I’ve had trouble writing this week. The inspiration isn’t there, nothing is exciting or interesting to me. I spent a couple of hours yesterday sitting at a keyboard writing a paragraph here and there, and then deleting it. I have three drafts started for different topics, and all of them are sitting there staring at me. As I prepare for my weekly teaching, and thinking about some upcoming sermons, I feel like I’m wading through mud up to my knees. I’m moving forward, but not very quickly. It takes quite a lot of creative energy to have something valuable to say week in and week out. Real writers, not hacks like me, talk about staring at a keyboard for hours and struggling over writing even one sentence. This is the nature of trying to communicate valuable truth. It takes effort, and much of that effort ends up in the trash can.
As I was considering this problem, it struck me that most of the Christian life feels like this. Sure, there are moments when things move quickly, emotions run high, prayer comes easily and often, and we live with a clear sense of purpose. But the truth is that most of the Christian life, when viewed over the long-term, really is a long, steady walk in the same direction toward Christ. There are ups and downs, but what God wants is consistent obedience over the long haul of our lives.
I recall here the apostle Peter. Peter was a dynamic man, headstrong, brash, bold, sometimes cowardly, and sometimes foolish. Yet, this is the man to whom Jesus paid extra attention. Jesus saw in him the willingness to obey even in the midst of failure. Peter was like King David in this way. Great saints of God, yet terribly flawed too. But the Peter we see in the Gospels is a different man than we see in Acts, and he is a different man in the Gospels than the one whose words we read in his letters.
Matthew 16:21–28 (ESV)
21 From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. 22 And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you.” 23 But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.”
24 Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. 25 For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. 26 For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul? 27 For the Son of Man is going to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay each person according to what he has done. 28 Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”
In this story from Matthew we see the brash Peter thinking he knows all, and presuming to tell Jesus what will and won’t happen. At first glance, it seems that Peter has concern over the well-being of Jesus. He doesn’t want Jesus to suffer. But there is more to it than that. Peter is really worried about himself because he knows that if the authorities are going to kill his master, they can kill him too. Peter has rightfully attached his own security to Jesus, but he has a unclear vision of that security. At this point in Jesus ministry Peter is beginning to see Jesus clearly as the Messiah, but he does not know exactly what that means. He still thinks the primary role of the Messiah is as a conquering, military, earthly power. In his protest, he becomes a source of stumbling to Jesus who calls him “Satan” because he is serving as a voice of the enemy trying to get Jesus to avoid the suffering of the cross. At this point in his young faith, Peter has no room or use for suffering in his life.
But then we see an older Peter. Peter’s first letter was possibly written somewhere around A.D. 64, and Peter was by this time a man in his later years. We see in this letter an older and wiser Peter. A man who through many decades of walking with Jesus has learned that suffering and struggle are a necessary part of the Christian life.
1 Peter 1:3–9 (ESV)
3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, 4 to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, 5 who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. 6 In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, 7 so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. 8 Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, 9 obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.
Here we have a wizened Peter, weathered and smoothed by decades of following his master. He now sees clearly that the way of Jesus is the way of the cross. The way of Jesus is suffering, even for those who follow, because our hope in not in this earthly realm. Our hope is in another kingdom, a kingdom that has to be believed to be seen. These people to whom Peter is writing believe and love whom they have not seen, but they know that the day will come when their joy will be full, when the glory of God will light of the dark night, but between and then is the long, faithful, obedient walk in the same direction as Jesus.
On those days when you are stuck in the mud, your faith feels stalled out, and God feels silent, know that this walk with Jesus is a long one. It is not a sprint. It isn’t even a marathon. It is a lifelong hike through the Shadowlands where nothing is quite right, and won’t be until that final day when we see Christ again. I look forward to that day.