Perhaps you’ve heard (or shared!) sentiments like the following . . .
“Jesus has a wonderful plan for your life.”
“Just follow Jesus and He will . . .” (Spoiler alert: The word “just” is what really messes this one up!)
“God wants you to enjoy your best life now”
There are many problems with the ideas above, the chief being they tend to make God a combination celestial butler and cosmic therapist. Yes, God does want to “help” us, but He’s so much more than a Cosmic extension of our self-help needs. I am convinced we tend to give especially new believers, the idea that God exists to make us happy. Or, if we don’t say or imply this, the cultural filter in which they hear the “good news” translates Jesus as a Heavenly Happy Meal. Why else would we come to Him, if He’s not about making us happy? Our happiness is the chief end of God we would say. A biblically informed believer would of course say this thinking is wrong, yet even with a biblical foundation of our lives being built on the premise that our chief end is to glorify God, it seems that our western culture of Christendom has wittingly or not, sanctioned a kind of bait and switch mentality. Similar to romanticizing a long backpacking trip, we think walking with Jesus will be incredibly enriching, usually meaning “good” for me. And make no mistake, life with Jesus is good, so very good, but our definition of a “wonderful plan” for life is often quite different than His. Certainly, being a child of God makes all things “new” (2 Cor.5:17), and “new” is good, right?! Yes, “new” is good, but in the same way that “simple” does not necessarily mean “easy” (see a prior post), a new life in Jesus is far from an easy thing. And sometimes God considers it “good” that we, like Jesus, will suffer, precisely because of our walk with Him! So, do we ever tell prospective Christians things like this? Do we fail to tell them, that sometimes, the Christian life, like a difficult yet beautiful backpacking trip, is harder than you could ever imagine?
Consider the following scriptures that tell us what kind of life to expect when we walk with Jesus Christ . . .
– “Everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.”
– “If anyone would come after me, let him take up his cross daily and follow me.” (Luke 9:23)
– “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” (Gal.2:20)
– “If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also.” (John 15:20)
– “For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.” (Rom.8:36).
When we’re telling a prospective believer the “benefits” of following Jesus, I doubt that we are intentionally dishonest and do a bait and switch, but it sure seems that way at times. Again, yes, there are benefits to following Jesus, even in this life (!), but let’s face it – following Him is one long series of little deaths – one after another. Fruit/resurrection does come, but only after the deaths we die (John 12:24).
In training for my walk on the AT (usually on flat land in Grand Rapids MI) with a full pack, I averaged to walk a mile in about 15-20 minutes. On the trail, I would average at best, one mile in one hour! As one hiker I met on the trail told me, “Walking the AT is harder than you could ever imagine!” Looking back, I do clearly remember a number of people trying to tell me how difficult the walk would be, but my problem seemed to be that while I “heard” the warnings, I didn’t really listen. I was too shaped by the potential benefits and excitement of the walk. I had to learn the hard way. While some of this is human nature (we learn best by doing not dreaming!), the following are just a few things that I believe we should tell prospective Way-walkers. If we did, while it might not necessarily make their walk “easier”, it will make it less surprising when (not “if”!) the hard times come.
Jesus, comfort, and the good life
Jesus’ number one priority is not our comfort – No, He doesn’t enjoy seeing us suffer. He was human and knew what it meant to cry (Luke 19:41; John 11:35), to thirst and hunger (Matt.4:1-2; John 4:7), lonely (Isa.53:3; Luke 5:16), to be homeless (Matt.8:20), and of relatively modest means (Luke 9:58). Again, one problem with telling people that Jesus has a wonderful plan for their lives is that we so often want Jesus to define “wonderful” or the “good life” in our terms. For us, the good life would be mostly free from pain, financially prosperous, relationally calm, and generally, anxiety free. While these “good things” are not always mutually exclusive from the good life as in how God Himself defines it, God’s commitment toward having us enjoy these “good” things” pales in comparison to His commitment to the truly good life. This leads us to ask then, what is the good life God wants us to enjoy? In short, being in relationship with Him is the good life. The psalmist says, “You are my Lord; apart from you I have no good thing.” (Ps.16:2), and, “Because your love is better than life, my lips will glorify you.” (Ps.63:3). And to the rich man who had “plenty of good things laid up for many years”, God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you . . . This is how it will be with anyone who stores up things for himself but is not rich toward God.” (Luke 12:20-21). And finally, we have the testimony of Paul. If anyone had the “good life” it was he! Yet he tells us that in comparison to knowing Christ, it was all dog dung (Phil.3:7-11)! So we see, the “good life” is not good if God is not in it, if He is not our supreme overarching desire. So, fellow-walker, we must gently remind one another that if our comfort ever becomes more important to us than following Jesus, He will do what He must to awaken us again to Him, even if it means making our lives uncomfortable (Hebrews 12:3-11; Rev.3:19)! So, instead of telling a prospective hiker of the “beauty” of the trail, perhaps we should tell them that the Way/Road (Jesus Himself) Himself is beautiful and to learn to be content with Him (Phil.4:12-13). And, that no matter how rough the walk might become, He will always be with us.
I remember reading somewhere the idea that everyone has a supremely low moment somewhere in an extended hike and the urge to quit becomes almost overpowering. How about you? Do you have an urge to quit your “hike”? This urge may last a moment, a day, week, month, or even years. Can I encourage you by reminding you, He is Immanuel, God-with-us? As a line in an old spiritual says, “while I’m on this ‘ol tedious journey, I want Jesus to walk with me”. And so, when you come to that place where you feel it’s harder than you ever thought it would be, and, you wonder, “why didn’t someone tell me my walk with Jesus would include so much pain, please remember, He will and He does walk with us. And, if you can imagine our sandal-clad Lord walking alongside you, perhaps you’ll see His tears drop along with your own, and, as you look over at Him, will catch a knowing smile upon His face. He loves to walk with you especially when it’s hard.