Church & Ministry, Motherhood & Family, Taking Heart, Truth & Orthodoxy

Don’t Be Alarmed If It Feels Like Death

“Go where you wanna go. Do what you wanna do. Believe in yourself.” Sesame Street is playing in the kitchen where my boy has been camping out in front of the HomePod, making requests to Siri. He’s enjoying the music when I hear him think out loud to himself, “Do what you wanna do”? No…you can’t do what you wanna do.

My little guy’s statement, unprompted and so obvious to him, is a bit like the child calling the emperor naked. In our world, self is king and doing “what you wanna do” is the only true way to live. Authenticity is heralded as the supreme measure of what is right. Trust in self a given good. He doesn’t know yet what a counter-cultural sentiment he’s expressing.

My four-year old’s critique isn’t one I am meant to merely rail against “culture” though, it is firstly a reminder for me.

These days, I’ve been sorting through the pull of desires and responsibilities. There are some things I want to be doing, which make the things I ought to be doing feel more onerous than usual. I have been at this— walking with God in my particular spheres of life— long enough to know that I can’t just shirk what I ought to be doing, but the slog of it had been creating a bit of dissonance in me and probably a bit of self-pitiful bitterness too.

I told Jeff yesterday that I wish I didn’t have this other thing I wanted. It was easier to say “yes” to the ought to when I didn’t have desires to do otherwise. I’d rather just not want than say no to what I wanted. To be sure, there are times when God calls us to reevaluate our priorities, to rest, to say no to duties we can no longer shoulder. I am in the middle of such a season. But my more recent struggles aren’t so much a matter of being over capacity as much as the reality that sometimes, I just want to do what I want to do, even as I do what I ought. Which is why some of Jesus’ hard words in the gospels have been actually coming to me as comfort this week.

Working my way through the gospels, I’ve been reminded of how committed Jesus was to giving a realistic view of what it would look like to follow him. He warned his disciples of persecution (Matt. 5:10-12, 10:23; Luke 12:21) and spoke of daily life with him as taking up his cross (Luke 9:23). Loving God will look like hating our own life at times (Luke 14:26). It is so complete a surrender of our own desires and a right to self that Jesus calls it death (Luke 9:24-25).

The force of these verses are not merely their predictive value, but in the promises Jesus holds out. Our death to self precedes our finding true life in him. We die as seeds, forfeiting all we know for the greater glory of a life that bears much fruit (John 12:24-25). These promises are gold. But what I am helped by today is something a bit more peripheral. It is the way that in them, Jesus resets our expectations of life with him.

I’ve always been a bit taken aback by Jesus’ words to the scribe who said to him “Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go.” Instead of affirming his desires, Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” (Matt. 8:19-22). It always felt a bit harsh to me. Now I’m seeing it as a mercy.

In our first years of marriage, Jeff and I would reflect on how surprised we were at how much we were enjoying it. We had braced for the worst, having been taught since we were teens about marriage— how sanctifying it is to be bound as sinner-saints to another, how it is not easy being exposed and continuing to love in the daily grind of real life. We went in with joy but also a bit of trepidation at the hard work we knew would be entailed in keeping covenant with one another. In hindsight, I probably could have used a more balanced view of marriage, including more of the joys. Still, I’m grateful because I can’t imagine having gone in wearing blinders, how confused I would’ve been had my expectations for it been different.

Jesus knew the scribe had prematurely declared his devotion. Whatever he imagined it’d be like to be a disciple of the Teacher, suffering, homelessness, and scorn needed to be added to the picture. Count the cost of following me, Jesus said in another instance, like a builder of a tower or a king before war. If you aren’t willing to bear your own cross, if you are not ready to be so committed to me that it looks to others like you hate your own life, you cannot be my disciple (Luke 14:25-34).

For those who by grace now follow him, there is a way in which God mercifully sets our expectations so that when things are truly hard, they aren’t compounded by our bewilderment that they are so. “Do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you,” wrote the apostle (1 Pet. 4:12). Jeff has reminded our church often that the uniform of the Christian is the armor of God, not Hawaiian shorts and a t-shirt. I’ve found that though this isn’t always the case, sometimes what I need most is just that recalibration of my expectations. That image of being dressed for warfare silences my alarm that “something strange is happening” when I don’t feel like life is a vacation.

I’m not exactly sure why it helps me as much as it does, these reminders that the Christian life is costly. Maybe it’s because I’ve come to instinctively take cross-bearing as a given and forget I didn’t walk into this life blind. Perhaps it takes away some of the doubt and guilt I feel when there’s a discrepancy between what I want and ought to do. Or perhaps I’ve just needed the assurance I’m going the right direction, like getting a call from a friend a few miles ahead on a road trip. “It’s a bit winding and you’ll pass by a Chick-fil-a billboard,” they might say, and the sign-holding cows come in view just as you wonder if you’ve lost the way.

Either way, I’m receiving this mercy today, the reminder that if it feels hard to follow Jesus, to obey him and love him, to sacrifice my own desires to know him better, it’s normal. Don’t be alarmed, he’s telling me, if it feels like death. He’s walked this way before, and it’s just as he said it would be.

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