When Following Jesus Sucks

What I’m about to tell you is true. When you were younger, you dressed yourself. You went wherever you wanted to go. But when you are old, you will stretch out your hands. Someone else will dress you. Someone else will lead you where you do not want to go.” Jesus said this to point out how Peter would die. His death would bring glory to God. Then Jesus said to him, “Follow me!” -John 21:18-19

Probably my favorite season of the year, according to the Christian calendar, is the Easter season. In the United States, there is nothing better than winter finally breaking and Spring beginning to burst forth with new life, color, and warmer weather! In many ways, it’s a reminder from creation that death gives way to life, as the resurrection followed on the heels of the crucifixion.

This year, however, I am being reminded not only of the joy of the resurrection and restoration. I am also being reminded of the reality of the cross we, too, are called to bear. I love focusing on how Jesus restored Peter after he had failed and denied even knowing Jesus. But God has been drawing my attention to what followed Peter’s resurrection, and I won’t lie; I don’t like it! Yes, on the one hand, it was exactly what Peter needed to hear to know he was fully restored and would not repeat his previous failure of denying Jesus. But on the other hand, I am not sure I like the outcome of how Jesus said his life would end: Peter being crucified himself!

But let’s be real. What this passage and statement remind us of is something you probably won’t hear emphasized in much preaching but it is true: Following Jesus can sometimes downright suck. Jesus flat out told Peter that he would be led in his later years somewhere where he would not want to go. He directly informed him he would not have control over what others would do to him (crucify him). Friends, may I remind you: crucifixion sucks!!!

And that’s the point. Following Jesus can be very painful and sacrificial at times. It is not just fun, glamorous, or pleasurable at all times. But the goal is not our comfort or pleasure; it is to glorify God. It is to demonstrate his power in our lives, overcoming even our human weakness, selfishness, and desires.

Lately, I have been traveling around the world and the US quite a bit. I absolutely love what I do, but there are times and days where I wish I could escape the weight of responsibility I sometimes feel (managing staff, raising money, signing contracts, putting reports together, navigating problems, facing many often competing pressures, etc.). Being an introvert, I get exhausted and weary to the point of sometimes dreaming of escaping in multiple ways. I can tell you of daydream’s of escaping to a remote cabin to just read books at a leisurely pace I can control. I can tell you about “dreams” of sleeping in, binge-watching movies for days with no responsibilities, going on a real vacation for whatever time and way I want, or simply not being away from my wife and kids so often. Sometimes I am envious of others and what can appear as a more comfortable, more luxurious life. Sometimes, I catch myself daydreaming of a simpler, slower-paced life. Too often, I get tired, defensive, frustrated, cranky, impatient, and complain too much.

But as God keeps reminding me of in this interaction with Peter, following Jesus is not about making our lives comfortable, convenient, or experiencing spiritual highs all the time. It is about growing up, becoming mature in our faith, being stretched by our faith in uncomfortable ways, and living a life of sacrifice and service like the One we claim to follow. It is often about surrendering, submitting, denying, and crucifying our wants, desires, fears, and preferences. Following Jesus is a call to give up our own way and realize life is not about us. We are not the center of the story. The glory of God is.

Yes, Jesus restores. But he restores us to a crucified life in which his resurrection can be displayed through our weakness. He also restores us to a life of service and sacrifice. 

This is not a popular message. Jesus even acknowledged Peter would not like it, and by extension, if we are honest, neither will we! And if you read on, you will see Peter doing all he can to distract and divert attention away from what Jesus was saying to him by putting the focus on someone else (we do the same)! But in stating that Peter would not like this, Jesus is giving us permission to be real. To not fake it till we make it. To not deny that it doesn’t disturb us. To not deny we would rather run from it. To not deny that we don’t sometimes wish it easier or different. But in the end, it is a call to accept that part of what it means to follow Jesus is that we grow up in ways that sometimes do suck. That God’s will for our lives sometimes leads us places, we would rather not go and are not comfortable, but by his grace, we can endure for his glory.

I don’t mean to say following Jesus always sucks. Much of it is glorious, satisfying, life-giving, even fun, and awesome. All other ways of life are, in the end, empty and void of real abundant life. But the reality is, following Jesus is not always awesome. It’s not always fun. It’s not always what we prefer. It challenges our fears and comfort zones. Sometimes it is very painful, even agonizing. Sacrifice and serving by nature involve some personal cost and denial of something that would bring us greater pleasure. 

But it is when we endure these very situations that we show our faith is now mature. It is when our following Jesus becomes more than fleeting feelings, but a faithfulness that reflects the faithfulness of our Savior towards us no matter the cost.

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