Recently I had a conversation with a young man who was eager to get his feet wet in missionary work. He was passionate and knowledgeable about what he was getting into, and eager to really do the work of a missionary. He was not interested in the kind of “missions as tourism” trip that is becoming more prevalent in the church these days. He wanted to go where there was real need, and real darkness, with a mind to pursuing missions as a long-term vocation.
His parents, however, who are Christians themselves, were not so excited at the prospect. When he told them of his dreams of missionary work, he was met with baffled confusion.
“Why would you want to go somewhere dangerous?” they said.
“Why wouldn’t I?” was his response.
I would like to be gracious with his parents. No parents want to see their child, even their adult child, in danger, but their response really got me thinking. It seemed to me that their response was indicative of a common attitude in North American Christianity, one that I can’t say I’m immune from myself, and that is the desire to stay safe. But as I look more closely at that desire, I realize it’s completely incompatible with the Christian faith.
Really, if the goal of your life is to remain safe and secure, why would you ever choose Christianity as your religion? Why would you put your faith in a God who offered himself to torture and crucifixion? Especially when that God says, “Take up your cross and follow me?” Why be part of a movement which is, arguably, most effectively spread through the martyrdom of its adherents?
I mean, there are plenty of other religions of which you could be part, should you desire to live a safe life. Buddhism is pretty rad. They’re generally pretty zen. There’s plenty of self-improvement, and a strong inclination toward letting go of the worst aspects of yourself. You don’t even have to be a full-on Buddhist. I know people who, though they wouldn’t call themselves Buddhists, follow some of the principles of Buddhism, and they’re great people. People I want to learn from, even. There are probably plenty of Christians who would make excellent Buddhists.
I’m no expert in world religions, but I’m pretty sure Sikhism doesn’t involve following a god to his violent death. They’re monotheistic, they have a strong moral code, with an emphasis on selflessness and hospitality. They even practice baptism. All of that, and they have amazing food! Definitely a plus on the food side, if you’re a fan of curry.
There’s also Islam. If you love Jesus, you get to keep him in this one. You even get to keep the idea that Jesus will return someday. Muslims believe that Jesus was a great prophet, they just don’t believe he was actually crucified. Most Muslims believe he was taken up to heaven before the crucifixion, so that he would not have to suffer. Consequently, it might be easier to follow a Jesus who didn’t actually suffer when he says, “Take up your cross and follow me.”
Perhaps the ultimate death-free religion is one that barely qualifies as an actual religion at all. This one’s founder didn’t have to meditate for hours or endure undue hardship. Instead he wrote science fiction pulp novels and died in secrecy while living on a big ranch in Southern California. Before that, he spent several years sailing around the world on his private yacht. So maybe Scientology might be a better fit for you. They too have a strong focus on self-improvement and feeling good, so that’s nice. (I wouldn’t recommend this one if you’re poor, however. All that self-improvement can cost a lot of money!)
So if you just want self-improvement but aren’t really into suffering or being in scary places, why on earth would you be a Christian? Especially when you have all these other options? With that in mind, I would urge you, if you’re just not that into self-sacrifice unto death, or suffering in general, to please consider another religion. At the very least, please feel free to stop attending Church services and instead sign up for an enrichment class at your local community college. Really.
Even Jesus himself would beg you to reconsider following him. In the Gospel of Luke, chapter Nine, he says:
“If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.”
Later, in chapter fourteen, he is being followed by a great many people, and it seems he decides to thin the herd:
“Now great crowds accompanied him, and he turned and said to them, ‘If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple. For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it?
Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, saying, ‘This man began to build and was not able to finish.’ Or what king, going out to encounter another king in war, will not sit down first and deliberate whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand? And if not, while the other is yet a great way off, he sends a delegation and asks for terms of peace. So therefore, any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple.’”
Christ himself would urge you to really give all of this serious consideration before committing to following him. He would ask you to make sure you get a good look at the big picture before you put that “NOTW” bumper sticker on your car.
Because if you’re not going to follow Jesus to the cross, then guess what: You’re not following Jesus at all. You may possibly be on the path he walked, but you’re sitting in the middle of it, having a nice little picnic, and probably getting in the way of the more serious hikers.
If your Christianity does not include the option of pain, of actively pursuing self-sacrifice, if it does not include a mandate to go into dark and dangerous places, then your Christianity is devoid of Christ himself, and you should probably consider aligning yourself with a more comfortable belief system. To paraphrase Jesus: Don’t take up residence in a house you’re not going to finish building.
If, however, you would like to be swallowed up into an infinite, wildly dangerous love, then follow the one who is not safe, but who is very good. Follow the one who will demand absolutely everything from you, the one who will call you to suffering and death. Follow the one who will set your soul ablaze with an all-consuming fire, with a love which will indeed burn, burn, burn. Follow the one who will lead you to lay down your life for the lowest of the low.
Follow him when he leads you into suffering. Follow him when he leads you to share in the pain of your neighbour. Follow him into death.
Because here’s the other part of suffering: The joy you will experience will be much greater than, but directly linked to, the amount of sorrow you let in. That’s true not just for the next life, but for the one you’re living now. So take up your cross, and follow him not just to death but also to resurrection. Follow him into unspeakable joy.
By Aaron Alford