If Jesus loves us so much, why does he tell us we have to take up our cross and follow him? Why doesn’t he just take all the pain away?
From time to time I enjoy reading comments people post related to internet news stories. Some are juvenile and insulting, but others are intelligent and well-written. Today a story appeared on MSN of yet another fragment of an ancient text that says that Jesus had a wife. Of course, many people immediately hauled out the worn-out canard that another proof that the Church is wrong has surfaced, and that the Church maliciously suppressed these documents because they showed a truth they didn’t want to acknowledge. Historians have always known that these documents existed, but they also have always known that they have no historical credibility. They were not written by people reporting what Jesus truly said and did. Rather, they were deliberately fabricated by groups such as the Gnostics in an attempt to make people believe the vision of Christianity that they desired to see but which Jesus did not in fact create. A married Jesus would suit their needs well, so they created it. The truth is that these documents were not delegated to the dustpans of history because they were ruthlessly suppressed, but because no one took them seriously, and they were simply abandoned as worthless.
But that’s not the point of this post. Instead, I wish to comment on what some people wrote in defense of the faith. Numerous people, in a valiant attempt to defend the veracity of the Church, pointed out that the heart of the Gospel is not whether or not Jesus married but his call to love one another. There were numerous posts of this nature: “God just wants us to love one another”, “Love God and love your neighbor”, “Be kind to one another”, etc. All of this is and true and good. But it is not the summation of the Gospel, and therein is where I think we have been weak in defending the faith and perhaps why it is not as popular is it should be.
I frequently receive responses from people stating that “Jesus understands” and “God just wants me to be happy.” The implication is that if Jesus loves us he’ll never allow us to be uncomfortable or suffer. Even parishes often avoid anything uncomfortable, and some priests have restricted their preaching to what I call “marshmallow theology” – soft, sweet, and fluffy, but containing no nutritional value. They limit themselves to preaching a sort of self-help psycho-spirituality, where you simply remember that God loves you and that you are special, so give yourself a big hug from God and remember how much he loves you! Well that’s nice and that’s true, but that’s Barney! Somehow I think the second person of the Blessed Trinity took on our human nature and died on the cross to teach us a little more than we can learn from a purple dinosaur! Some people even go so far as to think that Jesus doesn’t care about sin but only about how much we love him. I think Jesus cares about sin very much – enough to die on the cross to save us from it. Yes, God is all loving, all-compassionate, and all-forgiving. But there is more to God than that, and we frequently forget that side of him and have thereby presented the world with “Jesus the wimp!”
Any high school student playing a sport knows a good coach presses him to be the best he can be. At the time, the kid may not like it very much and may even curse out his coach. But when he wins a tournament or a medal, he is grateful that the coach pushed him even when he felt like he was at his limit, for he knows it was the coach’s belief in his potential and his constantly challenging him to be all he could be that made him succeed. Well, God is no different! Jesus loves us unconditionally and wants us to overcome sin and be strong against the devil. Yes, he tells us how much he loves us, but precisely because he loves us, he is not going to allow us to make excuses as to why we can’t do what he teaches us. He tells us the road will be rocky, but he will help us walk it. I specifically remember debating a young man who was gay who was trying to convince me that Jesus understood his plight and would allow him to have a homosexual relationship. He asked me, “What do you think Jesus would say to someone who told him he was gay?” His assumption was that Jesus would say, “I understand. Go out and love another man.” Instead, I told him I know exactly what Jesus would tell him, “Deny yourself, take up your cross and follow me!” Jesus is not a wimp, and the Gospel is not for wimps. To follow the Lord is a real challenge. Sometimes we forget to challenge people to be better than what the world says they can be. Maybe the fact that we have not presented people with the challenge but with a wimpy Jesus is a big part of the reason people don’t come to church any more. Who wants to worship a wimp?
Yes, following the Lord can be hard at times. If people have fallen into a deep pit, and one is able to climb out, what does he do for the others? He tells them that, yes the walls are steep and the climb will be difficult, but that is the only way to get out of the pit. He encourages them every step of the way to follow in his footsteps, as that is the only way to salvation. He doesn’t just sit on the rim and tell them to hold hands and sing Kumbaya!