Saturday, June 08, 2013

Seeking the Strait and Narrow

Strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it. (Matthew 7:14)

Seek, and ye shall find. (Matthew 7:7)

How much do we seek “the way which leadeth unto life”? I am genuinely concerned that very few of us do. Jesus said few people find the way, and yet he gave us good instruction on how to find the way: seek it. Tellingly, it was the disciples of Jesus—those who followed him “up into a mountain” and away from the goings-on of the world—to whom he gave this counsel (see Matt. 5:1). These were people who, you might say, were already converted to Christ. And yet they were the ones instructed to seek, because the path to eternal life isn’t going to be an altogether obvious one. What this tells me is that following Jesus and hearkening to his words is just the beginning. There is more to be done, more truth to discover. This point is made even more explicit in Mormon scripture: “Seek not for riches but for wisdom, and behold, the mysteries of God shall be unfolded unto you, and then shall you be made rich. Behold, he that hath eternal life is rich” (D&C 6:7). In either instance, Christ is addressing a body of believers, and the directive to seek is left fairly open-ended. To presume that belonging to a certain religious tradition absolves one of the need to seek truth is to overlook the fact that Jesus was speaking to those who had already embraced him as their teacher.

I’ve done a lot of seeking over the last year. Have I discovered more truth? I’d say I have. It hasn’t been an easy-going venture. It’s been crushingly difficult at times. I say all this because I think I’ve seen just how easy it is not to seek the hidden terrain of truth and instead stick to the well-worn trails of convention upon which so many seem happy to travel. Granted, the trails of truth and convention can and sometimes do overlap. But that makes it all the harder to know which path you’re really following, to recognize when the two separate, and to determine which path is which once they diverge. If we take the Sermon on the Mount as a travel guide, there are several signposts we can look for that will indicate we’re following in Christ’s footsteps. Looking to the seventh chapter alone of Matthew, we’ll know we’re on the right path when: we no longer view others as inferior to or less deserving than ourselves (7:1-5); we do not take spiritual matters lightly nor breed contention by sharing spiritual insights with parties that aren’t interested, prepared, and/or to whom we haven’t been inspired to share (7:6); we genuinely, actively, and indiscriminately love others (7:12; cf. Matt. 22:37-40). How many people truly seek to cultivate these traits, let alone the further light and knowledge that is promised to those who embrace these preparatory qualities? How much of what we latch onto really has anything to do with walking this path? When one person scoffs, even privately, at another for wearing two earrings in one ear, there is great cause for concern. Not only does it violate the injunction not to judge, but it is unclear how the issue of wearing two earrings in one ear has anything to do with loving and serving others. In my mind, this suggests that God is not the one who is concerned with doubly-pierced ears. Whose path are we on when we insist on following unofficial rules more stubbornly than we do following the Spirit?

I want to be clear. I don’t think I’m suddenly doing things right while everyone else around me is doing things wrong. But I feel like the last 12 months have granted me a sobering dose of 20/20 hindsight. Key among the things I’ve learned is that seeking—really seeking—is a more proactive endeavor than I ever before realized. It requires more than doing things by the book and trusting or even hoping that your understanding of things will grow as an automatic consequence thereof. It requires questioning, pondering, and wrestling with and for the truth—not just when you happen to be confused by something, but also (and especially) when complacency comes cheap, when you could just as easily go on your merry way clinging to the status quo. It requires accepting that your current belief system is undeniably flawed and in need of improvement; there simply isn’t a possibility of growth if your beliefs aren’t amenable to change because you insist that they are already correct. It also requires trust, albeit trust that is properly placed—namely, in God. A good deal of trust must also be put in yourself, because God ultimately speaks to you through you and nobody else, regardless of who that other person is and/or what his/her credentials are. Scholars, prophets, and fellow parishioners—even if God uses these and others as his occasional mouthpiece, He has promised that He will confirm the truth of their sayings by the witness of the Holy Ghost. This is how God communicates to us directly, and that is the only voice we should hearken to obey. Anything else threatens to become idol worship, to place other gods above the true God.

It is less surprising to me than it once was that few people find the strait and narrow path. Who wants to bother? Isn’t it easier to do what everyone else does? To accept one’s beliefs as they stand? To follow modern-day religious leaders, whose words come to us in our native tongues and require no great deal of interpretation? Why should I stress and struggle to figure things out for myself? Why should I go through the laborious process of fine-tuning my spiritual sensitivities so that I can be perfected in knowledge, when I can get most things mostly right just by following the counsel of other human beings?

Few people find the strait and narrow path because few people seek it, and few people seek it because few people really want to bother.

Time to get bothered, methinks.


  1. Wonderful thoughts you have shared here. I think seminary/Sunday school lessons always made me think that the straight and narrow was a general sort of thing- everybody was supposed to be on that same path. Interesting that you pointed out He was talking to people already following him. So do you think everyone has their own straight and narrow? Like my path might look different than yours and still be "right?"

    1. Funny enough, someone was quoted just the other day as saying that the reason the way is "strait and narrow" is because you're the only one on it. It's just for you, your own private path.

      Do I agree that one person's path can be quite different from the paths of others and yet still be the right path for that person? Yes. But if we're all going toward God, our individual paths will start to converge eventually. I believe God works with us in our individual situations, which themselves are extremely diverse. I don't think He will inspire everyone to do the same thing, and I think it gets us into trouble when we assume that He will work the same way with every person. Life is more nuanced than that.

      The important thing, in my opinion, is that we're truly seeking God, not just trying to do things however we want. I'm fairly liberal by Mormon standards, but sometimes I worry that "liberal thinkers" are really just wanting to practice religion on their own terms. It's a fine line between doing things according to your best understanding and simply doing things the way that you want to do them. This makes honesty with oneself of extreme importance. The question is, are you seeking the path to God or seeking the path you want to travel and then assuming that God will meet you at the end of it because, hey, you sincerely picked your favorite path? That's the kind of question we all have to ask ourselves. It can be a surprisingly difficult question to answer.