Framing a Proper Expectation of the Christian Life
By Aaron Wilson
My seven-year-old son has recently developed an interest in LEGO sets. So when he received some birthday money last week, he knew exactly which toy aisle he wanted to visit first.
As my son poured over the colored brick options in his price range, I noticed him paying careful attention to the difficulty level printed on each box. As a LEGO newbie, he didn’t want to embark on any building project he wouldn’t be able to complete.
My son’s actions reminded me of an illustration Christ gave in Luke 14:25-32:
“Which of you wanting to build a tower doesn’t first sit down and calculate the cost to see if he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, after he has laid the foundation and cannot finish it, all the onlookers will begin to ridicule him, saying, ‘This man started to build and wasn’t able to finish’” (CSB).
Jesus’ appeal is for would-be followers to reflect on the serious demands of discipleship—a theme other parts of Scripture echo when they say believers must be willing to renounce their possessions (Luke 14:33), lose their life (Mark 8:35), and give up all they have to gain the kingdom of God (Matthew 13:44-45).
These biblical statements should be taken into consideration when evangelists present the gospel to ensure people don’t drift into easy believeism—a term that coveys mere intellectual belief not accompanied by repentance and spiritual fruit.
But properly communicating the “difficulty level” of Christianity can be tricky; if the church depicts Christianity as hard, she risks belittling the atoning work of Christ—making it sound as if salvation depends upon man’s effort. On the other hand, if Christians say following Jesus is easy, they risk downplaying the Lord’s warning to count the cost of discipleship.
So how exactly does Scripture depict the life of a Christ-follower? Is it easy or hard to be a Christian?
The answer is both.
A Practical Paradox
To say Christianity is both easy and hard isn’t dodging the question by using a vague spiritual paradox. No, Christ breaks the distinction down in extremely practical terms. Consider two of the Lord’s statements on discipleship, the first from Matthew 11:29-30:
“Take up my yoke and learn from me, because I am lowly and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” Matthew 11:29-30
At first read, these verses make it sound as if Christianity is a breeze. But back up a few chapters in the book of Matthew and you get a contrasting image of discipleship:
“How narrow is the gate and difficult the road that leads to life, and few find it.” (Matthew 7:14)
OK, so maybe being a Christian isn’t so easy. Apparently, it’s hard—so hard in fact, only a sliver of humanity finds the path to eternal life. What are we to do with these two divergent metaphors from the book of Matthew?
Jesus Chose His Words Carefully
In wrestling with these passages, it’s helpful to examine Jesus’ specific noun/adjective pairings. Take a look at them again:
Christ’s yoke is easy (Matthew 11:30) while the way is hard (Matthew 7:14)
What this means is Christians carry light burdens on a hard path. Reverse this image and you get the contrasting picture of the world: people who carry heavy burdens on an easy path.
The burden the world carries is the weight of performance and the shame of guilt. In place of this, the gospel offers the imputed righteousness of Jesus and the removal of guilt.
But while Christians’ spiritual burdens may be easy, their path is difficult. It’s a trail that leads believers into the hard sayings of Jesus such as the command to love one’s enemies (Luke 6:27), forgive others “seventy times seven times” (Matthew 18:21-22), and to regularly assume the role of a servant (Matthew 20:26). This difficult path is marked with suffering, persecution, delayed gratification, and a regular dying to self.
The world’s path is much easier. It promises as little suffering as possible, acceptance by many, immediate gratification, and the promotion of self.
Satan’s Word Switch
Satan’s ploy is to mix up the word pairings of the above passages. He regularly preaches that a Christian’s way is supposed to be easy (the health and wealth gospel) and that Christ’s burden must be hard (legalism).
To battle this lie, Christians should remember Christ’s burden is light because of the cross when they are tempted to feel their identity is found in their own spiritual performance. Christ followers don’t need to muster up greater spiritual clout to impress God because they wear His righteousness and have been forgiven of sin through His sacrifice.
On the other hand, when life gets difficult, Christians are to remember that this is the path God promised them on route to heaven. Peter tells believers not to be surprised by suffering. Rather, they are to rejoice in trials as they identify with Christ (1 Peter 4:12-13).
The Temporary Tension of the Gospel
It’s unlikely someone at church will point blank ask you whether Christianity is easy or hard. But if your church is faithful to make disciples in Christ’s name, you’ll need to be honest with them about the life they’re signing up for.
Tell them Christians carry light burdens on a hard road. This is how Jesus describes the temporary tension between the gospel’s freedom and its demands.
Aaron is the internal communications manager at Lifeway and an associate editor of Lifeway Research. He and his family are members of Redeemer Church in Hendersonville, Tennessee, where they serve together in the children’s ministry.