Matt Walsh has a typically provocative post up on The Blaze entitled “If you find it easy to be a Christian, you probably aren’t one.” Is he right? There are certainly passages from the New Testament that would seem to suggest so. Jesus did say,
If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow Me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will save it” (Luke 9:23-24).
But there are other New Testament passages that seem to suggest the opposite, that the Christian life should be easy. Most notable are Jesus’ words in Matthew:
Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light (Matthew 11:28-30).
So which is it? Is the Christian life a heavy cross or a light burden? The answer, of course, is both. But the “easiness” of a genuine Christian life is far different from the “easiness” of nominal Christianity, a Christianity that requires nothing from its adherents.
Freedom or Servitude?
Walsh argues that the biggest obstacle to genuine Christianity in America is not persecution, but temptation to sin. There are countless versions of Christianity (and other faiths) to choose from, and you’re bound to be able to find one that will excuse whatever sin you happen to be drawn to.
But isn’t it good to have options? Isn’t freedom part of the point of being a Christian? Walsh nicely sums up the difference between genuine freedom and false freedom:
That’s the easy faith. The tempting one. The faith that preaches a Christ who died so that we may be freed to sin, rather than freed from sin. A difference of only one word, but the gap between them is as wide as the gap between Heaven and Hell.
It’s a good point, and important to keep in mind. But it’s also important to remember that living a Christian life should lead to a sense of genuine freedom and relief even in this lifetime. There are millions of Christians who will attest to way that their faith brought them out of harmful lifestyles or addiction. But that kind of freedom happens as a result of a willing submission to the Lord’s Word. Jesus said, “If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed. And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (John 8:31-32). First we abide in His Word as disciples, then we know the truth, and only then are we made free.
Peace or a Sword?
That kind of freedom brings with it a great sense of peace. Jesus said to His disciples, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you” (John 14:27). But again, this kind of peace only comes about after a willing submission to the Lord’s Word – and that takes an act of will, a battle between our new man and our old man. It’s a fight. Jesus said, “Do not think that I came to bring peace on earth. I did not come to bring peace but a sword” (Matthew 10:34). Paul exhorted the Ephesians to take up the whole armor of God in battle against the powers of evil:
Stand therefore, having girded your waist with truth, having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and having shod your feet with the preparation of the gospel of peace; above all, taking the shield of faith with which you will be able to quench all the fiery darts of the wicked one. And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. (Ephesians 6:14-17)
The Doctrine of the New Church puts this in terms of fighting against sin as if of ourselves while acknowledging that it the Lord Jesus Christ acting in us and through us. We need to know that it won’t feel like the Lord acting through us when we fight against the urge to tear someone else down. It’s only in retrospect that we realize that it was only by His grace that we were able to resist.
Even here, though, there can be a kind of peace within the conflict, a peace in knowing that we are acting in the Lord. A passage from Arcana Coelestia puts it this way:
A person who is being regenerated first experiences a state of serenity, but as he moves on into the new life so he moves into a state that is not serene. For evils and falsities which he has taken into himself previously now emerge and show themselves, and these trouble him, so much so at length that he undergoes temptations and trials from the devil’s crew who try all the time to destroy his state of new life. But despite this a state of peace exists with him inmostly. …In all the conflicts he experiences he sees that state as the end in view…, and this is what enables him to overcome. (Arcana Coelestia §3696)
“Fear Not” or “Fear and Trembling”?
In his final point, Walsh stresses the need for continuous repentance. He writes,
“Work out your salvation with fear and trembling,” St. Paul tells the Philippians. To which the modern Christian says, “Dude, chill.” I think we’re safer adopting St. Paul’s approach than that of the super chill psuedo-Christian. What reaction can we have but fear and trembling when we honestly confront the vileness of our sin? How many of us have even attempted such a confrontation?”
Genuine introspection can be a terrifying thing to do. I happen to be preaching on fear and courage next Sunday, and in the course of my research I came across this great passage from True Christian Religion, explaining why repentance was not widely practiced in the Protestant world:
The reason is that some are unwilling and some are afraid to repent, and lack of practice turns into a habit and leads to unwillingness, and eventually to acquiescence as the result of reasoning by the understanding. In some cases it leads to sorrow, fear and terror at the idea of repentance… [I spoke to some,] and they said that when they have it in mind to examine themselves, they are struck by fear and terror, as if they saw a monster beside their bed in the twilight.
It is genuinely frightening to start the work of self-examination and repentance. It’s hard to face the reality of what’s inside us. But it does get easier with practice. As with servitude that turns into freedom and the sword that turns into peace, this fear can be transformed into a kind of joy in repentance. Eventually, rebuke from God can be experienced as a blessing; the Lord says in Revelation 3:19, “Those whom I love I rebuke and chasten,” and the Psalmist writes, “It is good for me that I have been afflicted, that I may learn Your statutes” (Psalm 119:71).
This doesn’t mean the fear of finding sin in ourselves ever goes away, but I it is transformed. It’s here that I might part ways with Walsh. Walsh writes, “I’m not really convinced that it’s possible to feel too guilty for your sin or too afraid of the eternal fire, but I’m sure those who cross that line, wherever it is, are in far better shape than those who never approach it.” I agree to a point – we should never lose the horror at the evil we’re capable of, and that does start as a fear of going to hell. But as a person grows spiritually, that fear becomes less one of “the eternal fire,” and more a fear of being hellish – a fear of letting down the Lord, a fear of doing anything that will hurt others. It becomes a fear that is actually love at its heart. From Arcana Coelestia:
As regards the holy fear which is signified in the Word by “the fear of God,” be it known that this fear is love, but love such as is the love of little children toward their parents, of parents toward their children, of consorts toward each other, who fear to do anything which displeases, thus which in any way does injury to love. (Arcana Coelestia §8925)
The Race of Faith
So is the Christian life difficult or easy? It’s both. The best way of reconciling this seeming contradiction is through the metaphor of the Christian life as a race. As the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews put it:
Therefore we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us. (Hebrews 12:1)
It is hard to run a race. It takes training, dedication, and perseverance. But if you talk to any long distance runner, they’ll tell you that at some point while they’re running, they get a second wind. (As it happens, the word for “wind” in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin is the same as the word for both “breath” and “spirit.” Coincidence? Maybe, maybe not.) Runners push themselves to the point of exhaustion – muscles burning, breath difficult, sweat pouring out. And then – something changes, and they find that their body is almost running itself. They are “being run.” They still have to work at it, their muscles and breath are still straining – but they find that in some sense it has become easy.
To couch potatoes, all that might seem pointless. Sure, maybe running gets easy at some point, but it’s even easier to sit around and watch TV. Those people miss the reality that the easiness of a second wind is deep, fulfilling, and life-giving – the opposite of the bored ennui of laziness. But unless those couch dwellers decide to start moving themselves, they’ll never really get the difference.
It’s the same with couch Christians vs. marathon Christians. Being a couch Christian – a Christian in name only, who maybe said the sinner’s prayer once and puts up Christmas lights – feels easy, but it’s not authentic. Being a marathon Christian takes work – but even in that work there is a joy. Even before reaching the destination there are second winds and experiences of ease – experiences of a genuine peace that surpasses anything a couch Christian can imagine.
One final point, lest I come across as holier-than-thou. I try to be a marathon Christian, but sometimes I slow down and get out of shape. And every time that happens (as anyone who has stopped exercising will tell you), it’s hard to get started again. It takes effort to do the challenging work of introspection and continuous repentance. But it’s worth it. There is joy and peace and ease not just at the finish line, but in the running of the race itself.
Scripture taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Image copyright: balefire9 / 123RF Stock Photo