There seems to be a common thread in pastoral conversation with folks in crisis. "But, what will I do if this or that happens?" This is a very difficult question for a pastor to answer because it involves things we cannot know in advance about circumstances, specific situations, or even more problematically, people's choices, reactions, and emotions. As I was pondering the responses I've felt led to give to those seeking my advice for handling a crisis, Jesus' words about the narrow gate struck me afresh.
If a gate is very narrow, consider how difficult it is to see it until you're right smack dab in front of it. In other words, we simply cannot see that gate through which we walk until we're within a few steps of that gate. For we who are naturally planners and controllers of life, the very idea of not knowing where the gate lies to navigate through a situation, a relational crisis or earthquake, an obstacle or conniving person in our professional path, etc., makes us absolutely nuts! "What do you mean, I won't know until I'm there how to handle it? But, you won't be with me in that moment to coach me through the crisis (or the conversation, or the conflict)! I need you to tell me what to do, what to say, and when and where to say it!"
Jesus seems to be saying we cannot know ahead of time; however, we know now that the Holy Spirit is there with us in that moment, at that gate, and ready to guide us, BUT…
Let's look at the context surrounding Matthew 7:13-14 to understand how the Lord wants us to prepare and proceed, and also, let's consider what this narrow gate means to ourselves.
In the immediate context, we prepare ahead by focusing on God: asking, seeking, and knocking at God's door – we may sit quietly, wait patiently, lament with psalms, or request humbly, "please, Lord, help me handle this crisis well!"
We prepare also by focusing on the concerns of the other person, and God's call to love our neighbor as ourselves. With even more impossible a degree of human difficulty, we're called to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us (Matt. 5:44): this is the summation of the commandments and the Prophets – Jesus said, "In everything do to others as you would have them do to you."
Gulp! Now, we're at the narrow gate. We quickly discover, however, that the gate is far too small for us!!! There is no human way we can squeeze through that door. The Greek word, stenos, which is translated "narrow" also carries connotations of being distressed, cramped and confined.
The response I gave to one person who was agonizing over what to do IF and WHEN further crises arose in the grave, life-changing conflict that faced them is indicative of what we need to do when faced with that narrow, impossible to squeeze through gate. I felt led to put my hand on their shoulder, stand next to them and point into middle distance before us: "do you see Jesus' back, there? Follow him!"
We are called to humble ourselves, deny ourselves, die to ourselves, pick up the cross and follow Jesus. Faced with God at the narrow gate, we need to be small enough, humble enough, faithful enough, trusting enough, and willing to die to our selfish interests to get through it. We believe in the God who resurrects new life out of that self-reducing, self-emptying death we must face to love the other, to love the enemy we're facing – even if that enemy is the very one who "promised," "vowed" and is "supposed to" love us forever. (Read the lead-up situations in Matthew 5, prior to Jesus' call to "love our enemies"; the enemies listed which are the most difficult to handle faithfully may be part of our families, workplaces, and communities.)
That narrow gate seems impossible in our minds and to our selfish desires. We want another gate. That "other" gate is in front of us, too. Look, it has another shepherd who appears gentle and innocuous, much less threatening to our instincts for self-preservation! That shepherd makes us feel happy about ourselves and our choices. We feel great relief that we don't have to do the impossible; so, we don't enter that narrow gate.
And so, we begin to journey on that broad and easy road of self-deception when we choose to turn away from the narrow gate that evidences how impossible it is for us to love one another as God loves us.
May we follow Christ, and today be "doers of the Word" – acting on the impossible by allowing God to humble us in the face of our own self-serving and other-denying ways so that we may be "fit" through that narrow gate. May we build upon the rock, trust the invisible God who will show us the way to walk if we've the courage to die to ourselves, our ambitions, and our ideas of how to achieve "happiness."