THE ROAD LESS TRAVELED
A television game show that was very popular in the United States for many years and one that I watched often as I was growing up was called Let’s Make a Deal. One of the reasons it was so popular is that it really drew the viewers in. Contestants would be chosen randomly from the studio audience. The host of the show would offer the contestants various deals that they could accept or refuse.
There was an element of mystery to these deals, which of course made the show more exciting. For instance, a member of the audience would be chosen and the host would say something like, “I will give you this $100 bill, or you can have this envelope that has ten bills in it.”
The audience would yell and scream for the contestant to take a chance on the envelope. And if the contestant chose the envelope to discover it had only ten $1 bills in it they would all groan and that contestant would be finished. But if the contestant chose the envelope and then learned it had ten $100 bills in it they would all cheer. And then, if they won the ten $100 bills, they could elect to stop playing and keep their money, or continue playing, trading that $1,000 for something else that may or may not end up being a better deal.
Finally, the show would conclude with three doors. A contestant who had acquired some decent winnings could trade all they had won for whatever was behind door #1, door #2, or door #3. But of course, the doors were closed so the contestants could not see what was behind them. One door would lead to the grand prize worth many thousands of dollars – perhaps a new car or new furniture for your home or a vacation cruise. But if the contestant chose one of the other doors they might learn that they had traded all their winnings for a year’s supply of laundry detergent and a carton of ketchup.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus offers us a deal. However, it’s somewhat different than the game show variety, for there are only two choices, not three. Furthermore, there is no mystery involved for Jesus tells us plainly what each choice results in. Related to that, from what Jesus tells us it is clear that if we make the right choice what we gain is worth far more than a new car or a vacation cruise. Finally, we’re not given the option of holding on to what we’ve got and not choosing. We must choose one of the two doors. This is how Jesus stated the matter in Mt. 7:13-14:
Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.
There are two gates to choose from. They each lead down a different road, resulting in different destinations. They are each traveled by a different crowd. And we must choose. We must choose either the way of being His disciple or of not being His disciple. There is no middle ground; we must make our choice.
It’s clear from all of this that Jesus is not seeking observers of the Kingdom life, but rather He seeks those who will participate fully in the life of His Kingdom, who will follow Jesus on the narrow way that leads to life. There is no point in going to that game show simply to be in the audience; the goal is to be a contestant and play the game. And so Jesus invites all of us to play the game, to take an active part in the life of His Kingdom. And we begin to take part by making our choice.
So we have these two roads before us. One is broad and easy; the other is narrow and difficult. The road that is broad and easy allows us to live and believe however we want. “If it feels good, do it,” is the motto of this way. John Stott described it like this:
It has no curbs, no boundaries of either thought or conduct. Travellers on this road follow their own inclinations, that is, the desires of the human heart in its fallenness. Superficiality, self-love, hypocrisy, mechanical religion, false ambition, censoriousness (judgmentalism) – these things do not have to be learned or cultivated. Effort is needed to resist them. No effort is required to practice them. That is why the broad road is easy.
In other words, you can do whatever you please on the broad road and never worry about whether it’s right or wrong. Anything goes on the broad and easy road, and no doubt, that is why so many choose it.
But there is another road that is narrow and difficult. It has clearly marked boundaries for the way of life of its travelers. Divine revelation – what God has revealed of Himself, of what is true and good, and how we are to live as His followers – acts as a restraining force on those who take this road. Pilgrims on this road are not free to live however they please. They may not make up their own rules for living, for Jesus is their Lord. It’s the narrow way, for it’s following Jesus, who said, “I am the way.”
It’s a difficult road because those on this road are called to love their enemies, forgive those who have wronged them, keep money in its proper perspective, be sexually pure, be humble, rejoice in the midst of certain persecution, and all the other things that Jesus has spoken of in His Sermon on the Mount. It’s a difficult way that requires determination, perseverance, and a resolve to say “No” to the attractive and easy options the world would put before us. It’s difficult because it goes against practically everything modern culture exalts and promotes.
Jesus also said that each of these roads has its own gate. As you would expect, the broad and easy road has a wide gate, said Jesus. It’s not only easy to see, but it’s easy to enter, for it is very wide. Thus, you can take through it whatever you want for your journey through life for there is lots of room. Self-righteousness, hedonism, arrogance, lust, materialism, self-centeredness, gossip, jealousy, anger – you name it, it will fit through this wide gate. You need not leave anything behind.
But Jesus said the gate is small that leads to the narrow road. In fact, Jesus said that only a few even find it. And because it is small, you can take no excess baggage with you. Selfishness, covetousness, a critical spirit, deceitfulness, resentment, immorality, an unforgiving heart, a lying tongue – none of these will fit through this small gate. And even if they could, it would soon mean disaster for you because you would not be able to keep your balance on the narrow and difficult road if you were loaded down with all this extra baggage.
In short, sin must be left at the gate if we are to pass through the narrow gate and gain entrance to the narrow road. This in no way nullifies the grace of God in inviting us to Himself. God invites us just as we are. As Eph. 3:8-9 makes clear, we are saved by grace through faith, not by works. We are not saved because we have left sinful ways behind. But if we are to experience the fullness of life, a truly meaningful and satisfying life, we must let such things go because they will keep us from experiencing life in its fullest form.
Of course, we do manage to slip through still clinging tightly to some of the old ways. So the writer of Hebrews exhorts us (12:1): “Let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.” The sooner we get rid of the old ways, the sins that hinder our discipleship, the easier and more rewarding our race down the narrow road will become.
And Jesus Himself is the gate, the way of entrance to the narrow road. He said in Jn. 10:9, “I am the gate, whoever enters through me will be saved.” In coming to Jesus, we turn from the old way, the wide way of the world. We leave all that behind and begin our journey down the narrow road. Jesus is both the gate and the way, for it’s literally the way of following Jesus.
So there are two roads, two gates, and then there are two crowds. Again as we would expect, the broad and easy road is filled with travelers. Many have entered through the wide gate, said Jesus. And why not, since there are no demands placed on them? There is plenty of room for any system of belief, every pattern of behavior, all kinds of lifestyles.
In contrast, the narrow and difficult road appears rather deserted. There are few who have been willing to die to self, pick up their cross and follow Jesus down the narrow way. It’s much easier to skip merrily along the broad and easy road.
You are probably familiar with the concluding lines from the Robert Frost poem The Road Not Taken.
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I –
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
Which road we choose does make all the difference because each road has a different destination. It’s like choosing between the three doors on Let’s Make a Deal. Your choice may result in happiness or sorrow, in satisfaction or regret, depending on what lies behind the door you choose. But Jesus offers us a tremendous advantage over the game show because we do not have to choose blindly. Rather He tells us from the beginning where each road leads.
The wide and easy road is very appealing for the moment, but what a terrible mistake it is for those who take it, for it leads to destruction said Jesus. Destruction in this life, for sooner or later the lifestyle of the broad and easy road will collect its dues.
For example, if anger, resentment, or selfishness are a part of my life, eventually I will reap the consequences of that in terms of damaged relationships and internal strife and bitterness. And if one continues on the broad and easy road, destruction in the hereafter. If we choose to live apart from God in this life, that is what will characterize our existence in the next life as well. So Jesus noted (Mk. 8:36), “What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul?” The broad and easy road seems to offer the whole world – for now. But it’s pretty short-lived.
On the other hand, those who have chosen the narrow and difficult way will be rewarded beyond what they could ever imagine, for this road leads to life. Those on this road will be crowned with everlasting life. They will behold God in all His glory and find perfect fulfillment for all eternity.
And we need not wait until then to experience the life that Jesus offers us. True, the narrow road is difficult, but along the way we are able to experience the fullness of life now. As we’ve seen, Jesus said, “I am the gate, whoever enters through me will be saved.” That means we are saved in an eternal sense – we receive the gift of eternal life. But in the Bible salvation refers to more than just eternal life when we die. It also encompasses the quality of our life now in this world.
So in addition to eternal life, to be saved means we are saved from the things in this life that would defeat us, sidetrack us, and keep us from experiencing the fullness of life Jesus offers us. We are saved from the false values of this world and the destructive consequences that inevitably follow. As we follow Jesus on the narrow way we are saved from fear, guilt, resentment, and all that would rob us of the fullness of life, and we come to experience so much more instead.
As we follow Jesus down this narrow way, we are able to experience the joy of His presence, the assurance of His guidance, the blessings of His care and provision, the certainty of His faithfulness, the satisfaction of living a truly meaningful and purposeful life, and the wonders of His love for us and the love we share with our fellow travelers.
So, Jesus is the gate – we enter only through Him. He is the road, or the way as He said in Jn. 14 – we walk with Him and in obedience to Him. And He is the destination, for one day we will see Him face to face.
I suppose sometimes these verses seem a little harsh, maybe even overwhelming – having to choose the narrow and difficult way. But any successful life has taken on the challenge of difficulty and narrowness. The successful athlete has said “No” to the easier, less disciplined way to devote himself to the narrow way of his training program. The successful musician has chosen the narrow way, giving hours upon hours to practice when she could be doing things less demanding. A successful marriage is composed of two people who have chosen the narrow and difficult way, giving themselves exclusively to each other and being willing to work through their problems instead of using problems as an excuse to bail out. In any aspect of living, the rewards go to those who have chosen the narrow and difficult and often unpopular way.
And so it is with life itself. The gift of life goes to those who have followed Jesus down the narrow way. And when the way is difficult, we have the assurance that the One we follow will be there to help us, for He has promised to never leave or forsake us.
Now it’s important to note that once we enter through the narrow gate as we place our trust in Jesus, He does not expel us from the narrow road every time we try to drag some of the old ways with us. We all still struggle with various sins that easily entangle us. When we see such sins in our lives, it does not mean we are not on the narrow way. That’s why the writer of Hebrews told us to throw those things off, for they are not instantly gone once we enter through the door. We manage to squeeze through with some of those sins that we are not yet ready to give up.
And God is so incredibly gracious in forgiving all our sins. He is so patient with us. So, we must not turn this passage into a legalistic formula that weighs us down with an impossible task – that we must live a perfect, sinless life which we could never achieve.
Rather we must see this as the prescription Jesus gives us in order that we might truly experience life in all its fullness – not only in the world to come but now in this life. For as Jesus spoke these words to the crowd that had gathered, He saw people who were frustrated because they knew they were really not the people they wanted to be or should be. He saw people loaded down with guilt over their sins and failures. He saw people who weren’t fulfilled deep inside because they were living for temporary pleasures. He saw people who hurt others with their poor and selfish choices.
And seeing all this Jesus said to them, “Listen, let me show you a better way. Yes, it’s a challenging way. It’s not the most popular way, but it’s the only way that leads to a life worth living. It’s the only way that leads to lasting joy and deep satisfaction. It’s the only way that leads to ultimate purpose. It’s the only way that sets you free from guilt and enables you to fulfill the full potential God created you with.”
So Jesus offers us the opportunity to experience the fullness of life as we make the right choice regarding which road we will follow. When we choose the narrow road but then try to take the old, sinful, selfish ways along with us on the narrow road, Jesus doesn’t throw us off the road. It’s not a matter of losing our salvation. But if we’re trying to drag all that stuff along with us as we seek to navigate the narrow road it’s going to impede our progress. We won’t make it as far down the road. It will take us much longer to reach the goal. Our experience of the fullness of life by virtue of traveling the narrow road will be diminished and we won’t become all we can be through the grace and power of God.
That’s why the writer of Hebrews encouraged us to throw off all those sins that easily entangle us and hinder us so we can run our race without impediment and thus enter into the fullness of life and really live as a disciple of Jesus.
A few years after the breakup of the Soviet Union I watched a movie called Repentance. The movie was made by a production company in the former Soviet republic of Georgia and it was based on their first-hand experience of living under the Soviet system. The movie dealt with the hypocrisy, deceitfulness, and cruelty that propped up the Soviet political system, from the highest officials in the Kremlin to the local village leaders.
It also touched on the persecution of the church. During Stalin’s reign of terror millions of people were systematically murdered, including an estimated 42,000 priests. Thousands more were imprisoned and sent to labor camps on false charges, often never to be heard of or seen again. 98% of all Orthodox churches were closed. The whole system was built on fear and falsehood.
The movie portrays these atrocities from the perspective of one small village and its deceased mayor whose name was Varlam. Varlam knew that the system and what he practiced as mayor were wrong, but he went along with it anyway because of how he profited from it.
The movie closes with an old peasant woman asking one of the ladies of the town for directions to a church. “Is this the road to the church?” the peasant woman asks the lady. The lady doesn’t answer so the peasant woman asks again, “Does this road lead to the church?” Finally, with a rather tired look of despair, the woman replies with an answer full of symbolism for the street was named after the mayor who profited from corruption and lies. She said, “This is Varlam Street. It will not take you to a church.” And the peasant woman responds, “Then what’s the use of it? What good is a road if it doesn’t lead to a church?”
What good is a road if it doesn’t lead to a church? Or, we might ask, “What good is a road if it doesn’t lead to life?” Which road are we on? Have we entered through the narrow gate leading down the road that results in life? Probably most of us here today have. But then we must ask ourselves, are we running with perseverance down that road, having shed all that would hinder us? Or are we trying to make it with a lot of excess baggage as we hold on to the old ways? Or perhaps we’re trying to navigate down the narrow road while we occasionally step over with one foot onto the broad and easy road, thinking we can head down both roads at the same time.
The call of Jesus is to follow Him fully down the narrow pathway, which is the only pathway that leads to life. This is not only His call, but it is also His gift to all who would respond. “I have come,” Jesus said, “that you may have life, and have it to the full.” (Jn. 10:10) That is what He offers us. Are you journeying down the road that leads to life? And are you experiencing the fullness of that life because you have laid aside all that would hinder you?