As a child in an evangelical Christian household, I used to agonize over my salvation. There was just no way to be certain. And yet I heard it preached from the pulpit dozens of times. Well-meaning pastors claimed that our safe passage into the next life was guaranteed with nothing but a little faith and a certain prayer.
As I strove to be like all the others around me and have faith, I memorized Bible verses like this one: “Enter 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.” (Matthew 7:13-14, NIV)
I was assured that these were clear instructions that a “Sinner’s Prayer” was the narrow gate through which I needed to pass. But it just didn’t sit well with me.
For one thing, there are billions of Christians in the world. How is it that Jesus claims that only a few are finding this narrow gate? As a child, my whole world was Christians. Everyone knew this verse and claimed to have passage through this supposedly narrow gate. Of course, I was told, this was only because I didn’t realize how many people in the world had not heard of Jesus and even most of the ones who had didn’t believe in Him the right way. Our way.
Another thing that worried me was how certain everyone seemed. If everyone was so certain, that must mean we were going through this supposed broad gate. Saying a prayer and going to church was easy. Didn’t that mean we were being fooled into a false sense of security and actually we were traveling into destruction?
As I got older, my feelings never resolved. In fact, I became more and more uncomfortable. There were Christians everywhere I went. And all of them seemed so sure. Myself included because that’s what I was taught. And I pitied and tried to convert any of the poor souls that were not on this narrow path with us “few” evangelicals.
But it felt good to be in that exclusive group. Although I wanted to add others into the group, there was a security in knowing that only my group had “figured it out.” Furthermore, we had the heroic task of sharing our superior knowledge and belief with the world.
And so my wife and I moved to Thailand for just that reason. We spent two years there and discovered two things: It felt arrogant to walk into another culture with the “I’m right, you’re wrong” mindset and demand them to change their beliefs.
The second thing I discovered was that there were already Christians there who were doing exactly that. They had been doing it for a long time and the result was that there were lots of Thai people wearing western clothes and singing western songs and going to a building that looked a lot like a western church. It seemed like there was a deeply intertwined connection between Christianity and Western Culture in the exclusive group that I was in.
A revelation was slowly beginning to creep into my conventional understanding.
After years of frustration and questioning, I found myself back at the same verse with more questions than answers. I read the whole chapter, searching for a hint or clue within the context.
As I read, with the benefit of wisdom that comes from years of failure, I saw the words differently. An understanding popped into my head like the solution to a riddle. Because that’s what it was. This passage wasn’t a user’s manual for salvation. It was like a Zen koan, designed to grant the hearer a deeper understanding as they puzzled over the meaning.
Quickly summarizing: chapter seven begins with another familiar and often memorized verse, “Do not judge or you too will be judged.” (Matthew 7:1, NIV) Next, Jesus gives the familiar admonishment of avoiding the speck in someone’s eye until you remove the plank from your own eye. He moves from that into the ask seek knock sequence.
Next was the golden rule: “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 7:12, NIV)
I knew all of these passages. I had memorized them as a child. But I had never looked at them sequentially, as a group of maxims building off each other and ending with the passage that had caused me so much fear and confusion.
The narrow path was not an invitation into an exclusive group. Because the problem with the religious institutions was exactly that: exclusivity.
Jesus was not laying out a metaphysical road map. He was trying to broaden the consciousness of his followers through the methods of a wisdom teacher. And he was using a clever subtle irony at the same time.
Since the dawn of our existence, humans have survived by banding together in exclusive groups: tribes. We hunted and farmed and fought in these groups. But as long as we continue in a tribalistic mindset, we will never move past mere survival. On a small primitive scale, these tactics worked, but in a global context, they do not. That type of survival mindset leads to war, famine, and death.
Breaking free of tribalistic thinking is the only way to move into freedom and new life.
It is not easy to break from our tribe, and embrace the differences of those around us. We naturally fear people who are different. But it’s necessary, because the thing actually hurting us is our fear of the other tribe.
The narrow path to a better life requires that we abandon these tribal instincts for survival. The subtle irony of the narrow path is that it is actually radically inclusive.
Non-tribalistic thinking was the exact opposite of what I had been striving for my entire life. I was trying to make people think and act just like me. It was a broad and easy path to follow, thinking that I had the right understanding and belonged to the right group. It was comfortable, even in the times when it might have been physically uncomfortable, like moving to another country and culture, I still kept my consciousness in its comfort zone, thinking my tribe was right and someone else’s tribe was wrong.
Realizing my thinking had been wrong all along was only half the problem. I needed to begin the difficult task of consciously thinking inclusively about the Other in my life.
It is a hard mode of thinking to maintain, like an unmarked poorly maintained trail through the wilderness. Thankfully, the passage gives clues to keep me on track: Do not judge. My plank, not their speck. Everyone who asks receives. Do to others what you want done to you, in everything.
I slip back into my tribal thinking so quickly and unconsciously that I do not even notice most of the time. But that is the secret beauty of the hidden path. You can rediscover it again and again. It takes conscious effort. There is hard and costly work involved, self-emptying love and sacrificial kindness, but each discovery leads to a deeper and more beautiful kind of life.
Now when I read this passage, it is a humble reminder to think less about my eternal security and belonging to an exclusive group. It reminds me to begin erasing the hard-drawn lines of fear created by cultural and religious tribes; the lines of “we are right,” and “they are wrong.” It reminds me to strive to listen rather than convert because in the end, even though the path is hard to navigate, it leads to a deeper and more beautiful human existence for everyone.