Don’t make the Christian life harder than Jesus does

One of the problems with writing a daily blog is idea generation. My answer to this problem, much of the time, is to turn to my family. What do they think I should write? This post is a result of something my daughter suggested. Aurélie (7) thought I should write something about Naaman. So, here is something about that.

One of the key teaching points from the story of Naaman centres on his initial unwillingness to bathe in the Jordan river as commanded by Elisha. The particular section of the story says this:

Elisha sent him a messenger, who said, “Go wash seven times in the Jordan and your skin will be restored and you will be clean.”

11 But Naaman got angry and left, saying, “I was telling myself: He will surely come out, stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, and wave his hand over the place and cure the skin disease. 12 Aren’t Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Couldn’t I wash in them and be clean?” So he turned and left in a rage.

13 But his servants approached and said to him, “My father, if the prophet had told you to do some great thing, would you not have done it? How much more should you do it when he only tells you, ‘Wash and be clean’?” 14 So Naaman went down and dipped himself in the Jordan seven times, according to the command of the man of God. Then his skin was restored and became like the skin of a small boy, and he was clean.

2 Kings 5:1-14, CSB

The lesson we are supposed to draw is that healing, in this particular instance, is a matter of grace. It is not about doing something great and amazing for God, it is a matter of God doing something for Namaan and not really requiring him to do much for it. The washing in the Jordan was just an outworking of his faith that Yahweh can and would heal him. The lesson is that we can often have a problem with grace, but grace is ultimately the means God wants to use to heal. The solution to our sin-sickness – just as for Naaman’s skin-sickness – is a matter of God’s grace. It is a matter of receiving his grace by faith, which is just another way of saying we aren’t going to do anything to earn it at all. It is categorically not a matter of our doing something amazing – worthy of people of our particular greatness – but of receiving from God entirely apart from anything great or good in us.

We are currently going through Hebrews in church at the moment. One of the lessons from Hebrews – particularly Hebrews 12 – is that the Christian life can be hard. Indeed, it is meant to be hard. The Lord Jesus does not promise us an easy-going life when we trust in him. The lesson from Hebrews is not that life will be easy once we trust in Jesus, but that we should press on with Jesus – even when things are hard – because there is greater glory to be had. All of which is to say, the Christian life can be hard and there’s no pretending otherwise.

But, here’s the thing: as hard as the Christian life might be, we sometimes make it much harder than it has to be. If Naaman shows us anything, it is that God does not ultimately demand anything from us to bestow his grace upon us. But, like Naaman, sometimes we are terribly sad that Jesus doesn’t demand more from us. Why doesn’t Jesus expect us to earn it a bit? We, effectively, end up trying to make the Christian life harder than it was ever intended to be.

Indeed, Jesus says ‘my yoke is easy and my burden is light’ (Matthew 11:30). But so often, we seem annoyed that Jesus hasn’t made it harder. Or, if not annoyed, we just do the hard work of making everything harder than it has to be. You know all those people in church who are effectively martyrs to ministry? The people who tut and moan that nobody else is doing everything they are doing! They don’t seem to be enjoying church very much, they don’t seem to be enjoying Christ very much, but they’re adamant everyone else should be doing exactly what they are so they can also not enjoy their Christian life or time at church either. It’s almost like when Jesus says his yoke is easy and burden light they just don’t believe him and, when others find it is quite light, they insist on making it much harder than Jesus has apparently because this how we are to glorify God or something.

There is just something in us that wants to make the Christian life much harder than it has to be. But we are ultimately saved by grace, through faith, in Christ alone. Yes, we are saved to walk in the good works he has prepared for us to walk in, but those good works are outlined in scripture and – for the most part – really aren’t that hard. Jesus’ law of love means – as Augustine put it – we can ‘love God and do whatever you please’. We aren’t saved by them, we aren’t being asked to well-up within ourselves a desire to do what we clearly don’t want to do, we are simply called to love God and – as the Spirit changes our hearts to desire what God desires – will want to do what Jesus would have us do.

There are, without question, hard things about the Christian life. It would be wrong to think otherwise. But we shouldn’t end up thinking like Naaman that the Christian life must be made harder than Jesus demands of us. There is enough for us to worry about without adding to the commands of Christ. We make a mockery of Jesus’ burden being light when we weigh ourselves down with all sorts of things Jesus simply hasn’t asked of us and then make martyrs of ourselves as though that is what is required. It neither commends the gospel nor does it make for the joyful Christian life to which Jesus calls us. We can acknowledge the Christian life can be hard, but we ought not to make it harder than Jesus does.