We avoid pain because …
We don’t really understand what it means to follow Jesus
Jesus said the most profound and disruptive things, including:
“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” (Luke 9:23)
Here, Jesus is categorically stating that real life actually involves daily death. This can be pretty confusing too, if you lean into the wrong images when you envision your earthly life.
Real life Thanksgiving
For example, a commercial I saw recently depicted Thanksgiving. It showed an American-dream family (right down to the friendly, cuddly dog) gathering in a giant house, around a fancy table, surrounded by expensive decorations, dressed in designer clothes, all with great hair, clinking crystal wine glasses, preparing to a perfectly cooked 30 pound turkey. Wow! Breathtaking! What a life! If I just buy their product or service (it was for a financial management and planning firm), then I too will have a “real life” … surrounded by beautiful people and thanking God around a magnificently-set table and a massive turkey.
A preview of heaven?
Now don’t get me wrong… I love Thanksgiving, turkey and gathering with my family … and I have had much the same experience this commercial portrayed. I’m not saying that Thanksgiving is wrong or bad, or that this commercial depicts something unhealthy. In fact, I think it gives us an interesting glimpse into heaven. There, the turkey will be huge, God’s mansion will be breathtaking, and the family will be pretty much permanently gathered around the Father’s table. And taking time now to do things that we’ll do in heaven — like setting aside special time to express gratitude to God while sharing abundant food and fellowship — isn’t bad, it’s wonderful. Especially if we are conscious in it to remember God’s blessing and to look forward to heaven.
The problem is that we, as Americans, have absorbed the imagery in this commercial to such a degree that it now represents our expectation for what life in a sinful broken world is supposed to be like. What God is storing up for us in heaven, we have come to believe we can build for ourselves here on earth. The unparalleled abundance and blessing which God has given so many of us is taken for granted. The comfort and ease and peace, fine china and full tables are no longer awe-inspiring, they’re expected, maybe even deserved. And we forget that life doesn’t consist in doing what it takes to replicate this commercial. It consists in walking with God, in following Jesus. And Jesus was very clear that following Him doesn’t always look like the traditional Thanksgiving dinner, it looks like carrying a cross and dying every day.
A better picture of real life
If I were to make a commercial for the life Jesus offers, I think it would look something like this…
We fade in on the work-worn hands of an elderly farmer. He’s working his field with a hand hoe, tilling up dark rich soil that he’s obviously been nurturing for a long time. The sun is shining brightly in the background. We never see his face.
He stops his work, rests his hoe on a fence post, and wipes sweat from his brow with a worn cloth handkerchief. Then, he reaches his weathered hand into the pocket of his overalls, pulls out a handful of seed, and begins to scatter it over the well-prepared soil.
When he throws the second or third handful, the camera zooms in on a single seed as it flies through the air and ultimately lands on the ground. Then time speeds up. We see rain fall on the seed, while the sun rises and sets repeatedly behind it. And we watch the seed work its way down into the soil … and die. Soft, sad music plays in the background.
But we all know what’s coming, so we keep watching. The music begins to change, and eventually the seed sprouts a single, tiny green shoot. It pushes up out of the ground, and slowly begins to look like a stalk of wheat. By now, the music is beginning to crescendo, and as it mounts, the camera zooms out and up, until we find ourselves looking at a huge, rolling field of beautiful golden wheat. The sun shines again in the distance, and the farmer stands with his back to us off to the right, leaning on his pitchfork, looking (we imagine approvingly) at his wheat field.
Which picture do we prefer?
Seen from the perspective of heaven, the earthly life of the Christ-follower is represented well in this image of the lifecycle of a grain of wheat. The whole of our lives on earth is lived, spiritually speaking, in God’s act of sowing us into good soil, and then taking us, in Christ, through death, germination and resurrection into “real life.”
Some overtly reject this notion of transformation through death and rebirth. But many, perhaps even more insidiously, believe that they are on this path simply because they “prayed a prayer” or “came forward” one day at church or “made a decision for Christ.” In our affluent, distraction-filled culture, we tend to view the Christian life more like membership in a club or a document to be signed or an extra layer of affiliation we can paint over a life fixated on earthly comforts and stuff and experiences. The busier we are making sure we have the latest styles in fine china or the nicest shoes or the best Pinterest recipe for mashed potatoes, so that everyone will have the best possible experience when they come for Thanksgiving, the less interested we’ll be in the image of (like the grain of wheat) falling to the ground and dying. Put simply, I don’t think most of us truly believe that real life comes only through dying.
“When Christ calls a person, He bids them ‘Come and die.'”
Which utopia do you want?
I think this all boils down to a question of which utopia — bear with me as I use the word “utopia” as a euphemism for “real life” for a second — do we want?
God’s utopia is heaven, or “the new Jerusalem,” or the Kingdom of God — the place where God dwells with His people and they dwell (directly, uninhibited by sin, totally free) with Him (Jer 32:38; Rev 21:3). Life in this kingdom starts the moment someone turns from their sin and accepts Christ as Savior and Lord. It’s the life Jesus described as “denying yourself and taking up your cross” (Luke 9:23) and Paul overtly described as “dying with Christ” (Col 3:1-17). Grains of wheat have no access to this utopia. Only wheat fields. The only way a grain of wheat gets in is to fall to the ground and die, and be raised to new life by God in Christ.
Man’s utopia is the American dream. It’s Antalya, Turkey or Dubai. Once while visiting Las Vegas, as I took in the glitz and glitter, I found myself thinking, “This is man’s utopia; what we would build with seemingly infinite resources.” This is grandma’s Thanksgiving dinner every single day. This utopia is what sells itself as possible if grains of wheat work really hard to make being a grain of wheat as awesome as humanly possible. But what we struggle to believe, and what Jesus meant by so many of the things He said, is that this utopia A) isn’t possible on earth, and B) even the momentary approximations of it aren’t worth what it costs. And it’s primary cost is that, in the pursuit of it, grains of wheat often fail to become what they were meant to be… wheat fields. In fact, if you make a grain of wheat comfortable and self-reliant enough, it may no longer even want to.
And in this difference is the rub. Which utopia we’re shooting for will make all the different in how we live and what we tolerate or invite into our lives. Whichever is our goal, we’ll sacrifice quite a lot to reach it, investing ourselves for the return of that goal (even if it’s futile… like creating heaven on earth). We will put on the things we think will help us get there, and throw off the things that we feel get in the way.
If your life consists in putting on money and power and comfort and ease and the recognition of your peers and independence and self-sufficiency, then I would submit that your heart is for man’s utopia. Seen from the other side, this life is spent avoiding the poverty and weakness of others (which sucks away resources), remaining under trials (which sucks away comfort), inconvenience, neediness, rejoicing with others’ victories, accepting when they have the advantage, responding with grace and love when we are wronged, investing in those who cannot help you in return, transparency, relational vulnerability, (inter)dependence, and many other things Jesus and the apostles espoused as signs of a life that is already sprouting up in the Kingdom of God and ultimately bound for heaven.
Conversely, the life aimed at God’s utopia reverses the polarity on these things. The challenge in our culture is that we don’t really believe that. We want the life described in the last paragraph, and we want heaven too. Whether we like it or not, it doesn’t work that way. To attempt it is to turn the gospel into a “get out of hell free” card. But Jesus said, “If you want real life — which is to say, ‘if you want me’ — then you have to die to yourself every day and accept the life I have for you” … which Jesus and the apostles spend much of the New Testament describing.
But we started out talking about avoiding pain and suffering
Bringing this all the way back around… We’ve talked about lots of reasons why people avoid pain, and about how God uses pain and suffering to get our attention and to grow us into maturity. So, I leave you with this thought, which I believe connects us squarely back into that discussion…
“We are by nature comfort-seekers, not cross-bearers.”
If you take a hard look at your life and find yourself working hard to avoid discomfort, difficulty, inconvenience, and irritation… If you spend your days building systems or stockpiling resources to ensure your security and comfort and ease of life… If you define “freedom” as the power to sit and do nothing or to entertain and indulge yourself 24/7… If you put far more thought into what flows into your life from others than what flows out of it to others… Then you may actually be working against what God desires most for your life: that you would die to yourself and be raised with Christ in newness of life (Rom 6:4).
Could it be that all these things — the messy, painful, stress-filled difficulty of a life centered on God and people, rather than on ourselves — are the signs that we are in the process of germination? And if so, wouldn’t we want to lean into that process and thank God for His amazing vision that we would become an entire field of wheat, rather than remaining a single dried-up grain?
But that assumes that you believe what God would build in your resurrected life is better than what you would build here and now. So I ask, “Do you?” Because this is just another way of asking what Jesus asked, “Will you repent and be baptized? Will you deny yourself and take up your cross daily and follow me? Will you die to yourself so that you can live in me?”
Read more about the goodness of God.