We’ve all heard the saying: When the going gets tough, the tough get going. Most of us would like to think that there have been times in our lives when we have lived up to this adage, when we have worked through a time of difficulty with patience and resolve, and emerged on the other side with a new understanding, a new purpose, a new way forward.
But most of us will also be aware that there have been plenty of occasions when the opposite has been true. These are the times when we have taken the soft option or followed the line of least resistance. And most of us will be aware that we have done so, not just because we didn’t want to make the difficult decisions, but because it actually suited us to not do so. In these circumstances, making the hard decision would have involved questioning our assumptions or examining our motives; and when we are in a position of comfort or convenience, few of us relish the prospect of having to ditch previously sacrosanct notions in order to adopt a new course of action.
But, of course, being human, we’re all very good at making excuses or rationalising our choices. The timing wasn’t right, the circumstances weren’t appropriate, the outcome would have been the same regardless. Sometimes we even tell ourselves that we have, in fact, made the tough decision, that we have done what was “necessary” or for the “greater good”. But the truth is we have done what was convenient, what was in our own self-interest. And not just because we didn’t want to choose the hard option – but because we actively sought the alternative that conformed to our own prejudices and preferences.
So it should be no surprise that there are approaches to faith, and the life of faith, that reflect this “culture of convenience”. Because we live in an age in which the satisfaction of personal demands and desires is paramount, there are so-called spiritualities which market themselves as the solution to our problems, as the means by which we can achieve everything we desire. And not just in the twilight zone of the self-help industry or the New Age movement; there are approaches to Christian faith which adopt the same posture.
Perhaps the best known example of this is so-called “prosperity theology”. Accept Christ as your Saviour, it declares, and all will be well – your problems will be solved, you’ll be successful and wealthy and own lots of great stuff, you’ll be hugely popular and influential. In the world of prosperity theology, faith is merely a means to an end: it is a way to get what we want. No need to ask or answer the hard questions; no need to examine our motives or reflect on our choices. Because when the going gets tough – actually, the going will never get tough, so long as you keep donating lots of money to the leaders of the prosperity theology church, so long as you keep screaming at the top of your lungs: “Christ is Lord!”
But what if it isn’t the point of faith that we should be happy – that is, “happy” understood in the superficial sense of all our demands and desires being met? Anyone who has seen the film Shadowlands, about the life of C S Lewis, will know that there is a remarkable scene in which Lewis, played by Anthony Hopkins, is giving a lecture, and says:
I don’t think God wants us to be happy. It’s not that God wants us to be unhappy; it’s just that our happiness is not the point. What I think God wants is for us to grow up, to leave the nursery, to love and be loved.
That’s a remarkable portrait of the life of faith: to grow up, to leave the nursery, to love and be loved. It’s a portrait of faith, not as a bargain in which God gives us stuff in return for saying or doing certain; rather, it’s a portrait of faith as relationship, of engagement and encounter between God and human beings. And it’s all the more remarkable because it recognises that relationships can be tricky, not least because they don’t exist for our convenience. Rather, the purpose of a relationship is to challenge us, to bring us out of ourselves, to allow us to engage with others. Relationships often confront us with difficult situations and choices, they can demand of us that instead of pursuing the soft option of self-interest, we get going on the hard yards of self-giving love.
In other words, the point of any relationship – including relationship with God – is not what we can get out of it, but what it requires of us. And we catch a glimpse of this in today’s Old Testament reading. Elijah, knowing that his time is coming on, and wanting to spare Elisha the heartache of parting, tells Elisha to remain behind; but Elisha declares that he will never leave his friend and mentor. Then, from verses 3-5, which do not form part of today’s reading, Elijah and Elisha engage in a series of repeated dialogues, in which the old prophet tells his young protégée to remain behind in this or that town, only for Elisha to refuse. Elisha knows what is to happen; but that knowledge does not change his decision to remain with Elijah – because Elisha realises that his relationship with Elijah, and with God, is not about what is easiest for him.
And as a realisation, it forms an interesting contrast to the story of Gethsemane and the actions of the disciples at the time of Jesus’ crucifixion. And given the political events in this country in recent days, it’s a telling narrative about the nature of loyalty in tough times. Because when the going gets tough, people often get going – in the opposite direction.
But Elisha adopts a different course. Not only does he insist on remaining with Elijah until the very end, he asks to be endowed with a double share of the prophetic spirit that has motivated Elijah’s ministry. And Elijah tells him bluntly: “You ask for a hard thing.” Not because Elisha’s request cannot be granted – but because the Spirit that has sustained Elijah’s ministry is that same Spirit which often lead Christ into the wilderness, into places where life is harsh and difficult. Because Elijah’s ministry has been one of speaking truth to power, of dissenting from the mainstream with all its social and cultural assumptions, of advocating a society modelled on the just peace of God, in which all have dignity and respect. And far from being venerated and revered – that didn’t happen until centuries later – Elijah was considered a pest, a rabble-rouser, a trouble-maker.
In other words, in asking for the spirit of prophecy, Elisha is not asking for the kind of “discipleship” that will make his own life more comfortable, which will solve his problems and discontents, which will give him a safe haven from the difficulties and complexities of being. On the contrary, he is, if anything, asking to have life made more challenging, because he is asking for a life lived consciously and intentionally in relationship with God. And that is a relationship in which we are necessarily challenged, because God is not one for whom “business as usual” is an acceptable basis of human existence; God is not one for whom expediency and self-interest are the rules by which relationships are governed.
And we see this illustrated in today’s reading from Luke’s Gospel. It’s a passage which many people have difficulty with, not least because, at first glance, Jesus appears to respond with callous indifference to the people who want to be his disciples. One says he will follow Jesus wherever he goes, only to be rebuffed with cryptic allusions to foxes and birds. Two others say they will follow Jesus once they have attended to other matters, only to be apparently told that their concern with those matters make them unfit to be disciples. What is going on?
What is going on is that Jesus is making clear the nature of discipleship. In the first half of today’s reading, James and John think that discipleship is a matter of power, of being able to bring down fire from heaven on unreceptive villagers. And Jesus rebukes them, because what they fail to understand is that in travelling toward Jerusalem, and his own death on the Cross, Jesus is in fact giving them the example of what discipleship involves. It involves self-giving, surrendering self-interest for the sake of those with whom one is in relationship. And the relationship for whose sake Jesus gives of himself is his relationship with the Father; and his relationship with humanity. Jesus does not take the soft option, does not opt for the easy way out. Confronted by the challenge of suffering for the sake of others, challenged by the terrifyingly real implications of his discipleship to the Father, Jesus embraces the hardship involved – because, for Jesus, his relationships are not a matter of what they can deliver to him, but of what he can do by way of bringing dignity and healing to others.
And it is this radical reversal of the reason for entering into relationship – not self-interest but the interest of others – that lies behind Jesus’ apparent callousness to the three would-be disciples. Because what he is saying to them is this: the life of faith, and the relationship with God that lies at the heart of faith, can never be a part-time proposition, something we do in our spare time when it suits us to do so. Faith, and the life of faith, can never be something we bend to our will, or manufacture to suit ourselves, precisely because faith calls us into relationship with God, into a life that challenges our assumptions and calls on us to go beyond our own limitations. To embrace the life of faith is to embrace the hardship of change, of service, and of humility.
But more than that – it is to understand that discipleship means that relationship with God through faith becomes the very framework upon which we construct our lives. And that framework embraces how we live, how we relate to others, how we journey through the world and through life itself. It doesn’t become something we drop when it’s inconvenient; it’s not something we twist in order to make it conform to our desires. Rather, it is we who are changed, away from our own self-interest, away from the easy option of convenience and expediency. Instead, faith sets our feet on the road toward Jerusalem, toward the self-giving love that suffers for others. And in changing, we learn how to grow up, how to leave the nursery, how to love and be loved.
This is not an understanding of faith, of relationship with God, that can be marketed or packaged, or which will help us be popular and make people say nice things about us. Unlike the empty promises of prosperity theology or New Age spiritualism or the consumerism of retail therapy, relationship with God holds out the prospect of challenge, of occasions of uncertainty and doubt, of the going getting tough. We are not offered easy answers, or a clearly marked course to a certain destination. Instead, the relationship of faith asks that we take a good deal on trust, and that we proceed in hope where we cannot do so in certainty. Because at the heart of faith, and of relationship with God, stands a deceptively simple invitation, an invitation fraught with danger and filled with extraordinary possibilities.
An invitation that says, simply: Follow me.