I do not, in the least, disagree with the editors’ decision this month to address a series of hard sayings of Jesus. In fact, I think it a good decision. Years ago, when I was actively involved in planning Renewing Your Mind, the radio program, I suggested several different series on the hard sayings of the Bible. There are, however, at least two different kinds of hard sayings in the Bible. On the one hand, there are texts that are just plain terribly hard to understand—texts to which we respond, “What in the world could that mean?” Peter himself acknowledged that Paul was often difficult to grasp (2 Peter 3:16). On the other hand, there are texts that are not at all hard to understand but that are hard to submit to—texts to which we respond, “This text couldn’t possibly mean what it says, could it?”
Among the many snippets of wisdom I remember learning from my father was this one—when you are reading in your Bible and you come across a text that troubles you, that doesn’t quite sit right with you, don’t move on while saying to yourself, “All the Bible is helpful. I’ll just move on to something else helpful.” Instead, he encouraged, slow down, set up camp, and dig in. It is these texts that are most needful for us. Where we are in tension with the Word of God is just where we need to change, for His Word is always right.
Which brings me to my caveat about “hard sayings.” The truth of the matter is that the Bible is a hard book. It does not merely contain hard sayings—what it says is hard from beginning to end. It calls us to absolute and total obedience to the God who made us and the world we live in. It then exposes our utter failure to obey. Indeed, it recounts the history of God’s people so that we might see our own failure in theirs. It shows us in Jesus what we are supposed to be, and then it shows us killing Him for being what we are supposed to be. It shows the Father pouring out His wrath on Jesus, the wrath we earned with our own sins. It calls us to acknowledge our sin, to turn from it to Him. And then again calls us to obey all that He commands.
If we have been reborn, we are stuck with all of this. The Bible, that book that is in part and in whole hard, is His Word. We, unlike those outside the kingdom, are not free to deny that it is true. But we are, like those outside the kingdom, made uncomfortable by it. What we do with the Bible is less denying that it is true, and more denying that it speaks. Our skepticism doesn’t defy God’s Word; it mutes it. We take the shocking demand for obedience and turn it into an ethic soft enough that we are capable of keeping it. Perhaps more important, our ethic is soft enough that our unbelieving friends won’t complain. We remove not just the offense of the gospel, but the offense of the law.
It is, of course, fear that drives our weakness. We don’t want to lose our social standing. We don’t want to trouble our own consciences. We don’t want to rock the boat of our well-ordered lives.
Jesus, however, gives this hard saying to us: “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness” (Matt. 6:33). Note how we soften this terrifying command. First, we turn the kingdom of God into something invisible and otherworldly. If the kingdom is invisible, or in a distant future, there is no reason I can’t at least appear to be normal to the watching world. Seeking the kingdom—this radical call to set aside our own agendas, this radical call to be set apart from the kingdom of this world—becomes vague and empty.
But we are also told to seek His righteousness. We can, however, dial down the dread even on this command. We begin by defining righteousness down to a bland niceness that, again, even the world approves of. Indeed, we are tempted to take all of the Bible’s commands and reduce them down to “be nice, like the Jesus that the world believes in and loves.” Jesus, however, the real Jesus, was and is hated by the world, and He promised us that as we are like Him, we too will be so hated. And we end by turning the glorious gospel truth that we receive by faith, His righteousness, into a soft pillow to loosen us from the demands of the law. We do receive His righteousness by faith. This, however, grounds, rather than replaces, our call to become more obedient to His law.
We are called to take up not just His cross, but ours, to embrace not just His shame but our own. The hard truth is that the Bible tells us that we are called to hard lives, to be hated by the world and to walk the via dolorosa. If we are not crying out for His mercy and His strength, we may just be on the wrong road.