Is Christianity easy or hard?

Today is Saturday and this morning my intention had been to sleep late after a long week.  As is sometimes the case, I found myself partially awake (I was going to say half-awake, but upon reflection it felt closer to three-fourths awake) far earlier than I wanted to be and resolved that if I just stayed put I would eventually fall back asleep.  This is indeed what happened, but some thoughts came to me during that partially awake period that remained with me when I woke up for good a few hours later.  I don’t remember the path of my thoughts, but I was thinking about life, and God, and what I should be doing, and whether I should write about it, and my mind was drawn towards this saying of Jesus:

 “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” — Matthew 11:28-30

and then about how elsewhere Jesus makes following Him sound quite difficult:

Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. — Mark 8:34-35

And I thought this is a paradox that probably puzzles a lot of people, so I should write something about it on my blog.  Of course it puzzles me too, and I’m not sure I have a good answer for it, but I have developed a knack (mostly from reading C.S. Lewis) for engaging in speculation to find possible resolutions to such things.  I could find a plausible one easily enough, it satisfies me that there are probably others out there as well.  This process gets easier over time, because thinking through these things encourages one to read, search, learn, and keep coming back to Jesus’s words, so that eventually the majority of them are readily available to the mind on demand. So in today’s case I recall how Jesus speaks elsewhere about “burdens”, for example, in a scathing criticism of the religious leadership of the day:

“Woe to you Pharisees, because you love the most important seats in the synagogues and respectful greetings in the marketplaces. “Woe to you, because you are like unmarked graves, which people walk over without knowing it.” One of the experts in the law answered him, “Teacher, when you say these things, you insult us also.” Jesus replied, “And you experts in the law, woe to you, because you load people down with burdens they can hardly carry, and you yourselves will not lift one finger to help them. — Luke 11:43-46

This tells us something about what Jesus might mean by “my burden is light”.  The kinds of burdens that “experts in the law” pile up on people are rules and regulations.  A persistent theme in the Gospels is that God’s commandments are simple, not complicated.  One passage begins this way:

On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” “What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?” He answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” “You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”  — Luke 10:25-28

This closely parallels Matthew 22:36-40, where Jesus says that “all the Law and the Prophets”, the several hundred commandments that govern the religious life of devout Jews (on top of which the religious establishment piles on the additional burdens of tradition), can be parsimoniously replaced by just two general principles.  This sounds to me indeed like an easier yoke and a lighter burden. “Do this and you will live” … sounds simple enough.

However, Luke’s account picks up in verse 29 with the famous parable of the Good Samaritan:

But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”  In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’  “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”  Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.” — Luke 10:29-37

So what is indeed a simple principle, is in fact quite demanding when given its fullest expression, where “neighbor” can mean anyone and “love” seems to have no limits.  Jesus didn’t even need to spell it out here; the listener’s conscience knew the right answer already.  Perhaps that’s why Chesterton once quipped: “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.”

So here’s the analogy I came up with.  Sometimes I go to the supermarket “just to pick up a few things”.  My small basket fills up and I’m juggling the remaining items in my hands while trying to carry the basket.  A frozen dinner here, a package of Rice-a-Roni there, a box of tissues precariously balancing on my forearm.  As I make my way to the register, it feels like a huge burden, even though it only weighs perhaps ten pounds, because juggling it all is a complicated task.  On the other hand, when I carry a fresh 5-gallon water jug to the water cooler, it weighs over forty pounds.  Lifting it is perhaps difficult in a different way, but it’s not complicated.  It’s certainly more efficient in terms of effort and stress per unit of weight, and doesn’t give rise to the same frustrations as the supermarket experience.  So maybe the water jug is the easier burden.  Simple burdens like two-commandment summary are lighter, pound-for-pound than complicated systems of religious rules.

In addition to the ethical side of Christianity, one can see a similar process at work in terms of the belief system.  Perhaps the earliest statement of a Christian creed, found in Paul’s letter to the Romans, seems to be the three simple words “Jesus is Lord”.

If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you profess your faith and are saved. As Scripture says, “Anyone who believes in him will never be put to shame.” For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile—the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him,  for, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” — Romans 10:9-13

Fully embracing even as a simple creed as “Jesus is Lord” is not as easy as it might sound.  I can’t just snap my fingers and believe something like that in my heart.  I can choose to act on something, I can choose to pursue faith, but doubts can be stubborn too.  And even to the extent I do believe something, professing it boldly with my mouth – especially in a way that helps the cause rather than backfiring – is a different skill entirely.  Christianity in its simple ethical, belief, and missionary aspects is something like the slogan of the board game Othello – “a minute to learn, a lifetime to master”.

However, many churches (hopefully not at the door, but often right on their websites) ask their members to go a lot further.  Over the centuries, the official statements of belief seem to get longer and longer.  The Old Roman Creed (late 2nd century precursor to today’s Apostles Creed) is 86 words (in English translation).  The famous Nicene Creed of A.D. 325 runs 174 words, the Athanasian Creed (late 5th century) runs 658 words.  The Westminster Confession of Faith (1646) runs over 12,000 words, and today’s Catechism of the Catholic Church runs over 250,000 words. And of course the Bible itself, when incorporated by reference as an “infallible” or “inerrant” text in many Christian statements of faith, runs over 700,000 words.

Understandably, churches need to hold some things in common to give them a sense of purpose and community, but there has to be room for freedom of thought and respect for individual conscience as well.  Paul’s warning against quarreling over “disputable matters”, wonderfully put in Romans 14, is still relevant today, even if the principal causes of disagreement among Christians have changed. I wonder if Jesus would call the proliferation of lengthy official statements of belief “heavy burdens” that not only push some people away from church, but also place stumbling blocks in the way of individual relationships with God.

As is usually the case with these blog posts, I often Google my own question to see what others wrote.  And who comes up first (although phrased differently as “is Christianity hard or easy?” but Mr. Lewis.  In this excerpt from Mere Christianity, Lewis poses a different solution to the problem than mine.  I’d invite you to read it (a longer form, with less page clutter, is here), but in a nutshell the idea is that there is a journey of transformation to which we are all called, and the straight path of the serious Christian disciple is the most direct, and therefore the easiest in the long run.  I do see myself in some of Lewis’s counterexamples in this section, so I can certainly sympathize with anyone’s difficulties in putting it into practice.

Finally, you may wonder why at the beginning of the post I called attention to how the idea of this post came to me.  I didn’t think much of it until I was getting ready to write.  I had thought about starting the post with that quotation from Matthew 11, and remarking how the practice of starting a thought piece that way has some history.  I had specifically been thinking of George MacDonald’s Unspoken Sermons, each of which starts with a snippet of scripture.  Right after that I thought about Works of Love, by Søren Kierkegaard, which I had very briefly flipped through, probably for less than two minutes (as my daughter was ready to get going), in a bookstore last night.  In that book, I had noticed at the start of each chapter a snippet of scripture to set the stage.  So I decided today to Google that work as well, and the first response to my search was a commentary on Works of Love, found here.  And lo and behold, the first page of that commentary was an except from Kierkegaard’s foreword:

These Christian reflections, which are the fruit of much reflection, will be understood slowly but then also easily; yet they surely will become very difficult if someone by hasty and curious reading makes them difficult for himself. “That single individual”, who first ponders whether he will read or not, will ponder lovingly, if he decides to read, whether or not the difficulty and the ease, when they are thoughtfully placed together on the scales, are rightly related, so that Christianity is not misrepresented by making either the difficulty or the ease too great.

Now isn’t that interesting!  Here I was working on a post about “hard or easy” and here’s Kierkegaard, whom I had stumbled across last night, speaking to that very point.  I’m quite sure I didn’t read the foreword last night, also sure I’ve never read Works of Love either, and I had only a very vague familiarity with Kierkegaard (having read a bit of Practice in Christianity).  I am also sure that the verses about burdens and crosses were nowhere in the very brief parts I was flipping through.  So the idea that the bookstore visit planted the seed for the post doesn’t hold.  Instead, it has to be chalked up as one of those odd coincidences in life.

I’m not the type of person who typically sees the divine hand in everyday events.  My theological view involves God being, for the most part, hands-off and letting the story of day-to-day life play out however natural laws and human agency dictate.  Furthermore, a good portion of my professional training has been directed at learning not to be overly impressed by coincidences, given the tendencies of the human brain to find patterns in random data.

Nonetheless, I’m not closed to the idea that from time to time maybe God does plant a thought in my head, or arrange for me to notice certain things, to help guide me towards something or just as a way of saying a subtle hello (without straying too far from what might be His normal m.o.).  So I’ll be putting Works of Love at the front of my books-to-read list.

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