Two Ways to Live
Nothing so fertilizes the soul as personal struggle; the tears that fall during the strain and bruising of spiritual warfare fall upon the heart's soil like summer rain on a parched African plain. Our humanity naturally recoils from difficulties and hardship; nothing would we desire so much as a smooth, untroubled existence that glides along the sea of life as a felucca floating upon the gentle Nile. Spiritual struggle—or, hidden warfare, emotional battle, personal conflict, or whatever one may call it—is often onerous to the mind. We have only limited time on this earth, our unconscious tell us, and, as it seems that everyone else is having a jolly old time, we also should be having continual feelings of giddiness and delight, or else something has gone terribly wrong.
No, my friend; nothing has gone wrong. In fact, something might be going quite right. The abrupt change of circumstances that has left you baffled and speechless is all part of the plan. We are all in a moment cast upon the stage of life, hurled forth from the womb, into an arduous existence, and are bidden to gather our strength and pull through as best we can. It is true we were never informed from our prenatal days that life on the outside would present us with such severe challenges; we might have objected to entering the world if we had known what awaits us. But here we are, nonetheless, and here are our challenges presented to us; and our response, as responsible beings, determines our future. And the response, ultimately, is guided by our way of life.
The Holy Bible speaks generally of two distinct "ways" or "paths" that can be followed, and there is really no third: either the way of self-seeking or of self-sacrifice. The former is almost inevitably resorted to first. As infants, our life's purpose is to appease the tyrannical appetites that assail us, and as such, we in turn become like little tyrants, kicking and writhing and raising a great commotion until the food is securely deposited in our mouth. And so, as we grow, we continue the frenzied quest for the satisfaction of our wants; from baby's food we pass on to the toddler's toys, then the child's games, the middle-schooler's sports, the high-schooler's popularity, the college student's distinction, and the self-honor of adulthood. With each stage of life, the coveted pleasure is more and more refined and abstracted; and we come to realize it is not so much a physical object we desire as a theoretical, personal "happiness".
We desire very much, in fact, of life. But then Christ faces us with a startling rule: "If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me.For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it" (Matthew 16:24-25). Ah, the Lord bids us to abandon the false way of self-satisfaction and to follow Him on the rugged path of self-sacrifice. It does us no good to sit and stare at the divine precept in admiration, like a passive observer admiring a museum exhibit, and simply pass on without the slightest change. Our Lord's words, which seem to us so great and profound as we sit reading them at our desk, are a personal charge, a practical duty, a binding spiritual contract we must uphold, as we go about our business in the world.
In other words, we must bear the cross to be a disciple of Christ. We must cease thinking of ourselves first. We must give up the old modes of thinking and be renewed in mind and character.
The cross—my cross—cannot be avoided, postponed, or stowed away. When the Lord gently and lovingly hands us that wooden burden, He says, "Be my disciple." We might not like the weight, but it is a requisite of claiming the honored name of Christian. So while our self-centered humanity insists on a rule of pure self-interest, the Lord instead call us to a higher life. And the higher life is attained only by scaling a steep precipice— just as the three disciples, after a hard and exhausting ascent, were favored with a vision of the Lord's glory (Matthew 17).
The mention of "disciple" in the verse above recalls our minds to the present Church season – a fast which precisely commemorates those brave men who, after being endowed with the Spirit of Truth, did not attempt to evade the cross, but took it upon their backs and marched triumphantly through the battlefield with their Captain at the head. Once called to the apostleship, their hearts and lives could not be contented with anything less. Once the Christian has been enrolled in the great Cause of the Word and the Kingdom, how can he be pulled down again into the dry and feeble path of self-seeking?
A life devoted to pursuing one's own pleasures, even if seemingly successful, is an unworthy life; a life not worth living. How sad, how pitiable, how forlorn is the soul that looks back upon a life which was preoccupied merely in seeking its wants. But it is a great thing to deny, to surrender, and to sacrifice oneself for a higher principle. Only in losing our life for Christ will we truly gain it. Indeed, Resurrection can only follow death, and the selfish life must be buried in God's ground to rise again a glorious plant by God's own hand. The apostles of Christ left us their priceless example, and their memory lives on in golden outlines – for the soul that submits itself to death with Christ will also be raised with Him in glory (Colossians 3:3,4).