Life in the Kingdom of God should be fulfilling and rewarding. It should be productive and meaningful. It should be challenging and demanding and sometimes exciting. It should not be easy. In fact, if you find life in the Kingdom of God to be easy, that’s a sure sign you’re not doing it right.
I’m not talking about the difficulties we all face simply because we are human. Everybody gets sick, sooner or later. Everybody is subject to the possibility of life-altering circumstances such as accidents, bereavements, financial reverses, and betrayals. Christians recognize events and experiences like those as the consequences of living in a world turned upside down by human sin and rebellion against God.
I’m talking about an added layer of pain, an additional dimension of difficulty, to which the followers of Jesus are subjected if they are serious about living consistently as citizens of the Kingdom of God. I base this conclusion on a truth which figures prominently in the preaching of Jesus in the Gospels: cross-bearing discipleship.
During His earthly ministry, Jesus made it clear that following Him (i.e. living in the world as one of His disciples) would not be easy. In fact, to emphasize just how difficult it was going to be, the Gospel of Matthew tells us…
24 Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” (Matt. 16:24)
We read almost the same words in Mark 8:34 and Luke 9:23.
Further, when Jesus was at the peak of His popularity, just a year or so before His own crucifixion, when He was apparently drawing large and enthusiastic crowds any time He preached in public, He made a point of telling His listeners exactly what they could expect if they wanted to be His disciples. Here is the way Luke records one such occasion in chapter fourteen of His Gospel.
25 Large crowds were traveling with Jesus, and turning to them he said: 26 “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple. 27 And whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.”
It is only logical to assume that, when Jesus used “cross-bearing” language to describe the conditions under which His followers could expect to carry out their daily lives, He had in mind the cross which awaited Him in Jerusalem. His uncompromising commitment to accomplish the will of His Father in heaven would lead Him into an unavoidable clash with the “powers that be,” both secular and religious. The result would be His death on a cross, and He advised His would-be disciples that their decision to follow Him would require their willingness to take up a cross of their own.
Funny, I don’t hear the purveyors of the “health and wealth gospel” drawing on these texts when they promise their devotees that following Jesus will yield financial rewards and material prosperity.
I’m currently reading a book that has awakened my spiritual sensibilities with the effect of a glass of cold water in the face. It’s called Prophetic Evangelicals: Envisioning A Just And Peaceable Kingdom. It is a collection of essays, the first of which includes a reference to one faithful twentieth-century preacher who understood the need to highlight the cross-bearing dimension of Jesus’ message—Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Here’s part of what I read there.
(Dr.) King saw “taking up our cross” as integral to the life of Christian discipleship. King writes, “the cross we bear precedes the crown we wear. To be a Christian one must take up his cross, with all of its difficulties and agonizing and tension-packed content and carry it until that very cross leaves its marks upon us and redeems us to that more excellent way which comes only through suffering.” Taking up one’s cross means to surrender oneself to the worldly struggle for justice, bearing the suffering of others, even at the cost of one’s own life. (Prophetic Evangelicals, p. 28.)
Now I am not suggesting that life in the Kingdom of God is a bleak, joyless existence with the ambience of death row in a state penitentiary. Re-read the first paragraph of this post if that’s what you think. What I’m saying is that serious-minded citizens of the Kingdom of God will constantly run afoul of one philosophy, one worldview, one political perspective or another whose values conflict with those of the Kingdom and whose interests run at cross-purposes with those of the Kingdom. If that is not happening in your experience as a Christian, you may need to ask yourself what “cross-bearing” means in the preaching of Jesus and where, exactly, it figures into your concept of discipleship.
Kingdom citizens are people of consistency, people of conscience, people who look out for the interests of others above those of themselves. They are people who understand that maintaining their commitment to the values of the Kingdom will inevitably bring them into conflict with the values and priorities of a social order that is not guided by the Spirit of God or the principles that govern life in the Kingdom of God. And that conflict, believe it or not, will show up as often in our interaction with secular conservatives as with secular liberals.
I am not here encouraging what some evangelicals refer to as the “culture wars.” I love culture. Non-Christians produce breathtaking works of art and soul-stirring music and riveting literature that rivals, and in many cases surpasses, the greatness of anything produced by Christians. God works through the gifted hands of a surgeon, the soaring intellect of a scholar, and the creative genius of a designer or inventor irrespective of their religious predilections.
At the same time, it is all too painfully obvious that there is a force at work in our world, an enemy of the Kingdom of God, our Adversary who wants to undermine the plan of God for His creation and deflect the glory which belongs only to God. His nefarious strategies, of which we are warned repeatedly in the New Testament, invariably emerge whenever the disciples of Jesus interact with those whose loyalties are not commanded by the King. That’s when the going gets rough. That’s when citizens of the Kingdom experience the practical reality of cross-bearing discipleship.
Count on it. The more serious we are about reflecting the character of Christ, the more our adversary does whatever he can to make things difficult. So, I’ll say it again. Cross-bearing is the default mode for Kingdom citizens. That means that, until the King returns to finalize the transformation of this sin-plagued creation, the more we desire to look like Jesus, the more our enemy will do to make that difficult. So, life in the Kingdom of God should be fulfilling and rewarding. It should be productive and meaningful. It should be challenging and demanding and sometimes exciting. But it will not be easy, and if it is, then something is seriously wrong.