All of us experience it: blasphemous thoughts about God emerge in our minds. So where do these thoughts come from? And how do we respond? The question comes in from a listener named Hayden.
“Dear Pastor John, for seven long years, I’ve had hard thoughts of Christ. There have been good seasons in which I have been overwhelmed with the beauty and grace of Christ, and there have been indescribably painful seasons where he seems so disappointed with me that I have been driven well nigh to despair. Often I fear that I am the wicked servant who said of the master, ‘I was afraid, because I knew you were a hard man’ (Luke 19:21). Then I fear that I am not saved at all because I don’t perceive Jesus correctly.
“I want to treasure Christ above all, but I often fear that I don’t, because these thoughts harass me. I have confessed all known sin in my life, and I have cried out to God repeatedly. What is wrong with me? How should I approach this situation biblically? What are specific Scripture passages that you would direct me to when the hard thoughts about Christ arrive?”
Hayden says, “There are thoughts that harass me,” and specifically thoughts that Christ is a hard master — hard thoughts about Christ. So there are two issues it seems to me. I want to address both of them.
“The presence of a thought in your mind is not necessarily a mark of your own identity in Christ.”
What do you do when thoughts harass you?
What do you do when you believe or think that Christ is a hard master?
So first, what about harassing thoughts?
Be careful not to make too much of thoughts that enter your mind. It seems to me that Satan’s main strategy for ruining people is by deceiving them, either by seeding destructive thoughts in their minds, or by influencing us to deal with our thoughts in a destructive way. Besides Satan, our own fleshly nature can do the same thing — can send thoughts into our mind.
This means that the presence of a thought in your mind is not necessarily a mark of your own identity in Christ. That’s important to realize. It’s not necessarily a mark of your new nature in Jesus. It’s an alien thought. An enemy has done this, you might say — either your old self or Satan. So there are four things I want to say to Hayden about this harassment.
View it as that: harassment. It’s not an atom bomb. Treat it more like an annoying fly that you need to swat. Get it out of your face — swat it. It is not the end of the world.
Say to the thought, “No. No. That’s not what I think, Mr. Thought. You can get out of here. I renounce you.”
Turn your mind, then, to an alternative truth that is you, that’s based in Scripture.
Ask God to liberate you from this harassment.
Take your confidence from Philippians 4:6–7: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding” — and this is key — “will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
Don’t you think that means “protect you from the destructive effects of harassing thoughts that take root in hearts and minds”? So we’re praying that there would be a guard from God not to let that happen.
It may be for Hayden that the bigger issue than the fact of harassment is the content of the harassing thought — namely, that Christ is a hard master.
“Whenever you have thoughts that Christ is a hard master, remember he never leaves you to yourself.”
I thought maybe the most helpful thing I could do here, rather than jumping all over the Bible for a bunch of texts, would be to stay pretty much with the parable where Hayden got the trouble (Matthew 25:14–30).
We don’t have time to read the whole thing, but here is the idea: This is the parable of the talents, where five talents are given to one person, two are given to another, and one is given to the last person. The one with one talent buries it, and he gives a reason for why he buried it: “I knew you were a hard master, so I didn’t risk losing the talent that you gave me. Here is your talent. I just buried it” (see Matthew 25:24–25).
Let me say a quick three things about this situation in the parable. These observations I hope will change Hayden’s or anybody’s perception of Christ as a hard master.
Sow and Reap
I don’t think Jesus accepts that assessment of himself by that man whom he gave the one talent to. He doesn’t accept that he was a hard master. I think the translators are right to make verse 26 a question: “You knew that I reap where I have not sown and gather where I scattered no seed?”
That’s a question. What Jesus is saying is, “If you really believe that, you would have acted differently. You are a fool. If you thought I was a hard man, then that was a foolish thing to do. In fact, you didn’t know that I was a hard man. I’m not a hard master. I do not demand obedience from people to whom I have given no grace.”
I think that’s the interpretation of “you reap where you did not sow.” At the last judgment, it will be plain to all the world that all disobedience is in spite of much truth and much grace.
Paul gives the principle in 2 Corinthians 8:12. He says, “For if the readiness [to give, to be generous] is there, it is acceptable according to what a person has, not according to what he does not have.” That’s a flat-out contradiction of what the man said who buried the one talent. Jesus does not demand fruit where he has not sown seed.
The first thing Hayden should do with the harassing thought that Christ is hard, the way this man says he’s hard, is to say to that thought, “No, he’s not. You’re wrong. You should not have said that about Jesus.”
Second, the real picture of the master in this parable is found in Matthew 25:21 and Matthew 25:23, where he is thrilled with the first two servants, one man with five talents that became five more and another man with two talents that became two more.
“There’s no illusion in the Bible or in Jesus’s mind that the Christian life is easy in the sense of escaping suffering.”
He says to both of them exuberantly, “Well done, good and faithful servants.” Then he adds something, and this is why I said it’s exuberant. He doesn’t say, “Enter into the loyal workforce of your master — I’m recruiting really effective slaves.”
What does he say? He says at the last day, “Enter into the joy of your master.” That’s not a hard master. That is a happy master, eager to include the workers in the joy of his house, where he’s happy — not his field, where he’s making demands. So, Hayden, preach to yourself that Christ is a happy master.
C.S. Lewis said, “Christ is hard to satisfy and easy to please,” which simply means (and I think that’s right) his standards are infinitely high — he is God — but oh how ready he is to say, “well done” to a faithful, imperfect servant. He’s gracious. He’s God, so his standards are infinite. But he’s gracious, so he loves to say, “Well done.”
Jesus’s Easy Yoke
Finally, number three, what if the thought goes through your head, “But Jesus does say that the way is hard that leads to life”? For example, Matthew 7:13–14: “Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.”
Is he a hard master? But wait. Listen to this: “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28–30).
Easy? I thought you said it was hard. How do those fit together? Jesus doesn’t contradict himself. He’s not schizophrenic. He doesn’t speak with a forked tongue.
The word for hard in Matthew 7:14 is afflicted, beset with all kinds of pressing, hard experiences in life. Paul said in Acts 14:22 that “through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.” “Through many tribulations” means through many afflictions. It’s built on the same word as the word hard there in Matthew 7:14. It means hard experiences, buffetings and pressings and squeezings till we feel like we can’t stand it anymore.
There’s no illusion in the Bible or in Jesus’s mind that the Christian life is easy in the sense of escaping suffering. But God’s role in that includes meeting every need we have.
He says no test — sometimes translated temptation, but it’s the same word — befalls us without grace to endure and escape (1 Corinthians 10:13). Paul says, “My God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:19). In whatever need you have to deal with, the pressures and squeezings and hardness of life, God will provide all you need.
“Satan’s main strategy for ruining people is by deceiving them.”
In 2 Corinthians 9:8, Paul says, “God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work.” God does not load his children with burdens and then watch to see how they do. Every burden that he gives, he provides grace to lighten our load.
Or, “The eyes of the Lord run to and fro throughout the whole earth, to give strong support to those whose heart is blameless toward him” (2 Chronicles 16:9). I love the thought that God is looking everywhere: “Where is somebody who will let me lift the load? Where is somebody who will let me carry their load?”
Or Isaiah 64:4: “From of old no one has heard or perceived by the ear, no eye has seen a God besides you, who acts for those who wait for him.” Who is a God like you, who works for those who wait for him, who carries our burden?
Hayden, whenever you have thoughts that Christ is a hard master and that his demands are hard, remember he never leaves you to yourself. Say with John Bunyan (oh how I love this little poem),
Run, John, run, the law commands,
But gives us neither feet nor hands.
Far better news the gospel brings:
It bids us fly and gives us wings.