What makes it so difficult?
Enter through the narrow gate, for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.-Matthew 7:13-14
So how do we square these words from Jesus with the church’s call to radical hospitality, wide open-armed welcome, come-as-you-are, nonjudgmental expressions of faith? What makes the gate narrow? Why is the road hard? Why do few find it? A few thoughts:
It can be hard to believe that grace is true, that at the heart of the universe is love when we are surrounded by callousness and cruelty. It can be even harder to act as if grace is true. We are conditioned to think that life and love are conditional. The notion of something given without condition turns our world upside down. (For Les Miz fans, here’s where Javert jumps off the bridge.) Many are not equipped for that new way of looking at life.
It can be hard, indeed a narrow path, to admit that we have not loved God with whole heart, soul and mind, that we have not loved neighbor as self. It’s easier to buy into the illusion that those shortcomings are not true about us. Maybe those other people, but not us. We don’t want to make amends, to acknowledge our part in the brokenness of relationships.
It can be hard, because the narrow path may call on us to get rid of distractions. That whole bit about the camel going through the eye of the needle suggests to me a camel loaded down with all kinds of possessions, blocking forward movement. Those possessions can possess us. It can be hard to travel light.
It can be hard because if we do embrace the way of love, the path of grace, that can annoy other people. The way of love upsets some people. They can’t stand the light. Jesus said that was true of the most religiously observant people of his day. They were his biggest opponents. In our own culture, as we try to walk in the way of love we may run into opposition, perhaps even from others who claim the name of Jesus.
It can be hard, few may find the hard path because while grace is free, discipleship comes with cost. In an article in the Atlantic (October, 2021), Peter Wehner comments on the state of American Christendom, noting how churches are falling short. He cites James Ernest, editor in chief at Eerdmans, a publisher of religious books “What we’re seeing is massive discipleship failure caused by massive catechesis failure…Catechism, the process of instructing and informing people through teaching, is the source of the problem…There is a great hollowness.”
“Culture catechizes,” said Alan Jacobs, professor of humanities at Baylor University, interviewed for Wehner’s article. Culture teaches us what matters and what views we should take about what matters. Our current political culture, Jacobs argued, has multiple technologies and platforms for catechizing (e.g., television, radio, social media). People who want to be connected to their political tribe—the people they think are like them, the people they think are on their side—subject themselves to its catechesis all day long, every single day, hour after hour after hour.
On the flip side, many churches aren’t interested in catechesis at all. They focus instead on entertainment, because entertainment is what keeps people in their seats and coins in the offering plate. As Jacobs points out, even pastors committed to catechesis get to spend, on average, less than an hour a week teaching their people. Sermons are short. Only some churchgoers attend adult-education classes, and even fewer attend Bible study and small groups. Cable news, however, is always on. “So if people are getting one kind of catechesis for half an hour per week,” Jacobs asked, “and another for dozens of hours per week, which one do you think will win out? That’s not a problem limited to the faithful on one side of the aisle. “This is true of both the Christian left and the Christian right,” Jacobs said.
All of which is to say that while grace is free, discipleship can be hard. It can be a narrow way. Have you found that to be true?
Dietrich Bonhoeffer framed it as the difference between costly and cheap grace: “Grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son: “ye were bought at a price,” and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered him up for us. Costly grace is the Incarnation of God.”
That costly discipleship sounds to me like the narrow gate, the way that is hard, maybe lonely. It’s no wonder that many people who heard what Jesus had to say drifted away. How will we walk that way this week? Can we believe it to be the way of life, even if it’s hard?