The Narrow Way

Last month my wife and I spent a few days in Denver. Odd though it may sound, it seemed to me that the Denver area had the narrowest parking spaces I can remember ever encountering. Even if I was parked squarely within the lines of my space, and the car in the next space was as well, I felt cramped. It seemed like we were much too close together, and I had to be very careful when opening my car door not to hit the car next to me. When I mentioned this to a friend who had also been in the Denver area recently she said, “Well, Colorado is supposedly the fittest state in the nation; maybe they don’t think they need the extra space!” She was joking, but at least it is a possible explanation… Of course, it is also possible that I have become used to the area in which I live, where parking lots are as likely as not to have no spaces marked off and people figure it out. I am inclined to doubt that, though, as I do encounter delineated parking spaces often enough. Still, I am not going to blog about narrow parking spaces, which I am sure is a relief to you. You were just about to stop reading, weren’t you?

Instead, I want to write about the Narrow Way. Jesus talks about this concept a number of times in the gospels, most notably in Matthew 7. He said, “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” (verses 13-14). Jesus was making the point that pursuing a life that is pleasing to God, living a life that endeavors to demonstrate Christ to others, will not be easy. It will not be comfortable. Just as I was irritated by the proximity of the cars next to mine while I was parking in Denver, we do not like the feel confined, closed in or restricted. When given the option, most people will choose the wide way, the way with plenty of elbow room, the way that allows them to do their own thing without bumping into anyone else or anything else–anything like walls, fences and boundaries. Of course walls, fences and boundaries, when it comes to life, can mean rules, guidelines and expectations. It can mean putting personal preferences, desires and tendencies aside in order to pursue Christ and live according to His direction. It can mean yielding to the Holy Spirit’s work in our lives instead of following self.

It is interesting, I think, that Jesus instruction to take the narrow way comes immediately after His instruction to do to others as we would have them do to us. The Golden Rule is followed immediately by the instruction that taking the wide way will lead to destruction. In fact, if your Bible has section headings, it likely sets verses 12-14 apart, possibly under the heading “The Golden Rule.” Immediately before this section is Jesus’s instruction to ask God for what we need and to trust that God will provide for our needs; immediately after is instruction about false prophets and recognizing trees by their fruit. Taking the narrow way, then, necessarily means doing to others–living proactively in a way that lives out the teachings of Jesus, the working of the Holy Spirit in our lives. As I have mentioned here before, this was a revolutionary teaching by Jesus. The Jewish leaders had always taught “do not do to others what you would not want them to do to you,” but that is not nearly the same thing as what Jesus said. After all, I can refrain from smacking you across the face without ever being kind to you, without ever considering your needs ahead of my own, without ever helping to bear your burdens.

The truth is, I can refrain from smacking you across the face without being all that uncomfortable. There may well be times when I would like to do it, and when doing so might seem like it would feel really good, but I can probably live a perfectly content and comfortable life while still resisting any temptation to smack someone. Going beyond that, though, can be rather distressing. Showing kindness to you when I do not feel like being kind–or when, frankly, I do not even like you all that much–is not comfortable. Setting aside my preferences in order to make way for yours can be annoying. Forgiving you when you have wronged me unjustly can be, let’s face it, excruciatingly difficult. Still, this is all part of what it means to take the narrow way. As Jesus said, it is hard. It would much easier to take the wide way, to avoid the unpleasant elbow rubbing and shoulder bumping of the narrow way. The wide way, though, leads to destruction. It may be n easier path, but the destination is not worth it. I much prefer life to destruction, even if the path is a bit narrow.

Not Just a Nice Story

I speak in churches on a fairly regular basis, filling in when pastors are vacationing or when a church is without a pastor. It does not usually take long when I visit a church for the first time to get a sense of the atmosphere in the church. Specifically, it is fairly obvious whether most of the congregants are just going through the motions or the church is spiritually vibrant and healthy. In one of those churches that seems to tend toward the “going through the motions” end of the spectrum I was speaking once on the latter part of James 1. James is one of my favorite books. It is a to-the-point book that includes a plenitude of practical instruction and for that reason it can be uncomfortable to read, to preach or to hear preached. For all the those reasons it is also a book I love to speak on, even if I will only be in a church one time. (Or maybe especially if I will only be in a church one time!) Verse 22 in particular is a sure-fire way to step on the toes of those that like to just go through the motions and feel like they are doing their part for God. On the occasion I have in mind, however, I found that even the unmistakeable instruction to be doers of the Word and not hearers only will only penetrate a heart that is sensitive to the working of the Spirit. In fact, it made me realize that even “hearers only” is a step below listeners.

I have said on many occasions, primarily in teaching but not always, that there is a tremendous difference between hearing and listening. We can hear things without really listening to them. In fact, we do it all the time. We do it often when we are in a store or a restaurant and music is playing in the background. I do it to television commercials. Some of us have been accused of doing it when our spouse is talking. On this particular Sunday, some of the congregants were apparently doing it while I was preaching. As I said, I spoke on the latter part of James–verses 19-27–and I pulled no punches. I made it clear that James tells us that ritualistic religion is worthless and does not please God in the least. I made it clear that if we are doers of the Word it will influence every area of our lives. I emphasized that in the original language, the words translated “deceiving yourselves” in English referred to a mathematical calculation. In other words, James was saying that if we think we’re doing all we need to do by hearing the Word, we’ve got the wrong answer!

Imagine then, if you would, my delight (pardon the sarcasm) when I stood near the foyer of the church greeting the congregants after the service and had one older gentleman shake my hand and tell me, “That was a nice story.” Really? A nice story?!? I had done all I could, to communicate as clearly as I could, that living the Christian life is serious business, not a casual or passive one. I was as clear and direct as I could be. And this gentlemen thought I told a nice story. I felt quite sure that he certainly was not listening to what I said, and I was not even sure he actually heard me. For a moment I started to think, “Well, what was the point? A lot of good that did.” It did not take long for me to feel the Spirit prompting me, though, reminding me that (1) the “success” of the message is not for me to worry about as long as I deliver it faithfully, and (2) how often must God feel the same way? He has provided us with all that we need for living a life that is pleasing to Him. His Word includes instruction, correction, encouragement and more. We no longer receive visions or hear from prophets because we no longer need that; we have the complete revelation of Scripture. How often, though, do I treat it like a story? How often do I check off my Bible reading, my pre-meal prayers and my Sunday morning church attendance and then go about the rest of my life doing my own thing? I cannot imagine having the opportunity to shake hands with Jesus and saying, “Nice story”–but I might be living my life that way far more often than I care to admit. The Holy Bible is far more than a “nice story.”