Today’s sermon at my church struck a nerve. Following Jesus will cost you something. It is a Cross-bearing, death-to-self path toward joy. there is no way to get through the Christian life without pain and sacrifice.
And you and I have got to do a better job of talking about the hard parts; we have to tell more stories about self-death, because we are leading people astray with our version of Christianity where gaining Jesus threatens nothing else in your life.
I have someone who is precious to me beyond words. Even though we live thousands of miles apart we have spent hours these past months wrestling through our faith together.
Moving towards Jesus is causing her a lot of pain, and that pain is confusing her, because when she looks around the Church, all she hears are stories about how wonderfully freeing it is to come to God with empty hands and be filled with the satisfying provision of Christ.
And I hear that. There surely is nothing better than that.
But, that’s not the whole story. No one in this world starts with empty hands. We start with hands full of things we worship and love and treasure and trust, and the process of preparing us to receive the great gift of Christ always begins with the terrible tearing away of lesser things.
This week on the phone this woman, whom I love, asked me: why does this feel like dying for me and why does it seem so easy for everyone else?
And I wanted to cry. Because we’ve failed her. When suffering is a surprise, we’ve failed. When we preach rainbows and butterflies – or even radical and romantic mission – without the truth of tragedy and the reality of daily struggle, we’ve failed.
When this woman can look at me and say – why is this so hard for me and so easy for you? – I have failed her.
I’ve only told half the story. I’ve talked about the sweet redemption and the glorious gift. I’ve written blog posts about what it feels like to raise my hands and worship the only living God. I’ve typed words when faith floods my soul and proclaimed the truth: Jesus is better.
And all of that is real, more real than anything else in the world. But the life I have found in Christ came through death – His and mine. The sweet relief of surrender and giving up all my burdens has been found in bearing a Cross- His and mine.
If we only tell the end of the story, the part where empty hands get filled, and we never talk about the terrifying pain we felt when the idol we clutched was torn from us, then it’s no wonder our Gospel is rejected.
So, I’ll go first.
Today I lifted my hands in worship and with tears and trembling I sang that Jesus is better. And as the words left my lips, I felt it. The past month I have experienced the prize and the gain of Christ.
But the joy of this January was born through blood and pain. And it is only part of the story.
I found a note this week that I had journaled last January. This is the story behind the story of the joy I feel today:
I am afraid.
I am scared of the darkness in my heart that even now wants to pull this pain around me and wrap myself up in it like some sort of medal or badge that proves something about me. I am scared I will use it as currency to try to buy for myself love and attention. I am scared of it running out – and me being left standing alone with nothing but my very empty soul.
I am scared of the parts of me that wish the next person dead just so that we can do this all at once, so we can get this over with while I’m already lying on the floor. And I am scared of the guilt I feel putting those words into writing if something happens to someone I love tonight. But then I wonder, who is left? And will death just keep edging people away from me – not even by taking them, but by taking someone nearby and forming this casement around me that makes it impossible to draw near to anyone.
And deepest of all the fears is the paralyzing fear that maybe we’re wrong. And underneath that is an even deeper darkness: the horror I feel at the realization that the real pain of being wrong is that if I’m wrong it means I have lost Ronnie forever – not that I have lost my Jesus.
I fear being wrong because I fear losing a mere mortal, not because I fear losing my sweet Savior.
And I don’t know what that means.
Except that maybe this life has all just been this lie.
And even now I feel You hovering near by, Your sadness and love mingling together and I feel so ashamed. For these fears and doubts. For the questions and the lack of love for your glory and honor. My sweet Savior, how can I come to You when we both know the truth: that You are not my first love.
Those words sounds poetic today but they were typed in the darkest of nights. When I honestly and tragically didn’t even care if Jesus was better. It fills my eyes with tears to type that, even now.
Because Jesus IS better. Those words are part of the story, but they are not the whole story either. Pain and loss are not the end of the story.
My Jesus is not intimidated by dark nights of the soul because they have no ability to change the reality of the sun, that WILL rise again with healing in its wings. He doesn’t fear our pain because He knows that death is the road to life; loss the path to gain.
These are the stories of the Gospel, and may we tell them both: death as a means to life; loss that results in gain. Tell the whole story today.