Toward the celestial city
Andrew Sveda | Monday, February 14, 2022
“[S]hould a man so carelessly cast away himself” the character Worldly Wiseman exclaims to Christian in John Bunyan’s famous allegory “The Pilgrim’s Progress.” In this tale of a Christian named Christian’s journey from the City of Destruction to the Celestial City of Mount Zion, Christian meets many different individuals trying to lead him off the narrow way that leads to salvation, one of the most memorable of which is Worldly Wiseman. The figure warns Christian of the terrible hardships, trials and sufferings he will encounter if he continues in the faith. Faced with such a troublesome road ahead and a much easier road if he leaves the narrow way, how, Worldly Wiseman argues, could Christian possibly even consider continuing along such a path? Is Christianity really worth all the trouble, all the pain and anguish?
Like Bunyan’s pilgrim, we, too, must have an answer to give Worldy Wiseman — not simply to intellectually satisfy the objection but to guard our hearts both in the present and the days to come. For there will come times when we wrestle with this question at a deep and profound level. When we grow weary and worn down by the things of this life, when we seem to be driving in neutral spiritually, when the personal cost of following Christ grows higher and higher, and when preaching the gospel and living in light of it causes us to lose friends, to have people hate us, to be persecuted and to even face death, having an answer to this question is absolutely crucial. I tremble writing this; it is no light matter. How do we respond to the thoughts in our mind about this, the desire to just give in, give up and turn back?
What are some of the things the Bible says about this subject? Firstly, God’s Word makes it clear that the cost of following Christ is great. “If anyone would come after me,” Jesus said, “let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24). “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple … any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26-27, 33; cf. Matthew 10:37-38). Jesus here is not talking solely about physical sufferings but also the need to die to self, hate and fight against sin and desire Christ before anything the world has to offer. This is no casual or empty thing. “Thy will be done” (Matthew 6:10) and “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30) are some of the scariest things to utter. But Christianity is not some side interest or section of our lives. Jesus doesn’t lay claim over a section of our lives but all of it. C.S. Lewis puts it well: “[I]t is not so much of our time and so much of our attention that God demands; it is not even all our time and all our attention; it is ourselves … He will be infinitely merciful to our repeated failures; [but] I know no promise that He will accept a deliberate compromise … there will be nothing of ‘our own’ left over to live on … He claims all. There’s no bargaining with Him.”
But right after Jesus’ command to take up one’s cross and follow Him in Matthew 16, He also says this: “For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul?” (Matthew 16:25-26). In this, Jesus reminds us of the utter futility of living apart from Him. He is the only way to God (John 14:6). To walk away from Him is to leave the difficult but only road to salvation for the easy road “that leads to destruction” (Matthew 7:13). “[U]nless you believe that I am he you will die in your sins” (John 8:24), Jesus says. Will you so foolishly trade Christ and eternal life for “the fleeting pleasures of sin” (Hebrews 11:25) and, after that, eternal damnation? Do you see, then, the utter meaningless of life without Christ? You wake up today. You live for yourself. You die tomorrow. You go to hell. It all meant absolutely nothing in the end because you rejected Christ. Like Bunyan’s pilgrim, there is nothing for you to go back to except the City of Destruction. Peter’s words must be our words: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:68).
But Christians do not persevere only to avoid hell but because they love Christ and have seen something of His immeasurable beauty and glory. It is by “looking to Jesus” that we are to “run with endurance the race … set before us” (Hebrews 12:2). He is that “pearl of great value” that drives one to leave all to obtain it (Matthew 13:46). It is because Paul saw something of “the surpassing worth of knowing Christ” that he “counted everything” else “as loss” and “suffered the loss of all things” that he would know more and more of Christ (Philippians 3:8).
And where do we see most brightly His love and beauty? At the Cross, where He saved all who believe in Him from the condemnation and wrath of God we deserved. Christ, the eternal Son of God, suffered the just and terrible wrath of Almighty God and died in the place of wicked, God-hating sinners, securing for them an “eternal redemption” (Hebrews 9:12) and “peace with God” (Romans 5:1) through faith in Christ.
If we were to understand even the tiniest fraction of the gospel in all its glory, it would ignite and increase the Christian’s love of God far beyond his arrival at the Celestial City. “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain” (Revelation 5:12)!
Andrew Sveda is a junior at Notre Dame from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, majoring in political science with a supplementary major in theology. In his free time, he enjoys writing (obviously), reading and playing the piano. He can be reached at [email protected] or @SvedaAndrew on Twitter.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.