The hard path of grace
We’re only a few steps into the hard desert of Lent, and already we may be seeking the exit door. The path to comfort. The easy way out. A relief from even the threat of discomfort.
That is human nature. It’s natural for us to avoid any and all forms of discomfort. Everything about our society, popular culture, our economy and politics tell us to avoid discomfort at all costs. Winners are comfortable. Losers suffer. Or, so says our society, just as much as the society into which Jesus was born.
But Christ, just as sure as the Gospel turned first century society on its ear, calls us into the path of discomfort. Of hard, gritty discomfort. He calls us into our spiritual desert to face, and to overcome, the ease that stands between us and the cross.
We sense the need for this journey, and cry out with the prophet Daniel, “Righteousness is on your side, O Lord, but open shame, as at this day, falls on us … Open shame, O Lord, falls on us, our kings, our officials, and our ancestors, because we have sinned against you.”
We know the need to draw closer to God, but as we step out of our comfort zone, we, by our human nature, find ourselves very quickly crying with the psalmist, “How long will you be angry, O Lord? Will your fury blaze like fire forever? … Remember not our past sins; let your compassion be swift to meet us; for we have been brought very low.”
To paraphrase my daughters from when they were younger, a few steps into the desert we begin to cry out, “Are we there yet?”
The angel Gabriel, responding for God to Daniel’s lament, gives us the answer every parent has given to their children, over and over: “NO! We’re not there yet!”
Gabriel tells Daniel later in his ninth chapter there remain 70 “weeks” ahead in the journey. Some translations say 70 years, some say 70 times 7. At any rate, the “weeks” aren’t literal – they are periods of work we all must undergo to embrace the gift Christ has freely given: “to finish the transgression, to put an end to sin, and to atone for iniquity, to bring in everlasting righteousness, to seal both vision and prophet, and to anoint a most holy place.”
In other words, the path ahead is hard, and requires work. Of course, we have the Good News of Christ before us, and far beyond those who heard the words of Daniel, we know the realization of Christ’s salvation at the end of our path.
But, if we’re expecting Christ to smooth out that path and make it easy – the path where he told us to take up our cross and follow him – well, we may be disappointed.
Instead of making the path easy, Christ lays before us perhaps the hardest calling of The Way: Love your enemies.
“I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt.”
There is a lot of the Gospel that is hard to take up in practice. But, for many of us, this is the hardest.
Love your enemies. Does someone hate you? Love them. Have they wronged you? Do them good. Have they been merciless in persecuting you? Have they judged you? Condemned you? Show them mercy.
This goes absolutely against every fiber of human nature and the teachings of our society. It is beyond counter-cultural. And it is the hard path to which Christ calls us.
Loving in this radical, counter-cultural way does not mean we no longer hold people accountable. It doesn’t mean we forego healthy boundaries. It doesn’t mean we allow ourselves or others to be abused. Healthy boundaries and accountability are part of loving others – just as God puts up appropriate boundaries and maintains accountability for us. What we strive for is to bear no malice. Bear no hatred. Hold only love for those who hate us, even when that love calls for accountability and boundaries.
St. Augustine tells us we love our enemies not because they deserve it. Not because they’ve changed. We love our enemies because of what the Holy Spirit can do in them, and in us.
“Love all men, even your enemies; love them, not because they are your brothers, but that they may become your brothers,” Augustine tells us. “Thus you will ever burn with fraternal love, both for him who is already your brother and for your enemy, that he may by loving become your brother.”
“What is perfection in love?” Augustine asks us. “Love your enemies in such a way that you would desire to make them your brothers … For so did He love, Who hanging on the Cross, said ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.’”
This is a hard path. But, as Johnny Cash once pointed out, “Being a Christian isn’t for sissies.”
The hard path of repentance isn’t just about smoothing out our own life, and how we relate to God. It is fundamentally about altering how we relate to our brothers and sisters – especially those we hate, those we fear the most, those who condemn us, those who don’t forgive, and those who do not deserve our mercy.
We love them not because they deserve it. We love them – or strive to – because God loves us when we don’t deserve it.
We step into this path in Lent not because it is easy. We step into it because it is the hard path we need. It is the hard path of grace.
At the end of it, and every step along the way, is Christ, who loves us no matter how many times we stumble and fall.