Last week, I wrote that following God can be like lying on a bed of nails. But in another way, it's easy.
I don’t like getting up early, the panting, the burning muscles, the tiredness. But I love the exhilaration, the sense of physical well-being, and the ease of daily activities that all come with my exercise regimen.
So is it easier or harder to be in good shape? Both, of course. Who would believe that the obese couch potato who pants on his way to the refrigerator is better off than the agile and well-toned athlete?
Jesus said that we are to carry our own cross daily. Jesus essentially told us to carry our own instrument of torture—the cross—to the place where it will be used against us. It’s amazing how we adorn ourselves with pretty little crosses, rarely thinking what they represent. We’re wearing amulets and jewelry that are the equivalent of the electric chair or the noose, though far less humane.
But he also called the weary and burdened to rest in him, for he is gentle and humble in heart. He is described as the Good Shepherd who rescues his little lambs. He’s the Great Physician, the Comforter, the one who leads us beside still waters.
So is it hard or easy to be a Christian? It’s both. To experience the rest he intends for us, we need to carry our cross. To embrace life, we must first embrace death. The way down is the way up. The last shall be first. The humble will be exalted. The meek shall inherit the earth. This is the paradox of Christian faith.
We must learn to trust that God is good, loving, and all-powerful. The longer we follow, the better we get to know God’s character. If we doubted God’s goodness, then self-sacrifice would be much more difficult. But when we know that “in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Rom. 8:28), our dying to self becomes more rational and definitely easier.
Although our daily walk with God can sometimes feel like it’s about dying, it’s really about living.
God loves life. The Garden was without death, and so is heaven. That’s his ultimate plan. He doesn’t ask us to walk a tightrope across a chasm because he wants us to experience terror, but because he wants us to experience the joy of the other side where he is. He has a “good, pleasing, and perfect” will for us (Rom. 12:2). He bids us to die to self only because it leads to life and away from death.
God is like the firefighter pleading with us to jump out of the burning house with the assurance that he will catch us. He knows we will eternally weep and gnash our teeth if we don’t and we’ll miss out on the excellent plans he has for us, so he pleads and cajoles us to do the terrifying thing.
Feeling the terror of dying to ourselves isn’t sinful. Jesus himself experienced it in the Garden of Gethsemane when he sweat blood contemplating his own crucifixion. He begged the Father to let “this cup be taken from me.” We’re not called to be Stoics or Buddhists, both of whom strive not to grieve personal loss. Grieving for death and loss is normal.
And it’s hard. The writer of Hebrews says, “No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it” (Heb. 12:11). Discipline, understood in this scriptural passage as any trial that comes our way, is difficult.
Nietzsche said that, “What does not kill me, makes me stronger” (33). Nietzsche was wrong. Suffering can make us bitter, not better, if we don’t submit to God’s purposes in the suffering. Only if we humble ourselves can humiliation, defeat, disease, and poverty strengthen us. The choice is ours.