costs to dig a mine shaft or the value lost from a sunken cargo ship. A sunk cost is a cost that has already been incurred and can’t be recovered. The money is already spent, there is no way to get it back. The reason this is important in economics is that the principle of rational decision making says that a sunk cost is in the past and should no longer be relevant to future decisions.

Are you confused yet? Let me provide an example that might help. Imagine you are in charge of a power utility company. Your company is building a new power plant, and it’s going to cost 20 million dollars, and take three years. That’s pretty straightforward, yes? Now let’s say that you are a year into the project, you’ve already spent 10 million on construction costs, it’s mostly on concrete and labour costs. Now a newer technology becomes available that will allow you to build a different power plant that will produce the same amount of power, but only take two years, and only cost five million dollars.

What do you do? The rational economic decision is to abandon the first project, do the new project, and save five million dollars. If you’re an economist, that makes the most sense by far. But is that what you want to do?

This brings us to the sunk cost fallacy. We see this all the time in business and in politics, where a decision is made, and it later becomes obvious that this was not a best decision, but because promises have been made and expectations have been set, the decision stands, at least until there is a change in leadership, and maybe well beyond that.

One famous example was the Concorde. In the 1960s there was a joint venture between Great Britain and France to produce a supersonic jet airliner. This project was supposed to cost about 100 million GBP and produce 350 aircraft. It ended up costing two billion pounds, and only 20 airplanes were built. Of those, only 14 actually went into passenger air service. It took 15 years for the first flights, the British government tried to pull the plug on the project multiple times, and most of the original orders ended up being cancelled, but the Concorde carried on. It was expensive to operate, and because of the sonic boom could really only do flights that were mostly over the ocean, so the options to use it were limited, but continued in service for the better part of three decades, and was only retired from service in 2003.

That the Concorde continued for as long as it did is absolutely an example of sunk cost thinking at work. When governments basically pull up a dump truck full of money and have to keep spending and keep spending to keep a project alive, because all the money they have spent previously would otherwise be wasted, and the political ramifications would be severe, that’s the sunk cost fallacy at its worst. Elected officials are often willing to spend taxpayers’ money on projects that don’t make economic sense, or sometimes don’t make any kind of sense, because they are worried about their chances in the next election if they don’t. Sometimes governments stick to promises and programs that are clearly mistakes because of the sunk costs.

Of course, you and I are not elected government officials, and we don’t run billion dollar companies. While our budgets are far more modest, we still have sunk costs to be concerned with. And it’s not only about money. Time can be every bit as precious as money, and often even more so. After all, you can make more money, but you can’t make more time. We each only get so much of that. Effort and attention, those are other costs, just as real, just as much of an investment as time and money. For that matter, so is love. It’s not measured in the same way, but when you love someone or something, that is another form of investment, and ultimately, another potential sunk cost.

I’m not saying that all the things on which we spend our time, our money, our effort, and our love are not valuable, are not worthwhile. But certainly, some of them are more valuable than others. Some may have little worth at all, and some may actually leave us far worse off than when we started.

Sometimes we think that because we spent a lot of time and effort making a mistake that we should hang on to it. We don’t want to abandon what we have already worked on, to effectively say goodbye to the money and the time we have already invested. Often we are not prepared to forget about the water under the bridge and do what is best for us, best for our health, best for our families, best for our souls. We don’t want to lose our investments. We thus become captives of our sunk costs.

The man we read about to start, he fits that description entirely too well. We read of him both here and in the parallel accounts in Matthew and Luke’s gospels, and he sounds like a very well-behaved and pleasant young man, but also someone who is not easily satisfied. He was not content with merely doing his best at keeping the Ten Commandments, he felt that something was missing. What shall I do to inherit eternal life? was his question for the Lord.

From what he asked the Lord and what Christ said to him, it is obvious that this man was seeking to go above and beyond what was required of him, what was standard, what was default. He either recognized that this was not good enough, or he at least had enough doubts that he wanted to do more, he wanted something more certain and secure.

He came to Jesus for an answer to this question, which was of course the best place he could have gone, the best place to find the answer that he required. And yes, the Lord gave him an answer. But he did not like the answer that he received. Sell what you have, give the proceeds to the poor, and come follow Me. A straightforward answer, but not an easy one. Especially not for someone who had a lot of stuff, and who placed great value on all that stuff. Apparently even more value than he placed on his soul.

This is the sunk cost fallacy with eternal consequences. This young man had wealth, considerable wealth it seems, and it was precious to him. We don’t know how he came by his money, if he had inherited it all, if he had worked hard and done uncommonly well, or if somehow he had come into a good fortune. Maybe it was some mix of all three. However he got it, though, doesn’t matter so much as the fact that he wanted to keep it.

Christ told him that the thing he needed to do in order to be complete was to get rid of his worldly possessions and instead to exchange them for treasure in heaven. Give up your comfortable life, and instead take up the cross and follow. Discard what you have already acquired to obtain something better. Turn your back on all your stuff, dismiss it as a sunk cost. And this man, this eager young man, despite his desire for something more, his desire for eternal life, this man said no. He had sought out Jesus of Nazareth to ask what he should do, and he clearly heard and understood the Lord’s answer, but his response tells the tale. I like my stuff. I like my money. I want it more than I want to follow the Saviour. I’m not willing to let it go. He was sorrowful about it, but he said no.

And so, tragically, his wealth held him back.

Does it make rational sense to hang on to what you cannot keep so that you would miss out on what you cannot lose? That is the choice he made, and we never hear of him again in scripture. Perhaps the day came when he re-evaluated what was truly important to him, and perhaps then he chose differently, but we have nothing to indicate that he ever did. Perhaps he never did, and he went into eternity with lots of money piled up back here that could not pay the price for his soul.

In that passage we read to start, Christ comments to His disciples how it is difficult for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God, in fact He repeats this for emphasis, and specifically mentions about those who trust in riches, and then adds the well known comparison of a camel passing through the eye of a needle.

I don’t imagine many of us interact with camels on a daily basis, or for that matter, do we ever interact with camels, but we know how big a camel is. Needles are probably more familiar. I tend to be the person at home who will sew on a button or fix a rip in a shirt, and I hate threading needles. I won’t even attempt it without one of those little needle threader tools, those work great. Doing it by hand is very challenging, and that’s with thread, not with dromedaries.

No wonder the disciples reacted as they did. It’s impossible for us to fit a camel through the eye of a needle, frankly, it would be impossible to fit a mouse though that space, so that does seem to set the bar for salvation to be exceedingly high. The disciples were probably doing the math and wondering how this made sense. After all, the most prominent religious people in Jerusalem, that being the high priest and his family, they were also among the wealthiest people in Jerusalem. If they were far away from the kingdom of God, if it was a near impossibility for them to enter, then how was anyone else going to manage?

In our society today there is often the idea that if someone who is generally a well-behaved, church-going, faith professing individual who happens to have considerable wealth, then that person has been blessed by God. This is hardly a new idea, but it certainly is one that we see emphasized and repeated in western culture in recent years. We look at Biblical examples of men like Abraham, Job, and Solomon who are specifically described as being blessed with great possessions, and we certainly like the idea of that. We might not like other aspects of what happened in the lives of those men, but we do enjoy the wealth part.

So while yes, there are some people whom God has blessed with earthly blessings, and it’s certainly not my place to judge who has been truly blessed with an abundance of material things, I strongly suspect that it’s not nearly as many as some people would like to believe. If it’s particularly challenging for those with riches to follow God, then it seems unlikely that God is going to reward many of his followers with riches.

It’s not only money that can be a hindrance to following Christ. Earlier, we heard a passage from the first chapter of 1 Corinthians, and as you might have guessed, there are relevant verses to be found there. At verse 26, we read For ye see your calling, brethren, how that not many wise men after the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called:

There are not a lot of political leaders who follow God. There are not a lot of university professors, either. There are not a lot of royalty, not a lot of celebrities, not a lot of the rich and powerful. It’s not zero, but it’s certainly on the low side. Even among those who do profess faith and also have some degree of fame and fortune, it some cases it is questionable just how much those folks are actually trusting in the Lord compared with how much they are trusting in themselves. After all, it’s easy to trust in yourself when you have skills, money, power, and success. It’s unwise, but it is certainly easy.

In contrast, it’s not as easy to trust in God when you have so many other things you could rely on instead. It’s not easy to seek His will when you have so many other things that distract you and that demand your attention. And it’s not easy to follow when the things of this world pull you in a dozen different directions. The better supplied you are with those things, then the more likely you are to be distracted from what really matters.

The verse we just read tells how not many of the elite are part of the church, not many noble it says, not many mighty, meaning those with power, rather than physical strength, and not many wise after the flesh, meaning those with worldly knowledge. In the KJV, it says that not many of those are called, but note that the last two words are in italics, meaning that they do not appear in the original Greek. I believe that plenty of those who are wealthy, wise, powerful, intelligent, and of high rank are indeed called. The Spirit of God works in the hearts of those young and old, rich and poor, great and small. The invitation is to all. Whosoever will may come to the Saviour, may lay their burdens down at the foot of the cross. Any may believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and be saved. Many are called. But of the wise, the noble, the mighty, there are few who answer. The more you have of the things of this world, the more you want those things. The more tempting it is to hang on to them. And the more you have, often the more you want, and the more difficult it is to let go.

I have here a ball and a mason jar. My hand is too large, but you’ll see that the ball goes into the jar without issue. Someone with a smaller hand, they could probably reach in there and get the ball. But so long as they held unto the ball, they would not be able to get their hand out. So long as they held on, they would be trapped.

There’s an old story that people used to trap monkeys with something much like this, that they would put a sizeable and tasty nut or a banana or something else that a monkey would want to eat in a jar or a coconut shell, and then stake that container to the ground. The monkey would reach in for the snack inside, but then refuse to let go, and so he was trapped. I have no idea if that actually works with monkeys. We don’t exactly have a lot of wild monkeys around here, or really any monkeys at all, so I can’t go and test this, but the concept is plausible. I would hope that monkeys are smarter than that, but I don’t know.

The same principle applies to people. Not that it’s bananas and coconuts which trap people, but we hang on to lots of other things, and we don’t like letting go. We hang desperately to that which we cannot keep, and at the peril of our eternal soul. I would hope that humans would be smarter than that, but unlike the monkeys, there’s plenty of evidence to show that we are not.

So often we fall victim to the sunk cost fallacy. We think that whatever it is that we have, whatever it is that we have put our time, our effort, our money, our love into, must be precious and that we must continue or all that we have already invested will be wasted and lost. And maybe it will be lost. But in all likelihood that is a far better outcome, especially if what we have been holding on to has trapped us and thwarted us from following Christ.

In the early chapters of book of Revelation we find seven letters to seven churches. The seventh and final letter is to the church at Laodicea. This was a church that had plenty of money, but not much else going for it. It’s a church that sounds far too familiar, because Christendom in North America has much in common with Laodicea. Let’s read part of that letter now, starting at verse 14 of chapter 3.

(14)  And unto the angel of the church of the Laodiceans write; These things saith the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the beginning of the creation of God; (15)  I know thy works, that thou art neither cold nor hot: I would thou wert cold or hot. (16)  So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth. (17)  Because thou sayest, I am rich, and increased with goods, and have need of nothing; and knowest not that thou art wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked: (18) I counsel thee to buy of me gold tried in the fire, that thou mayest be rich; and white raiment, that thou mayest be clothed, and that the shame of thy nakedness do not appear; and anoint thine eyes with eyesalve, that thou mayest see. (19)  As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten: be zealous therefore, and repent. (20)  Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me.

The Laodiceans were wealthy, they were proud, they were self-satisfied. I have need of nothing is what they claimed, because they already possessed plenty of what this world offered. But actual faith, actual repentance, actual obedience, actual joy, those were sorely lacking. They might have had plenty of goods and gold, but when it came to matters of faith, they were in rough shape. Wretched, miserable, poor, naked, and blind is how they are described. The wealth of this world does not provide solutions to any of those. Anyone who thinks that they do is deceived, and anyone who says, anyone who teaches that material blessings are enough, or that they are better than spiritual blessings, is lying.

Verse 20 is very well known. The analogy of Christ at the door, knocking, seeking entrance, is easy to imagine, easy to understand. The obvious answer is that of course when He knocks you should throw the door open and welcome the Saviour gladly. But many people do not. They do not invite Him in.

When your life is already filled with the things of this world, then you may not feel that you have room for Christ. When your heart is consumed with the cares of this world, then you may not even hear Him knocking. When you have already taken hold of this life and all the vain, shallow things that it offers, then it is hard to let go. Even when all those vain, shallow things are nothing more than sunk costs which hold you down and lead you astray.

When you are willing to acknowledge that your money, your skills, your fame, your success, your relationships, all your stuff, when you admit that those will never bring you closer to God, never earn you a place in His kingdom, will never fill the void in your life, then you can stop clinging to them as if your life depended on it. It doesn’t. It never did. Trusting God, trusting in Christ’s completed work on the cross to save you, that is what your life, your hope of eternal life depends on.