IF WE were really to follow Jesus, we would discover a difficult path – no, an impossible path (except for the grace of God).
The crowds that followed Jesus did so for various reasons, most of them having to do with their happiness and comfort, happiness as reduced to creature comforts.
On one occasion, after Jesus had fed the crowd miraculously, they followed Him, asking, “from now on give us this bread”. (Jn. 6:34). Instead Jesus declared, “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life.” (Jn. 6:54). This was a rather jarring response, but it was the truth. It challenged the limited and distorted horizons of the crowd. In fact, many of them decided that it was a “hard teaching” (Jn. 6:60), and parted company with Jesus.
The hard teachings of Jesus point to the hard path that He invites us to walk with Him. Unfortunately the hard teachings are today hardly mentioned and the hard path is painted over with spiritual gloss and hype. These things don’t go down well with the spa culture generation we see today. These are the days of increasing pleasure-seeking hedonism and self-seeking, self-indulgent narcissism.
But real life is not lived in spas. For a dose of real life, we need to visit hospitals, broken homes, prisons, and lines of poor people looking for help. Even in a spa culture, we are not spared the uncertainties and tragedies, the mess and suffering in life.
Is the Christian spared from any of this? Some people would have us believe that the answer is a definite yes. But the scriptural evidence points in other directions. Jesus made it clear that if we want to follow Him, then we must deny ourselves and carry the cross. We are called to walk the via dolorosa (the way of suffering and death), not that the road ends in death, but that it goes through death to life and glory. As the old saints said, “There is no gain without pain.”
In fact, being a Christian often invites more trouble and suffering. Why, you might ask. That is because we have three enemies of our souls – the devil, the world and the flesh. We have to struggle with each as we walk this narrow and difficult road with our Lord. The devil is our enemy; he is “like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour”. (1 Pet. 5:8). The closer we get to God, the more vicious the battle. The devil may know that he has lost the soul of the devoted Christian, but he will do all he can to disrupt and cause harm, to discourage and deceive.
Our struggle is also with an ungodly world, with all its principalities and powers in place. The world is on rebellion mode against God. As John tells us “the world and its desires pass away”. (1 Jn. 2:17). Hence we should resist being conformed to the ways of this world; instead our thinking and living should be radically transformed by God’s Word and Spirit (Rom. 12:2). Because the hard path of Christian discipleship goes against the grain of the world, we will also often suffer if we obey God at all costs. Jesus has already told us: “In this world you WILL have trouble.” (Jn. 16:33). Then there is the struggle with the flesh, the sinful part of us that needs to be denied and crucified. What a struggle that is. It led Paul to cry out, “What a wretched man I am!” (Rom. 7:24), and to personally resolve, “I don’t know about you, but I am running hard for the finish line. I’m giving it everything I’ve got. No sloppy living for me! I’m staying alert and in top condition. I’m not going to get caught napping, telling everyone else all about it and then missing out myself.” (1 Cor. 9:26-27, The Message). Such resolve to follow Jesus faithfully, and to pursue holiness and Christ-likeness will often attract suffering. But such suffering itself becomes the seedbed for further growth. It often brings us closer to God and deeper into His love.
HALLMARKS OF CHRISTIAN DISCIPLESHIP
‘Self-denying love, discipline and simplicity are the hallmarks of Christian discipleship. The Christian path often takes us through the difficult valleys, but it is in these painful places that God is more intimately experienced. Which is why suffering is the seedbed for transformation.’
IN RECENT times, I have visited a number of friends who are struggling with cancer. One particular friend, an old school friend, inspired me with his radiant faith in the midst of advancing cancer. We talked at length about our mortality and faith in God. My friend is a living example of the truth that the path that brings us closer to God is often the path of suffering. Indeed, suffering is the crucible in which our faith is refined and our love for God purified. Suffering, more often than not, is the royal road to heaven.
Why, then, are we so afraid to mention that the path of Christian discipleship is often a path of thorns, and give the wrong idea that it is a path of roses instead? Why do we want to hide the thorns in between the roses? Why do our testimonies major on how we escaped suffering rather than on how unrelenting or unresolved suffering brought us closer to God? Is our theology one of escapism or one of courageous and faithful obedience?
Self-denying love, discipline and simplicity are the hallmarks of Christian discipleship. The Christian path often takes us through the difficult valleys (valley of the shadow of death –Ps. 23:4; valley of Baca – Ps. 84:6), but it is in these painful places that God is more intimately experienced. Which is why suffering is the seedbed for transformation.
When we run out of ourselves, we experience God’s presence. When we give up begging God to change our uncomfortable circumstances – for our own comfort – God begins to change us, for our own good. We experience God when we keep walking on the hard path, with faith, hope and love; we will find ourselves drawing closer to Him. Our priorities get reorganised, our minds are sorted out, and our hearts purified.
Who said that the path of Christian discipleship is an easy one? As we live in a self-pampering spa culture, we must rediscover the true path of Christian discipleship, a hard, rugged path, but one that we can walk in close, sweet and joyful fellowship with our Wounded Lord. This is the path to true healing and transformation.