Rev. Kleyn is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church of Edgerton, Minnesota.
It is a fact that the Christian’s life on earth is difficult. Every true child of God knows this from experience. And every true child of God knows this from the Scriptures.
God has not promised us an easy life. The Scriptures do not say: “In this world ye shall not have tribulation.” The Word of God does not promise: “All that will live godly in Christ Jesus shall not suffer persecution.” The very opposite is true (John 16:33 and II Tim. 3:12). And it is not simply the case that the difficulties of life come along every now and then as small hurdles for us to cross, after which all is smooth and easy. Rather, believers are told “that we must through much tribulation enter into the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22). We can expect it. The life of the Christian in this world is the difficult life.
This is also the thought expressed in a passage we used recently as the theme for family visitation in our congregation. The passage is Matthew 7:13, 14. “Enter ye in at the strait gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat: Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.”
The text makes it clear that the Christian life is arduous by comparing that life to a narrow gate and a narrow way. The text is saying that both the gate and the way refer to the same thing, namely, the difficult life of the child of God.
The idea, first of all, is that the whole of the Christian life on this earth can be compared to an entering through a narrow gate. Every day of his life on earth the child of God must strive to enter through the narrow gate. The emphasis is on the fact that the gate is narrow—so narrow, in fact, that one can barely squeeze through it. There is no room to take along extras, not even a backpack. One must strip himself of many things in order to fit through this gate.
But our life in this world can also be compared to walking along a narrow way, or road. And again the point is the same—this road is so narrow that it is hard to travel. This is no highway. It is not even a low-maintenance gravel road in the country. It is a steep and winding pathway up a mountainside. As one climbs, his feet slip. He is hemmed in on all sides by trees and by rocks. He can barely make any progress along that way. And at times it seems he travels all alone.
One elderly man in the congregation put it this way. He said that living the Christian life is like driving a Model T Ford with a bent steering rod along a narrow road. Because of the defect in the steering, the Model T constantly pulls to the right, toward the ditch. The difficulty lies in keeping your hands firmly on the wheel and remaining on that narrow road. That, he said, is the life of the Christian. How true!
What is it that makes your life as a Christian difficult?
Many answers could be given. The struggles of life are unique to each family, to each individual, to each age group, and to each community in which we live. Every child of God will most likely, according to the varying circumstances of his or her life, give a different answer to the above question. Some are elderly and experience difficulties peculiar to the elderly—sickness, pain, loss of memory, inability to do things as they used to. Some are parents and face the problems related to raising children, especially as they are called to raise them in a world that increases in its wickedness and thus also in its power to tempt our children and young people. Some are young people and children who must deal with the trials and temptations that are peculiar to their age and situation in life. And so the way is narrow for all of God’s children.The way is narrow because of affliction. It is certainly true that the wicked also experience affliction, but very often it is more severe and more frequent for the believer. (See Psalm 73.) And it is never easy to suffer. There is sickness that threatens our very life or the lives of loved ones. There is pain that must be endured every day. There is mental illness. There is departure of loved ones from the faith. There are unexpected events in life that alter all our plans and purposes. There is death, sometimes even of one who is still young and, as we would say, in the prime of his or her life.
God sends these afflictions. His purpose, as we all know, is always good. Yet this does not alter the fact that affliction makes the Christian life difficult.
Then there is difficulty because of persecution. This is unique to the child of God. Those who live godly lives in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution. The ungodly man hates the child of God. He hates him because of how he lives. He hates him because of what he confesses. He hates him especially when he confesses, unashamedly, that Jesus Christ is his Lord.
Persecution comes in many forms. For some Christians it is severe, even requiring that they die for what they confess. For others this persecution is milder, coming in the form of verbal attacks. In either case this is the persecution of a world that hates God and the people of God. The world will attack, you can be sure of that. Especially will they do so when we, by God’s grace, withstand their attempts to get us off the narrow and onto the broad way. In throngs they stand as spectators along the sides of the narrow way. Ceaselessly they mock and deride the faithful believer, poking him with sticks and hurling stones at him as he struggles along.
Another reason for the straitness of the road is that the child of God is among the few. “Few there be that find it,” says the text. It is never easy to be with the few. Much easier to be with the crowds — to do what they do, to go where they go, to be involved in the life of ease and pleasure in which they are involved. Thus we are attracted to the broad way. For who wants to be with the few? Who wants to be among those who are despised? Who wants to be different?
Even though all these and numerous other things make the way narrow, the main reason for the difficult life has not yet been mentioned. What is it? It is our old sinful nature. It is on account of that sinful nature that we are attracted to the broad way.
That broad way is the easy way. It is the super highway of fun and pleasure. The travelers on this road may take along whatever they wish. They may live as they please and do as they please. In fact, the signposts along this way read: “Travel as you wish! Go as fast as you like! No restrictions!”
The broad way is the way of the world. And the language of that world is this: “Live it up! Enjoy this life to the full! If you want it, get it! If it makes you happy, it’s right! If it feels good, do it! This is the life you deserve!”
The pressure to travel the broad and easy way constantly confronts the children of God. We see, hear, and read the signposts of the broad road daily — from every television show, from every radio station, and in every newspaper. As we travel the narrow pathway of life, pressed in on all sides by countless obstacles and restrictions, we notice the easy way and even give in, at times, to the tempting voices of the ungodly.
We listen all too intently, for example, to their seducing cries as they proclaim: “Wouldn’t you prefer the easy way? Come join us. Enjoy the luxuries of life. Build a new house. Purchase a new car. Don’t let the fact that you can’t pay for it stop you. After all, you deserve a much better life than your parents and grandparents. You certainly don’t have to live as they did. You certainly don’t have to make the sacrifices they made. Make this world your home.”
How often is it not the case that we heed these tempting cries? Then it is no longer the kingdom of heaven first, but “Me first!” Self-indulgence becomes our motive in life. And with that all sense of Christian stewardship is abandoned.
The faithful Christian says “No!” to all that the world offers. Self-denial is his motto, not self-indulgence. Deliberately he makes his choice for that which is difficult.
Difficult though it may be, the Christian must enter daily through the narrow gate and walk daily along the narrow way. It is not easy. But it is crucially important. Important because of where these ways lead. The wide way leads to destruction, to eternal destruction, to hell. The narrow way leads to life, to eternal life, to heaven. It is a matter of life and death! Which path are we on?
We Christians sometimes want to be road-builders. We certainly realize that the broad way is not the way for us to travel. Yet on the other hand we do not like the narrow way. We find it too restrictive. We find it too strenuous. So we begin building a new way along which to travel. We begin to construct a new road which incorporates a little (perhaps a lot) of the broad way and a little of the narrow way. Then the line of clear distinction between the broad and narrow ways is lost. We want to walk with at least one foot on the broad path. We want to make our motto, not self-denial, but self-indulgence.
Scripture, however, does not speak of a third way. Always the Bible speaks in language that is black and white. It is not both/and; it is either/or. God has not designed a third way. God has not placed the Christian on a way that is only semi-difficult. There is only one way that leads to eternal life, and that is the narrow way. The way of self denial. The way of affliction. The way of suffering. The way of persecution. The way of the few. The way of the antithesis. Christ said, “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me” (Luke 9:23).
Yes, we are admonished to live the difficult life. And so difficult is that way that one cannot help but wonder why anyone at all travels it. The only reason is grace. Left to ourselves we would rush headlong onto the broad way that leads to destruction. But God takes His children and places them on the narrow way. And not only does He place us on it, He keeps us there. His hand holds us back from fleeing for the life of ease and luxury and pleasure.
The means God uses to keep His own on the narrow way are many. Chief, of course, is the preaching. In order to have the strength to remain on the narrow way we need to shut our ears to the voices of the world and open our ears to hear and heed the voice of Christ. But there is also the means of prayer. And the means of the reading and study of the Scriptures personally and as families. And the means of fellowship, not with those on the broad way, but with those who are with us on the narrow way. They are our friends to give us encouragement as fellow pilgrims on the way to eternal life.
Difficult though it may be, the Lord uses the narrow way with everything on it to bring us to the eternal blessedness of life in His kingdom.