You’ve been warned all along that you will be persecuted for your faith.
You’ve been warned all along that you will suffer.
You’ve been warned all along that being a Christian will not be easy.
I heard these phrases while sitting in a bible study at work, and immediately felt convicted. They were right. We have been warned all along that being a Christian is difficult. So why, day to day, does it feel easy? Why does it feel like the struggles that come with faith are a bit overhyped? Maybe it’s just a season. Maybe it’s a season of rest and growth that God is using to prepare you for what’s ahead.
But maybe…maybe if it feels easy, you are not dying enough. Perhaps you are not bleeding out your selfishness and vice. Perhaps you are refusing to feel the headache that is humility, the nagging ache in your bones that is your desperate need to repent. Perhaps you are still gasping for the air that fuels your sin nature, rather than giving up the use of your own lungs and accepting the resuscitating breath of life from Christ who offers it to you freely. I think we misunderstand “free grace” to mean that it is easy. There is no harder grace to receive. Living well is totally unappealing because it requires constant, daily death.
“That sounds a bit too much like Catholic guilt,” claimed a friend of mine, one who left the Catholic church. Lest we confuse the sentiment, let me be clear: part of dying to self is also dying to the idea that we have anything to do with our rising again. What I’m speaking of is not the grandeur of the phoenix, a self-made hero rising from the ashes. What I’m speaking of is not some legalistic “go forth, live better, and thus save thyself” because that’s not really the point. What I’m speaking of is the surrender to the call of our creator: “Lazarus, come out.” And so the dead shall rise again. Not out of the ashes, but out of the grave. A sobering thought if we sit with it long enough. That we were dead in our trespasses, dead in our sin and our own hatred of God himself, is a difficult thing to process. It’s never fun to admit that we are totally depraved.
But the call to rise up from the dead is not so much a battle cry as an incredible exclamation of grace.
And perhaps—though we walk a fine line as Christians between wanting to live well and acknowledging that no matter how well we live we have fallen short of the glory of God and cannot by our own good works be saved—perhaps if we take a moment to find our balance, we’ll see that we are afraid of “living well” and engaging with that third use of the law (as a rule, a guidance for life) for more practical than theological reasons. To die for Christ would be simple. To live for him is extraordinarily difficult. C.S. Lewis said that good works and salvation are like the two sides of a pair of scissors. They are inseparable.
So perhaps (if you’ll allow me to turn the phrase rather dangerously for a moment) a little catholic guilt isn’t such a bad thing. Perhaps a little catholic guilt is precisely what we need. To realize that though we are saved and though nothing can shake that confidence in us, the road to heaven is long and narrow, rocky and rough, difficult and lonely, and it requires of us our very lives. And that is the hardest part. We are free in Christ, yes. But don’t mistake freedom for ease. Freedom is the greatest responsibility, the heaviest burden any man or woman can bear.
It’s the burden of discipleship. It’s the burden of realizing that we are called to a higher life, and that our work to pursue such a life has no bearing on our salvation (or our justification) but all the bearing in the world on our sanctification. It’s the burden of dying to live. This sounds bold and exciting and even a bit heroic. “Living for others” sounds like an admirable lifestyle, very Ghandi-esque. But then you get down to brass tacks and realize it means returning evil with good. It means turning the other cheek to those who hurt you. It means taking the humble seat at a gathering and repenting to the people that you have failed. It means plucking out your eye if it causes you to sin, it means leaving behind family and friends if they put a barrier between you and God. It means narrowing your dating pool excessively by patiently trusting God’s word to “be not unequally yoked.” It means temperance and chastity, and all those antiquated virtues that have fallen out of popularity in our modern society. It means offering hospitality when it’s inconvenient. It means dying to yourself.
And all this, not to be “less sinful” but to be “more holy.” Paraphrasing the Small Catechism, we have been called by the Gospel, enlightened with the gifts of the Holy Spirit, and sanctified in the truth. Dusted off out of the grave, endowed with talents to spend and multiply, purified in Christ and blessed by his word and sacrament, what else is there for us to do but walk that narrow road to heaven, joyfully accepting the difficulties and sufferings along the way, dying to self that we might live for Christ?