If we earnestly seek truth in God’s Scriptures—desiring the message of Christ and what he asks of us—we find a message so profound and challenging that it tears us away from the very fabric of worldly wisdom. We are lead into a truth poles apart from the narratives that have been embedded into our consciousness and cultural DNA since the first bite of that forbidden fruit. This truth however, comes with a cost.
Several years ago, while studying in Melbourne, I met a guy who was changed by the gospel message. He had come to university planning to complete a degree in commerce and then enter the world of finance—high-powered work that would set him up well by worldly standards. Then the gospel message transformed his goals into those of Christ. However, this didn’t go down well with his atheist father; he saw his son as good as flushing his future down the toilet. I distinctly recall my friend vomiting from the stress of being pressured by his father to abandon his faith.
But this story isn’t unique, and shouldn’t come as a surprise. Jesus never said that he came to make our lives easy or filled with wealth and pleasure. Consider his words in Matthew 10:34-36:
Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a person's enemies will be those of his own household.
These are not comforting words but they ring true, especially to those who have become isolated and banished from places such as Hindu and Islamic households for the sake of Christ. But it’s hard. Human beings desire to be part of a group. It is therefore tempting for us to conform to the world’s way of thinking in order to avoid exclusion. Even in the small things we hate to be unpopular. Who wants to be caught wearing a skinny tie in a fat-tie year?
That’s why so many of Jesus’ words really do surprise us. They go against the grain of everything we feel:
If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it. For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself? (Luke 9:23-25)
An interesting question for Christians to ask themselves then would be, “What does it mean to live in the world but not of the world? Have I taken up my cross, or tried to hide it behind my back?”
Before he died, Islamic-turned-Christian writer Nabeel Qureshi shared in his book about a young woman from Saudi Arabia who truly understood what it means to sacrifice one’s life in order to save it.1 A member of Islamic group Al-Hasba assassinated his sister for converting from Islam to following Christ; he killed her by burning her and cutting out her tongue. Why would a young girl in her prime lay down her life in such a way? She knew that by losing her life for Christ she was really gaining it.
Living as a Christian involves more than placing a fish sticker on your car: you must die to yourself for the sake of following Christ, a challenge to say the least. It requires a humility that goes against everything that the world equates with success. This is what Jesus himself recognized as he spoke to the rich young ruler seeking eternal life but who was unable to release his wealth: you cannot have it both ways. He said, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God”. Jesus doesn’t leave us without hope, however. He adds, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible” (Matt 19: 24-26).
While it’s true that God requires what we cannot do ourselves, he transforms us as the Holy Spirit works within our hearts and minds, helping us to develop the childlike humility needed to surrender to Christ and to live with the courage and strength to run the race. The Apostle Paul knew well what it meant to suffer for the sake of the gospel, often pleading with God to take away his pain. The answer Paul received is the answer we all need to wrestle with and learn from as we live through our personal trials and tribulations:
But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I [Paul] will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest upon me. (2 Cor 12:9)
So next time you catch a glimpse of a fish sticker, be reminded that the cost involved in truly bearing one is far greater than its retail value. The price is our earthly life—and the reward is eternal life in Christ.
1. N Qureshi, No God but One, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 2016, p. 294-295.↩