Friday, February 4, 2011

Walking the Tightrope

"Enter through the narrow gate, for wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it" (Matthew 7:13-14).

I used to picture the "narrow road" as a sort of footpath winding up through the hills, something like the blazed trails I follow when hiking in the woods. I would imagine Jesus walking the path ahead of me; as long as I kept my eyes on him, I would know where to go.  Lately, however, I have been challenged to alter that mental image somewhat.

There are a number of things in the Bible, and especially in the New Testament, that seem to contradict one another. Skeptics point to these things as reasons to disbelieve the scriptures. On closer examination, however, the so-called "contradictions" are usually easy to explain when taken in context; most of the time, the contradiction exists only in the mind of the careless reader. There are a number of Biblical truths, though, that are not so easily understood.  They aren't contradictory, but they do reflect the paradox that is God. In attempting to understand these truths, or to explain them, we run into a difficulty: things that can be intuitively grasped cannot always be put into words that accurately convey that experience. (I'm having that difficulty at the moment.)

The Apostle Paul had the same problem, I think.  Peter refers to Paul's writings as "hard to understand," while in the same breath acknowledging that Paul wrote "with the wisdom that God gave him" (2 Peter 3:15-16).  Perhaps this is why Paul frequently interrupts himself to explain what he is not saying (Romans 3:8 and 6:1-2, for example) and why he emphasizes the futility of trying to understand the gospel without the illumination of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 1:18-25).

But I digress.

Jesus frequently said things that boggle the mind and seem to contradict the message of salvation through grace and grace alone.  Here's one of them: "For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 5:20).  [Footnote here: We tend to view the Pharisees as bad guys, hypocrites who were always getting it all wrong. But you have to understand the context in which Jesus made this remark. The Pharisees were the men who tried hardest to live in a way that would please God. They devoted their lives to living according to God's commands rather than paying them lip service. For Jesus to say my righteousness has to EXCEED theirs would be like me telling you, "You need to be richer than Bill Gates."]  So how does that jive with his later remark: "The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent” (John 6:28-29)?

There is a fine linea razor-thin linebetween the temptation to work for my salvation and the temptation to "go on sinning so that grace may abound."  That razor's edge, I believe, is the "narrow road" to which Jesus referred.  If I am relying on my own works to get me into God's favor, then I am self-righteous rather than Christ-righteous.  If I am not allowing Christ to live through me, but blithely follow my natural inclinations into sin while presuming that God's grace will save me, then I am self-centered rather than Christ-centered.

I don't know about you, but I am not a tightrope walker.  A hike in the woods I can handle; following Jesus along the razor's edge, however, is beyond me.  If I try to follow him along this narrow road (and I have), I will fall (and I do).  It is inevitable.  Even with his help, I will slip off...the fact that he will catch me and hold on to me does not turn my failure into victory!  (I can pretend that I walked across, but everyone knows I was dangling below the rope the whole time.  There is nothing victorious in such a journey.) So how do I cross?

The logical solution is to climb up on his back, right?  (We all know the "Footsteps" poem.)  But if I try to cross the rope piggy-backing on Jesus, I need to hold on to him, tightly!  This can be exhausting, as anyone who's ever carried a child this way knows.  The kids just can't hold on for long, and they begin to slip.  Again, Jesus can and will catch me, but ultimately it's just another way for me to fail. I should know: I've tried this many times.  Each time the result has been the same.  I cling to Jesus until I have blisters and cramps, and then I am in too much pain to hold on any longer, and off I slip.

So what, then, should I do?  How can I walk this narrow road that leads to life?  Is it any wonder that so few find it?  And how can my righteousness possibly exceed that of the Pharisees?

The answer is so simple that it is almost impossible to see.

Nothing.  I can't.  No.  It can't.  (In that order.)

Jesus is the only one who can walk the rope.  If I am going to get across, he has to carry me.  In the words of scripture, I have to be IN him.  (I prefer the image of being in his arms to that of being in his stomach, but take your pick.)  I used to get hung up on the "Follow me" that he so often extended to people, and try to follow him.  BUT THAT IS NOT WHAT HE WANTS.  Sure, he told the disciples to follow him, but that was before he sent the Holy Spirit to indwell them.  Read John 14 carefully and you will see that Jesus promised it would be better for them when the Spirit came, that they would do greater things and that they would be in Christ and one with Christ.  "Follow me" was his invitation to them while he walked in the flesh, but "live in me" is his invitation to us.

How can I enter the kingdom?  In Jesus.  No other way.

So, you may ask, practical person that you are, just how do I get "in" Jesus?  Do I pray more? Read the Bible more? Spend more time with him?

Listen to yourself.  What should I do to get in?  Go back and re-read the last few paragraphs.  Nothing. You can't.  He isn't asking you to.  He will pick you up and carry you.  Get this: you are the baby.  He is the adult.  What does a baby do to get picked up? Does it make an appointment?  Does it meet Dad at the office?  Does it write him a letter or make an eloquent speech?  Does it chase him around the house?  No.  Why not?  Because it can't.  (Duh.  It's a baby.)  So what does it do?

It cries.

That's all you have to do.  Cry.  "For everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved" (Romans 10:13).  What did I tell you?  Simple.


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