The good news is we are all welcome into heaven! The gates are now open, and there is “a way, a truth, and a life” to help us get there. But welcome mats aren’t always walked upon, and as beautiful and reassuring as this one is, it also never feels the footsteps of so many invited guests. And why? Because, simply put, it is hard…and unappealing, and humiliating, and daunting, and unpopular, and isolating to get to heaven. It is anything but simple.
We are told to “Enter through the narrow gate,” to achieve our heavenly reward. Yet, we are not told exactly how narrow the gate and are often unclear on the direction. Is it a picturesque garden gate, or a cramped and overgrown, thorny, lockjaw ridden gate deep in the wild woods? If the former, then I embrace it fondly in all its loveliness. I can imagine my Anne of Green Gables persona in a long flowing skirt floating through lilac fields to enter that gate. If the latter, then my hesitation leaves me no wonder so many choose the wide gate! “For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it” (Mt 7:13).
Time and again we choose the wide gate, because we are human, and who among us doesn’t desire absolute security? If I am called to embrace a path marked with suffering, I don’t know if I can. For this reason it’s nearly impossible to swallow the idea of many people entering through the gate of destruction. Perhaps it’s not so hard if we’re abstractly talking about strangers of ill repute, but what if the finger falls upon our friends, family, or worse…ourselves? This uncomfortable “many” margin encroaches on our own chances of entering through the narrow gate, perhaps a gate we hadn’t even planned on actually seeking this side of eternity. As said by Hans Christian Anderson,“Enjoy life. There’s plenty of time to be dead.”
How quickly we rationalize our own shining virtue in light of the tarnished reflection of our neighbor. Somehow our judgement becomes superior in determining just who among us is definitively going to hell in a hand-basket.
This is no new concept, as documented two-thousand years ago. In the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, it was the Pharisee who did not walk away justified, even though he was doing everything right. He even gave God thanksgiving because he was not like those other people, who were disregarding the law. “God, I thank you that I am not like other people – robbers, evildoers, adulterers – or even like this tax collector.” (Lk 18:11)
Gulp. The question of our own salvation is an uncomfortable one. It requires personal reflection on wrongdoings – which we don’t like to look at – or admit – apologize for – and especially not change. Instead we are the Pharisee, saying, “I am a good person, unlike these bad people. Thank you that I always try to do what’s right. And oh yeah, I’ve never killed anyone.” KILLED ANYONE? Really? Is the bar to heaven that low?
If so, then the whole Bible could have been summed up under one commandment -Thou shalt not kill? And if so, then why wasn’t that listed until 5th? Was Moses just throwing the others in so he wouldn’t look ridiculous coming down the mountain after forty days, with only the most obvious commandment?
Of course not. But for some reason, this most grave sin is the only one that sticks. It is the Commandment that almost anyone can name, and almost everyone treasures as a barometer for their own behavior. If there is someone doing worse then us, then there must be a place of higher honor we are somehow owed. But what about the command to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, strength, and mind? What about loving our neighbor as our self? This certainly puts a damper on the plan to throw our neighbor under the bus on judgement day, in order to make our own salvation look more promising.
Imagine a mom who leaves a chore list for her children, and when she returns home, the children admit to not doing any of it. However, the children assure the mom that she should be relieved, because at least they didn’t set the house abalze! In the same vein, imagine a boss who asks an employee to accomplish a certain number of tasks before the work day ends. The employee, having completed none of the tasks at the day’s end, tells his boss flippantly how thankful he should be that the employee is not embezzling money from the company like many others! These examples sound ridiculous, and yet this is the same way we approach God. “I’m sorry I didn’t pay attention your commandments, but at least I didn’t kill anyone.” And that’s our eternal argument.
How is it then that I know I am at the narrow gate, without comparing myself to others? I can either compare myself to those worse than me, or to Christ, who is infinitely better than me. There is no doubt, between the two, my odds are incomparably better with the first. And then I realize, I am that Pharisee.
Don’t despair. Look higher. Set the bar in your spiritual life higher, remembering that there is no higher goal than Christ.
All our lives, we strive to be like those whom we hold in great regard – our parents, leaders, heroes of the past. However these people are all capable of failure, of dropping the bar a little lower. Christ on the other hand is incapable of lowering the bar. He can not, and will not fall. He will always hold the most compassionate and loving standard for us to follow. Forget throwing his neighbor under the bus for the sake of looking better himself, Christ died for that neighbor, and that neighbor is me.
This is what must stick in my mind! Not falling into the trap of looking at my own faith as a “chore list” from a parent, or a set of “tasks” from an employer. Continuing in this mundane faith perspective will never lead to the fullness of a relationship, causing me to pursue the truth with as much vigor as my teenage spirit did the vacuuming – hyper speed and without moving anything. I don’t want a relationship with a chore list of taskmaster, I want Jesus.
The foundation of the narrow path is laid out painstakingly and beautifully, brick by brick. I become less and he becomes more as I seek my salvation wholeheartedly. I have to want to find that narrow path so much, that I am moved to “fear and trembling,” because the good work that God is working in me, is a work far greater than I alone am capable. (Phil 2:12-13)
The gate is narrow. The road is hard. Few find it. But that gate is worth EVERYTHING, because that gate leads to eternal life in Christ!
So, when I examine my conscience, I ask myself the question, not of what I am not doing (killing someone), but what I am doing (loving the Lord with my whole heart, soul, strength). Because the road is not paved with intention, but with action. Its stones were laid with the sacrifice of the most perfect and innocent life.
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