No Going Back
II Kings 2:1-2, 6-14 or I Kings 19:15-16, 19-21 Psalm 77:1-2, 11-20 or Psalm 16, Galatians 5:1, 13-25, Luke 9:51-62
“The one who puts his hand to the plow and then turns back is not fit for the kingdom of God.”
Harsh. Uncompromising. There is no shared ground between the Kingdom of Heaven and the kingdoms of this world. To some, Jesus may sound unforgiving here. He did to me at one time in my life, but that’s not what He intends here. The unforgiveness you hear in these words isn’t from Him, it’s in you.
Jesus is just trying to tell you a painful truth. If you choose to follow him, your life will never be the same again. If you find yourself able to go back, to forget Him, then you weren’t ready, weren’t “fit” for the Kingdom when you tried.
Before I go on to what I think it means to follow Jesus, to be made fit for the Kingdom, let me be clear about one thing. Even those who choose to follow will fall. Even those who walk as closely with Jesus as they can will slip. Until the Kingdom comes in its fullness, there will still be sin. What Jesus means by “turning back” isn’t about sin, it’s about giving up, about conceding defeat. That’s why what He says here isn’t unforgiving. It’s just a caution. “Don’t follow me unless you’re willing to have everything you cling to taken from you. You’ll get it all back, a hundredfold, but first you’ll have it all taken from you. In fact, you’ll probably want to throw all the things you’ve clung to in the past away. Once I show you the Kingdom, everything else will seem as rubbish to you…”
There is a scene, early in my favorite “trilogy” of movies, the Matrix trilogy, where Neo, the “hero” of the movies, is offered a choice. He can take the red pill, or the blue pill. At this point, Neo still lives in the web of the Matrix. It’s all he’s ever known, and he has a reasonably livable life there. Morpheus knows the truth of the Matrix, what it is, and what it isn’t, and he offers Neo the opportunity to know the truth. If he takes the red pill, he’ll wake up back in his bed, and he won’t even remember having to choose. If he takes the blue pill, he’ll see the truth, and there is no going back once you’ve seen it. The Matrix will never be real to him again. He can’t put his hand to the plow and go back.
That’s the kind of choice Jesus offers us. If you want to follow me, you will leave the dead to bury their dead. You will abandon old relationships for the new ones He’ll give you. You will find that you no longer have a place to lay your head in this world that gives you any rest. Only in Him will you find a home.
We have, for ages and ages, misunderstood what it means to follow Jesus. We have reduced the task of following to a set of ethical imperatives. A new set of laws. Look after the poor and the helpless. Forgive so that you can be forgiven. That sort of thing.
Yes, those who follow Jesus will do that. And they’ll do it more and more the longer they follow him, but that isn’t following Him. That’s the result of following Him. Following Him means following Him to the Father’s throne, and hearing His voice, “You are my beloved child. I am well pleased in you.” These words, the words Jesus heard at his baptism, are the words we hear as we approach the Father. Not, “Where have you been? I’ve been so worried!” or “It’s about time you showed up, I’ve been waiting!” just, “I’m so glad you’re back.”
This is the place of worship. This is the place where we are so overwhelmed by the love that enfolds us that we can barely speak. Indeed, speech sometimes seems inadequate, and so songs and sighs of ecstasy are all that we can manage. To follow Jesus is to follow Him to the place where we are made fit for the Kingdom by the righteousness we are given in Him. And once we have felt the Father’s touch, once we have heard His voice speaking love over us, into us, we can’t go back. We can slip, we can fall, but we can never again pretend that this is how it’s supposed to be. Our hunger for more of the Father’s presence will become insatiable. All our old substitutes will taste like ash in our mouths.
Earlier, I mentioned that we’ll leave the dead to bury their dead. We’ll abandon old relationships for the ones He’ll give us. Some may blanch at the idea that they’ll be led to abandon their families, their parents, their children. Let me assure that this is not the case. What is true is that the old way of being in relationship to your loved ones will be taken away. As dear as they are you to in this world, in the “Matrix,” they will be dearer in the Kingdom. Our hearts are just as broken as the Bible says they are. We love the best we can with them, but when we follow Jesus into the Father’s presence, we find that we no longer have to love with our own hearts, with our own broken love. We are given the Father’s heart for each other, and for our children, our parents, all those dear to us. We cast away that old relationship, grounded in what we need, and He replaces it with a relationship grounded in who we are in Him.
Dare to follow Jesus, follow into the Father’s presence.
Dare to hear His voice, speaking love over you. Dare to be translated into the Kingdom, to discover a new truth, to become dissatisfied with anything that ever had value for you, because you’ve put your hand to the plow, and you can’t turn back. Not even if you could want to could you forget the voice of the Father.
One of the most painful partings for me as I “put my hand to the plow” was my departure from my lifelong pacifism. This isn’t to say that I suddenly began to espouse the use of the world’s violence to accomplish the Kingdom’s ends, but I can no longer view things as simply as I once did. This isn’t the place for a discussion of the relative merits of pacifism and its variants, only a recognition that many of the “good” things we used to be involved in will fall away along with the multitude of destructive habits we used to wear like a Brooks Brothers suit.
Once I started to learn to derive my sense of being from the Father’s heart toward me rather than my sets of principles, I began to learn also to listen for His Voice as a guide to daily action rather than turning to moral systems of human construction. I didn’t suddenly find myself free to misbehave, but the security of knowing I had a system I could rely on was gently and persistently pried from my grasp. I didn’t like it, and I tried to go back to the old systems many times, but in the end, they dissolved in the daylight of the Father’s love.
Today, take a moment to ask yourself what frameworks of behavior, what ethical systems you might have been using in the place of the Father’s Voice to guide your steps. What security have you been holding on to that you’ll have to release in order to put your hand to the plow. I didn’t know when I started what was going to be asked of me. Maybe you won’t see it yet either.
Then pray something like this:
Father, Your love is better than life itself, and I would like to be able to let go of the things that stop me from holding on to You. But sometimes I can’t see them and other times I just can’t find the strength to open my hands. Search me, O God, and show me what I can’t yet see. Be my strength, O Father, so that I might surrender all that fills my hands that isn’t You.
In Jesus’ Name,
Too often I catch myself focused on the things I’m letting go of rather than the One I’m holding onto. Too often my struggle is not to take up old habits when it would be so much easier if I could just focus on holding onto the Father’s hand so that I don’t have a free hand to grab at the old stuff. Even with my hands wrapped firmly around my Father’s fingers, I catch myself glancing over my shoulder at whatever it is I’m leaving behind rather than looking up into the Face that renders the old so useless to me.
Today, each time you find yourself wondering what the next thing you’ll lose might be, take your eyes from the things you’re worried about releasing, and turn them back to the Eyes that make full what was once empty.
Then pray something like this:
Heavenly Father, I think I make it harder to follow Jesus by the attention I shower on the things of which I am letting go. I am weak. Keep my eyes on You and on Your Son. As long as I look to You in all things, I know that I can walk in the ways that You have laid out before me.
In Jesus’ Name,
“If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs….
THEN YOU DON’T UNDERSTAND THE PROBLEM!” (My boss had this on his wall back in the day…)
If we leave the dead to bury their dead, there will be some resentment. As I suggested in the reflection for this week, we will not find ourselves abandoning those we have loved and those who continue to love us (indeed, we will love them far better than we did before), but we will find that the things that seem to be “life and death” to them lack as much power in our estimation.
Unfortunately, many around us only know how to measure our love for them by the extent to which we will worry with them or share the same grief they have (which is quite different from bearing a part of their burden in compassion). Our fear of being perceived as “uncaring” will tug mightily on us to return to the old ways when once we glimpse the truth and beauty of the Gospel. Some of us have armored ourselves with a false shell of indifference which is really only the reverse side of the coin of fear.
Today, take a moment to ask the Father to show you which relationships you’re in that can pull on you with this kind of fear or which have inspired you to build a shell to protect yourself.
Then pray something like this:
Heavenly Father, I can (in my own strength) live without the approval of many people in my life, but not these precious few. I simply cannot go forward until You give enough of Yourself to me that the strength I get from their approval can no longer find any space in my heart. Fill me, O God with Your life-giving Spirit so that I might find myself able and willing to leave the dead to bury their own dead.
In Jesus’ Name,
Why would the Father’s voice lead me in this difficult way? Why would He demand that I let go of so much in order to follow Jesus? This doesn’t seem very loving or compassionate…
Viewed from the world’s perspective, I think that this is true. For almost everyone. This is because while we are in bondage to sin and the world’s ways, we simply cannot see what they cost us. As painful as our coping strategies may sometimes be, they seem far better than anything else we can imagine. Jesus says quite plainly that there can be no compromise, no hedging our bets. Either we rely on His Father, or we don’t. Either we let go of our old sources of security and “put our hands to the plow” or we cling to the world’s ways, the ways that lead inevitably to death. That’s just how it is.
As I said above, it isn’t that we won’t fall from time to time and give the old ways a try. But putting our hand to the plow means that we’ll never be able to fool ourselves into believing that this is the Father’s will for us, that this is the best we can hope for. The old ways will never have the power they did before we knew better.
God, though, is faithful to reveal to us the false gods to whom we are clinging before we learn how to cling to Him. All that is required is our willingness to admit that the ways we’ve lived up to now just aren’t working. That will bring us to the place of desperation that opens our hearts to His intervention.
Today, ask yourself again, “Is this really all God wants for me?” Once you’ve heard your own hearty “No!” to that question, pray something like this:
Heavenly Father, I really want to know Your will for me, because I trust that it is better than any will I could have for myself. But I’m having trouble seeing beyond my old ways, and I find myself wishing we could just tweak them somehow to make them work. I know that can’t happen, so please show me Your ways, and lead me in the way that leads to life everlasting.
In Jesus’ Name,
We’ve all seen some version of the TV show where the bad guys have gone on a terrible spree in the house of a family, and only one child survives huddled in some hidden closet or under a bed. One of the police officers then slowly coaxes the child out of hiding and back out into the light, all the while trying to shield him or her from the sight of the carnage.
Perhaps, after all these messages this week, you still find yourself clinging to the safety of the darkness. Can’t say I blame you. The world and sin, given free reign, are absolutely terrifying. Still, there is a Voice calling out to you, gently coaxing you to come out and discover that where there once was nothing but death, new life has taken its place. What may feel safe in its darkness and hiddenness is keeping you from the joy the Father wants you to see. Oh, you may yet get scared when you come out into the bigness of your freedom in Jesus, and you may even run to hide from time to time, but the Voice persists, and the memory of the light will make the darkness seem pretty awful pretty quickly.
Today, take a moment to ask the Father to show you where your little “safe spaces” remain. Then pray something like this:
Heavenly Father, keep calling. I want to come, but I’m having trouble letting go, I’ve been holding on in here for so long. Keep calling. I’ll come. Really. Please keep calling.
In Jesus’ Name.
If you’d like easier access to Hearing His Voice than looking it up on a webpage, it is now available as both paperback and Kindle book. (But it will always be free here.)