The Difficulty of Christianity
Sometime ago I was speaking with a younger gentleman who had just become a Christian and he asked me a very pointed question that inspired me to address this topic. He asked me, “Jeremy, why is being a Christian so hard?” “Why does it seem like it’s so difficult to be a Christian?” And I think his question is a common one, but I’m afraid it’s more common today because it seems like in order to convince people to join the church and to become a Christian the modern church is trying to present Christianity as easy as possible, a sort of easy-believism, that to become a Christian you don’t have to change a thing, that there won’t be any struggle at all – Christianity is just sort of a “problem-free philosophy.” But here’s the thing - there’s a great danger in just highlighting the benefits of Christianity while hiding the difficulties of Christianity. Not only is it dishonest, but it doesn’t prepare people for the real thing. But thankfully, that’s not how Jesus presented the Christian life. He was very upfront and honest about what it entails. He starts the Sermon on the Mount with the words blessed and happy, but he ends the sermon with the words narrow and hard … Because he wants his listeners to not only enjoy the benefits of Christianity, but to be prepared for the difficulty of Christianity. Are you prepared for the difficulty? Are we even aware of the difficulty?
Whenever you encounter true Christianity you always encounter both the benefits and the difficulties. You encounter the benefits of peace with God, forgiveness of sins, the fellowship of the saints, the promise of heaven, the power of the Holy Spirit, the joy of the Lord, and so many other blessings and benefits. I believe with all my heart that the Christian life is the most happy and exciting life that anyone can live, but we also must come to terms with it’s difficulties, to be aware of them and prepared for them, to not be surprised by them. True Christianity is difficult, and this difficulty is highlighted in Matthew 7:13-14 in the call, the gate, and the way. The more we understand the call, the gate, and the way, the more we’ll be prepared for the difficulty of being a Christian. So let’s look at these one by one…
The first thing that we see in the very beginning of verse 13 is Jesus issuing a call. He says, “Enter by the narrow gate.” And the word enter in the original Greek is an imperative. It’s a call to action. You see, when you encounter true Christianity, you always encounter a call upon your life. And this is actually one of the things that makes the difference between a lecture and a sermon. A sermon always comes with a call. A call to respond, a call to make a decision. You see, this isn’t called the lecture on the mount, it’s called the sermon on the mount. Because here at the very end, Jesus is issuing his call to respond. But this is one of the things that makes Christianity difficult. It calls you to make a decision. It calls you to make up your mind, to come off the fence. And so one of the things that we need to understand is that this is a demanding call.
It’s a demanding call: And what I mean by demanding is that it demands a decision, so this is not like Jesus just calling to chat, this is Jesus calling to make an appeal, to issue a summons. Jesus doesn’t say, consider the narrow gate, admire the narrow gate, he says enter the narrow gate. So maybe an example could be the difference between a University sending you one of their brochures for you to check out or sending you an admissions letter to respond to. You see with the brochure, you can admire it, you can admire the University from afar and say, “Oh, isn’t this nice.” But with the admissions letter, you must make a decision. Either you’re in or you’re out. It demands that you say either yes, I’m going to enter this University or no, I’m not coming in. You see all along in this sermon Jesus has been describing life in the kingdom of God, life under the liberating rule of God. But he does not want you to think this is just a brochure, he wants you to know it’s an admissions letter. Either you’re in or you’re out. And Jesus wants you in. That’s why he says, “enter!” He doesn’t want you to just admire the kingdom, he wants you to enter the kingdom. In other words, a choice is necessary.
Give you another example - It’s sort of like the very end of one of my favorite movies – Indiana Jones and the last crusade. And you thought I was gonna say the princess bride. Do you remember this? They finally make it to this hidden chamber where the Holy Grail is and this old knight says the famous line, “You must choose, but choose wisely.” You see it wasn’t an option, they couldn’t just hang out in that cave for as long as they wanted, they had to make a decision, they had to choose a cup. And again, this is what is going on in this passage, and one of the things that makes Christianity so difficult for people is that it calls you to make a decision about Jesus. But it’s not just a demanding call, it’s also a reasonable call.
It is a reasonable call: I think the majority of us are probably familiar with the old emotional method of revival, where you play a certain type of music and you play it a certain amount of times and you play on the emotions of the hearers by adding a lot of pressure and propaganda to try and invoke a decision. But you see Jesus all throughout this sermon, although he does call for a decision, he doesn’t play on your emotions for that decision, he speaks right to your mind. He reasons with you, he uses argument and logic. An old British minister by the name of Dick Lucas said it this way, “Before Jesus calls us to make up our minds, he always fills our minds with evidence and reasons.” And we see Jesus even doing it in these two verses, he issues this call and then he explains the reasons why to receive the call. You see, true Christianity always makes you think. It forces you to think about things that you may not want to think about: Who made you? What have you done? Where do you stand with God? Where are you going when you die? See naturally we may not want to think about these things, but true Christianity won’t let us get off the hook that easy. It’s a reasonable call. And lastly before we move on we need to see that this is a personal call.
It is a personal call: You see one of the ways that you can tell that God is really working in your life is that you get a sense that God is dealing with you personally. So, it’s not some generic summons to the resident of so and so, this is a personal letter, this is a summons personally directed to you. I think a great example of this is Saul on the road to Damascus. When Jesus interrupted his life and intervened and called him through the narrow gate, what did he do? He called him twice by his personal name, “Saul, Saul…” You see, Jesus knows each person’s name. And what he does through his word is he calls us personally to himself. And do you remember in the case of Saul, Jesus said, “why are you persecuting me?” He put his finger right on Saul’s lifestyle, he gets right up in his business. And you see this is another reason why Christianity is so difficult for us. It’s that Jesus is not afraid to invade our personal space. And so this is a demanding call, it’s a reasonable and it’s a personal call, but it’s a call to what? Well, as we see here, it’s a call to enter by the narrow gate. So let’s look at this…
So if we are to enter by the narrow gate, what is the gate? What is this narrow gate? Well, one of the things that unlocks this passage is understanding the difference between the gate and the way. You see, the gate is coming to Jesus, and the way is following Jesus. Another way to say it is that the gate is conversation, and the way is discipleship. Or the gate is justification and the way is sanctification. We see this in John chapter 10 where Jesus says, “I am the door, and if anyone enters through me he shall be saved.” You see, Jesus is the doorway, he’s the gateway into fellowship with God, into the Kingdom of God. But why does Jesus call it narrow? Well, think about it, if you are going through a very narrow entrance, then it requires you to leave some things behind, certain things are not going to be able to fit through it because the entrance is so narrow.
So, this past vacation my wife Lindsay and I celebrated our 10 year wedding Anniversery by going on a cruise. It was my first cruise ever and one of the things I was reading online beforehand and experienced while I was on the boat was to not bring large suitcases because the halls and especially the door into the cabin and your space is very narrow, and so the narrowness forced us to leave some of our larger baggage behind. And this is why this gate is called the narrow gate. Because it forces you to leave some baggage behind. When you come to Jesus you’ve gotta leave some baggage behind. And there’s really two things that we must all leave behind if we wanna become a Christian – Our self-rule and our self-righteousness. In other words, we’ve gotta leave behind trying to be our own master and trying to be our own savior.
And isn’t this why becoming a Christian is so difficult? Why many people as Jesus says here will not come through this gate, is because deep down, we wanna call the shots, we wanna be Lord of our lives. We don’t wanna have anyone tell us what to do with our bodies and with our businesses. And we can trace this all the way back to the garden of Eden where Adam and Eve thought that by being their own master, they were going to experience freedom. But what happened? Instead of experiencing freedom they experienced fear, they experienced shame. Because as Tim Keller once pointed out, true freedom is not found in being your own master, true freedom is found in living under the right master. It’s living under the liberating rule of the one who made you, the one who designed you. And when you come to the narrow gate, one of the things you have to confess is that Jesus is taking the leadership role in your life. That he’s calling the shots from now on. But listen, we need to be clear at this point, because this confession of Jesus’ Lordship is not a promise to live a perfect moral life, because one of the things you’re also confessing is that you can’t. That you’ve fallen short of the standard, and you need a Savior.
The famous preacher Martyn Lloyd-Jones once said that he always knew when he was dealing with an unbeliever who thought he or she was a believer. Because when he would ask them, “Are you a Christian?” They would say something like, “I’m trying to be.” He would know right away that they didn’t get it. Because you see, they’re thinking of Christianity all wrong. They’re thinking of it as a ladder instead of a gate. Something that is earned by your own self-righteous efforts. But you see here, Jesus doesn’t say, climb the narrow ladder and climb as high as you can, he says enter by the narrow gate and just come in, because salvation isn’t something that anyone of us can earn like climbing a ladder. But again, this is why true Christianity is so difficult. Because every other type of religion and philosophy offers you a way in that’s based on self. In one way or another it says that if you try hard enough, that if you do good enough, then you may be able to earn your acceptance with God. It’s all about the self. But Jesus says no. In fact, if you keep reading and Jesus identifies the people who’ve gone through the wide gate as those who look to their own religious works for their acceptance with God. Verse 22 – they’ll say, did we not do this, did we not do that? And what does Jesus tell them, “Depart from me, I never knew you.” You never looked to me as your Savior. You see the wide gate can be both the irreligious way, and the religious way. For both, it’s all about the self. And that’s why Jesus in Mark 10:35 says if anyone would come after me, he must do two things, he must deny himself, not look to himself. You must deny your self-rule and your self-righteousness - that’s coming through the gate, and then take up your cross and follow me. That’s walking on the way. He says, in other words, you cannot save yourself no matter how hard you try. But look here’s the narrow gate, here’s the narrow way in, here’s the one who’s come to save you, and it’s narrow because there’s no other person in history except for Jesus who’s ever met all the demands of God’s law and taken the penalties for us breaking God’s law except for him. But again, this is why Christianity is so difficult, why it’s so unpopular, it’s not wide enough for people, it’s not the all-inclusive way. It narrows it right down to one particular person that you must trust in, that you must come to - Jesus and Jesus alone.
But I get it, people will say – How can there be only one way to God! How arrogant do you have to be to believe that, how narrow-minded you Christians are. But here’s the thing – If that’s the way you feel, you really don’t have a problem with Christians, you have a problem with Christ. I mean, does not Jesus himself say very plainly here that the gate to life is narrow? So was Jesus narrow-minded? No, because there’s a difference between narrowness and narrow-mindedness. Narrowness deals with the facts, narrow-mindedness deals with whether a person is open or not to those facts. You see although Christians will tell you that the gate is narrow, that doesn’t mean that they’re narrow minded, because we’re just being open to the historical and credible facts of Jesus’ life, death, burial, and resurrection. Have you ever even read the gospels? You know it’s funny that most people that I talk to who reject the Christian faith have never read the core documents of that faith. You see, are you the one that’s being narrow-minded? Not willing to deal with the facts of Jesus. But simply brushing him aside because he’s not popular, because he’s not wide and inclusive enough. And so again, this is why this narrow gate is so hard to come through. But don’t you see what’s at this gate? What’s waiting for you at this gate? Forgiveness is at the gate! Healing is at the gate! Grace and mercy and fellowship with God is at the gate! But once you come through that gate you’re also starting out on the difficult road of discipleship, and so let’s look at this …
So in our passage Jesus doesn’t just say that the gate is narrow, he says the way is hard that leads to life. But why is it hard? Well, simply put it’s hard because when you become a Christian you now discover that you have three great enemies that you never had before. The Bible identifies them as the world, the flesh, and the Devil.
The first is the world and the way of the world: When a person starts out on the Christian way of life, they immediately realize that the self-centered prideful and materialistic way of the world is now at odds with your desire to please Christ. Suddenly you notice that people are looking at you and thinking of you strange by you saying no to certain things and yes to other things. You get a sense that you’ve sort of broken away from the popular majority. And you have. But it can be so frustrating because you’ve not left the world, you’re not downplaying the importance of the marketplace and the culture, but suddenly you find yourself out of step with the way of the world. Lloyd-Jones in his commentary on this passage says it like this, “The first thing we leave behind is what is called worldiness. We leave behind the crowd, the way of the world. You must start by realizing that by becoming a Christian, you become something exceptional and unusual. The Christian way of life is not popular, it never has been popular, and it is not popular today.” And this is why Jesus says that it’s hard. Because suddenly you’re out of step with the worlds way of doing things that once seemed so natural to you.
The next difficulty is now battling the flesh or what the Bible calls the old-self: You see, before, you were at war with God and at peace with sin, but now that you’re a believer you’re at peace with God and now at war with sin. J.C. Ryle said that a Christian is known for both their inner peace but also their inner conflict. Because you now see in yourself competing desires. I was talking with a member of this church just this past week and he was telling me how frustrating it can be as a Christian because he said that he’s always needing to practice discernment in the things that he does and the things that he buys and the things that he says. But he said, my unbelieving friend, I watch him all the time, if he wants to buy something he just buys it, if he wants to do something he just does it without even thinking. And sometimes if I’m honest I think, man that must be nice. You see, as a Christian, we’re now asking the question not just, what do I want, but what will please God? And there’s a difficulty and sometimes a frustration in that.
And then you have the spiritual lies and attacks of the Devil: And I realize that the concept of a personal devil must seem outlandish to some people, but it’s no more outlandish than a personal being called God or a place called heaven. Jesus believed in a personal Devil. A supernatural being that’s behind all the evil and wickedness that we see in this world, and here’s the thing, when you become a Christian, the greatest force of evil in this world now becomes your personal enemy.
And so for many of you who are Christians here and you have been struggling and fighting and finding faithfulness to Jesus difficult to Jesus in this world, take heart today, this is the normal Christian life. And I realize that there are seasons, sometimes it’s more difficult than others. But the difficulties are real as well as the blessings. But here I believe is the key question. If Christianity is this difficult, if you’re looking at this and you’re thinking, why would I ever want to go through this gate and go down this road? Look what Jesus emphasizes in this passage. It’s the destination. He says, it’s the easy way that leads to destruction but it’s the hard way that leads to life.
Imagine with me for a moment that you’re in some big city and you really want to get to some desired destination. And you know that you need to take the subway to get there, but you’re unsure which way is right. Well who do you talk to? You talk to the person who’s most qualified to show you the way. So you go to the information desk and the person tells you that there are many ways not to get there, but the blue line is the only way to get there, but it’s very bumpy, it’s a difficult ride. You see, in that moment is the destination the most important thing to you or the difficulty of getting there. It’s the destination. And my friend do you know the way to life and life eternal? The most qualified person to tell us the way to life is the Author of life himself. Jesus is the most qualified person you could ever ask. And here he tells you, the gate is narrow, and the way is hard, but the destination is worth it. He says you come to me and you will experience life with God now and life with God forever. Enter the narrow gate today, get on the way to life and if you already have, then look at every difficulty along the way in light of our glorious eternity.