The Easy Way or The Hard Way

These posts are rough summaries of the Sunday messages.

So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets. Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.

Matthew 7.12-14

Apparently, too much choice is making us unhappy. Stuart Jeffries, writing in the Guardian, describes how we are paralysed by the plethora of options in all areas of life (whether it’s 28 varieties of tomato ketchup or 224 kinds of air freshener, right the way through to the many potential partners on dating sites). We’re also very likely to experience anxiety after making a decision for fear we’re missing out on something better. When we’re given fewer options (like Aldi’s one type of tomato ketchup) all of that angst disappears.

This passage is all about choice, but that choice is made easier because of a few factors. 

For one thing, it’s not really a choice as much as a command. ‘Enter by the narrow gate’, Jesus says, and he speaks in the imperative: This is what you must do. Jesus doesn’t really want you to choose, in a sense. And given that the stakes are so high, it can come as a great relief to simply submit and say yes to someone who knows a lot more than you.

Then consider, the options are not infinite but rather they’re narrowed down to two. The choice is binary. Now, these days we tend to reject binary divisions (on religion, gender, or morality) prefering endless permutations. Most would intuitively react to this either/or as an oversimplification. Surely you can’t divide humanity into just two groups in this way? But that is exactly what Jesus often does (see for example Matthew 12.30).

Interestingly, this choice is made somewhat clearer by the fact that following Jesus is the hardest thing you’ll ever do and the most totally life-consuming thing you’ll ever do. That helps in this way: it’s not the kind of thing you can be apathetic about. He may repel or attract you, but please no apathy or indifference. We are going to think about the choices Jesus lays out.

1. The Easy Way

For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. (v.13)

Why is this way easy? Why are you more likely to choose it? There are quite a lot of reasons we can give to that, but here are the ones that jump out to me.

i) You’re already on it. It’s the default. It’s every other way except the narrow way of following Jesus. So if you do nothing, you’re on the easy way.

ii) It feels good. I mean that you can go along with the direction of your nature and you don’t have to encounter resistance. You don’t have to peddle. You don’t have to deny yourself. We’re all, by nature, selfish people. David Foster Wallace described this so well in his Kenyon Commencement speech (widely known as This Is Water):

Here is just one example of the total wrongness of something I tend to be automatically sure of: everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute centre of the universe; the realist, most vivid and important person in existence. We rarely think about this sort of natural, basic self-centredness because it’s so socially repulsive. But it’s pretty much the same for all of us. It is our default setting, hard-wired into our boards at birth. Think about it: there is no experience you have had that you are not the absolute centre of. The world as you experience it is there in front of YOU or behind YOU, to the left or right of YOU, on YOUR TV or YOUR monitor. And so on. Other people’s thoughts and feelings have to be communicated to you somehow, but your own are so immediate, urgent, real.

If we are by nature or by default as selfish as this, then the easiest route is the one that doesn’t challenge that basic urge.

iii) It feels like freedom. You don’t have to listen to anybody or do what anybody else tells you. It’s the ultimate libertarianism. As Henley’s famous poem, Invictus, ends: 

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

The broad and easy road is the one on which you believe you are the master of your fate, the captain of your soul.

iv) You don’t have to think about the future. I have rarely met a young person who thinks about death. It’s a ‘buried’ subject, relegated to those relatively infrequent moments when we have to confront it. But very few people (it seems) live with any consciousness that one day they will die. Or if they do, it only serves to intensify the belief that grabbing happiness now is the meaning of life. YOLO.

v) Everybody else is on it. Rarely is it seen as appropriate to identify as Christian these days, except in an election. People don’t even want to be told about Jesus. It isn’t cool to be a Christian. And so we reason, if everyone is going that way, surely they’re right?

vi) There are forces at work you don’t see or understand to keep you on it. Have you ever asked, why is there so much irrational hostility towards Christianity, which has done much good? Why is there hatred for a God people don’t believe in? Perhaps we need to reconsider the likelihood that there are spiritual forces at work in all of this.

vii) You have to be doubly convinced to choose the alternative. If following Jesus is harder why would you choose that? You wouldn’t. Not unless you had been deeply persuaded it was true.

2. The Hard Way

For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few. (v.14)

Why is this way hard? Why are most people unlikely to choose it? Before we answer this, I think we need to back up and ask: why does Jesus speak like this at all? It’s not because he doesn’t want people to choose his way; he does! And it’s not because he’s playing mind games or using reverse psychology. He’s no manipulator. The simple reason is that he tells the truth. He’s clear about the consequences of each road (‘destruction’ or ‘life’) but also about the relative difficulty of each road. Jesus doesn’t want convenient Christians (who won’t last anyway) but the real thing.

How is this way hard then? Well, it’s hard in all the ways the easy way is easy. You have to make an active choice to get on this path; nobody is a Christian by default. You have to go against yourself (that is, your own nature) in profound and life-changing ways. You have a massive narrowing of options that touches every part of life, from your relationships, to your job, to your leisure, to your very thoughts. You have to make painful choices now because of a future you can’t see. You may not know others on this path (at work, in your family, or in the media). And you may well even hear ‘voices’ or subtle spiritual insinuations telling you it’s rubbish. You have to be compelled in the deepest part of your being it’s true in order to trust. You put all of this together and you quickly realise that being a Christian is by no means the easy road.

One lens through which we can see just how hard this life of discipleship is, is through the so-called ‘Golden Rule’. ‘So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets’ (v.12). At first it seems very simple, clean, easy, and neat. That is, until you consider it more carefully.

Think about the weight of the obligation. It’s true that others before Jesus had said similar things, but they invariably stated it in the negative. So, from Confucius to the Stoics to Rabbi Hillel, it was always said somewhat like this: ‘Do not impose on others what you do not wish for yourself’, or ‘What is hateful to you, do not do to anyone else.’ The trouble with this way of putting things is that you can do nothing and keep yourself from hurting others. But Jesus states it positively, placing the obligation on us to be proactive, which is much, much harder.

This means that to obey this command we cannot retreat into isolation. The desert monks got it entirely wrong. Godliness can only be practiced in relationships and self-sacrifice on behalf of others. There are limits in that we don’t have an equal obligation towards everyone, but we still have to love the people closest to us (which is often the hardest thing to do anyway).

I would consider this way not just hard but impossible.

3. The Jesus Way

Jesus’ standards are too high and the way is too hard. But Jesus did not just come as a teacher to point the way and wish us luck, he came as a saviour. Which means there is a third option that is implicit in all he is saying.

Without wanting to diminish the truth of the Christian life being hard, it’s also true that Jesus said he was the door (John 10.9). So, he’s the way in. And he said that he was the way (John 14.9). So, he’s the way on.

What does this mean? It means that while Jesus calls us to a life of obedience, you don’t do it in your own strength. The truth is that you simply cannot walk this path; it’s impossible. None of us can fulfil the ‘Golden Rule’, as much as we might aspire to do so.

But we can turn to Jesus as our saviour by whom we gain entrance into this life and power to live this life. By leaning on Jesus we trust that in the end he will present us righteous before the Father. The way is narrow, but the way is with Jesus; the way is hard, but Jesus carries you.