Have you ever been told, “You don’t have to die”? It happens more often than you may think, often at forks in the road of life, during some kind of transition, or during what we might call a period of flux. Of course, you know the fact of your own mortality, so the message must come at a slant. So what you may hear is, “Take the easy way,” or, “Why not?” But in whatever words, whether spoken audibly by another or internally by yourself, with whatever gentle, well-meaning, or loving phrasing, the temptation is the same: “You don’t have to die.” Jesus too heard this temptation.
Jesus and the disciples were walking along on their way, and Jesus tried to act casual. “So, guys, um . . . who do people say that I am?” The disciples, clued in to the rumblings and rumors, gave a few common answers. Then Jesus lost his casual act and said, “But who do you say that I am?” Who knows what triggered it, but Peter said, “You are the Christ!” Jesus replied, “Yes, that’s right. Now let me tell you what that word means.” It was the answer to the question that had been on everyone’s lips, from the common people to the religious leaders to the king: “Who is this man?” With Jesus’ first prediction of his death, he began to tell the disciples (and repeatedly reiterated) that his being the Christ meant he would suffer and die. If the question (and its answer) “Who is Jesus?” forms the first half of the gospel story, then the question, “What does it mean for him to be the Christ?” forms the second half.
At this turning point in Jesus’ ministry he begins to tell them what being the Christ means: he must suffer, be rejected by religious leaders, be killed, and then rise again. Peter hears these new words and new tone and is provoked. He takes Jesus aside and scolds him for such negative talk. “That’s not what I meant when I said you are the Christ! With your amazing miraculous powers, and my organizational ability, we are going to go into Jerusalem, kick out the Romans, and set up home rule! With you as the Christ (and myself as, say, Vice Christ) we cannot lose!” At this point, Jesus turns from Peter and returns the rebuke: “Get behind me, Satan! You are thinking the way people think, not the way God thinks.”
Because we understand that Peter’s words to Jesus were formed out of loyalty and misunderstanding of Jesus’ purpose, we can tend to be more patient with Peter than Jesus seemed to be. Was it really necessary to call him “Satan”? Yet Jesus was fierce toward Peter’s words because he heard not the well-meaning if blind enthusiasm of a follower but the cold-hearted temptation of the Adversary who would wish to turn Jesus from his mission on earth.
Jesus had met Satan before, and he knew the power of his temptations. At another key transition point in Jesus’ life, as he was setting out on his earthly ministry, Satan had tempted Jesus to abandon his call and step away from his destiny, to take a short-cut to power and glory, avoiding the path of the cross. Jesus also met Satan’s wiles again the night before he was killed, while in the garden he told his disciples to pray that they too would not enter temptation. Satan, having entered Judas, was lurking about, eager to tempt Jesus to turn aside from the path. When the betrayer came, Jesus said, “Enough!” because at this point he had met his challenge and the course was marked out for him: the trial, the cross, and death lay ahead, and he was determined not to turn aside from it.
Satan shows up at key transitions in Jesus’ life: the beginning of his public ministry, the point where he begins to define for his disciples the purpose of his coming, and the point where he must make the final decision that seals his fate on the cross. Satan knows that at key transition times his targets are the most vulnerable to temptation. This is one of Satan’s vital strategies. When we have set patterns of faithfulness and growth, it is easier to resist temptation. When we are in new situations or experiencing dramatic change in our lives, then we are most susceptible to Satan’s ploys.
Satan can neutralize all the progress Christians make in their own spiritual growth while in college if he can derail them during the transition after college. All their progress is negated if he can persuade them that the “idealistic” convictions and choices made in college somehow don’t apply to the harsh realities of “the real world.”
One way we may experience this temptation is the sin of regret. We may find ourselves disappointed at the faithful choices we made in college that left us with a less-than-impressive résumé. Perhaps it was the lack of a prestigious summer internship because of participation in a cross-cultural mission; perhaps it was the decision not to do a senior project in order to give priority to ministry. The regret becomes a sin when we doubt God’s faithfulness because of our choice to follow him.
A related temptation is the sin of envy. We watch with envy as our non-Christian roommates seem more prepared for getting a good job or receiving acceptance into graduate school. Our temptation may be to think that we’ve been left behind our peers by not getting to know all the right professors, gaining the summer employment experience, and getting the high grades that will put us into the graduate school, government post, or high-tech firm of our choice. As disciples of Jesus who have internalized the values of the kingdom, perhaps what we are best at is loving God and loving other people (and when we are honest we aren’t always great at that, either). The question is whether or not that has prepared us for what lies ahead.
Much is made of the fact that during transitions people have a chance to reshape who they will become by making different personal choices. When Jesus’ secret was out (“You are the Christ!”) he faced a choice of what kind of Christ he would decide to be. When we begin working for a new firm or company, or find ourselves in a new living situation, we face choices once again about how we wish to define who we want to be. And you can expect to hear from someone in your life (or from yourself) the voice that says, in one way or another, “You don’t really need to die, not in that way, not now.” Through these subtle voices, Satan will raise doubts and questions. Or more overtly, people will belittle our experience of God’s trustworthiness, and those with more worldly experience will advise us, “Now is the time to get serious—save your life, while you still can.”
Since I first left college, I have faced many other turning points, including two big ones: when I got married and when I first became a parent. At each of these stages, I also heard voices, some from well-meaning friends, and some internalized wondering of my own, and these voices said, in one way or another, “Save your life.” “Now that you’re married, you’ll need to live by grown-up rules. The generosity with which you disposed of your meager income is no longer possible now that you have responsibilities!” Or, “Now that you have become a parent you need to ensure that you give your children the very best you can. How will they get the education they need at this public school? You’ve got to move out of the city to protect your children!” Navigating the transition beyond college and turning aside from Satan’s temptation is just the first in a lifelong series of transitions and temptations to save our lives and reject the disciples’ call. The stakes only increase, so it is crucial to consider how to identify and resist this temptation now.
Can there be continuity between discipleship during college and discipleship after college? The context for our discipleship changes, sometimes dramatically, but the principles and the promises of our discipleship remain the same. The worshiping community of faith is to be central in our lives: no longer a campus fellowship, but a church and a small group. We need to spend regular time in Scripture and prayer, making choices to live out what we read (though now it may be in the 25 minutes we have on the train commuting to work). We seek to interest people around us in the goodness of a relationship with Jesus, through our words and actions: no longer our roommates but our coworkers or the folks down the hall in the apartment complex. What was true for Jesus and for Peter is still true for us: we must lose our lives for Christ’s sake if we want to find life, the life Jesus promises, real life that keeps getting better and better as our discipleship deepens.