The Straight and Narrow

(April 13, 2013)

     You may have seen the bumper sticker that reads, “I’m straight, but not narrow”, which statement is obviously intended to lend support to what has become a relentless pro-perversion propaganda machine. But even before that movement had become so prevalent, the idea that walking such a path could only impose negative limitations on one’s life was a popular one. The contention is that a person would have to be very boring, timid, naïve, or prudish (if not all of these) to submit to such “religious” constrictions, and thereby miss out on all the best the wide world has to offer. Enlightened people are those who throw off the unnatural shackles of oppressive structure and explore all of life’s myriads of possibilities!
     In the unlikely event that the reader is unfamiliar with the original source material being referenced by that bumper sticker, it can be found in Matthew 7:13-14, as part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount:
     “Enter in at the strait gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leads to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat: Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leads to life, and few there are that find it.”
     So are the manufacturers of the sticker correct? And are the people who have supposedly grown up to be liberated from Jesus’ alleged narrow-mindedness the truly free people of the world?

When a person is walking (in the most literal, physical sense), there is no narrower path on which to walk than that of the tightrope. A few years ago, I watched a documentary entitled Man on Wire, which tells the story of Frenchman Philippe Petit’s quest to walk on a high wire between the two original towers of the World Trade Center in New York City. It’s a fascinating tale, not only of the aforementioned particular event, but of Petit's lifelong dedication to practice and his single-minded dedication to a rare and dangerous profession. The amount of preparation and planning that went into this particular walk - one of many such death-defying acts in Petit’s career - is nothing less than amazing.
     And he pulled it off. On August 7, 1974, he spent close to an hour on his wire-walk, balanced approximately a quarter of a mile above the streets of lower Manhattan. Crowds of amazed and delighted New Yorkers witnessed his achievement, stopping to gaze up at one man who was willing to take the extreme risk of walking the most perilous of paths.

     In remembering the movie, I don’t recall any of the people interviewed therein describing Petit’s life, or his achievement, as boring or restricting. If it had been, the producers most likely would not have made a movie about it more than 30 years after the event took place. His feat was unquestionably dangerous; some would say he was crazy. Still, he made it. And on that day, it was the crowd gathered on the streets below who were looking up at him in amazement, and not the other way around.
     Is a life that contains rules, boundaries, and restrictions really so suffocating to the spirit, so counter-conducive to a life lived to its highest potential?  Does self-discipline detract from one's freedom, or add to it?  The apostle Paul used analogies from the athletic events of nearly two thousand years ago – events not so different from those of today – to describe the Christian life:
     “And every man that strives for the mastery is temperate in all things. Now they do it to obtain a corruptible crown; but we an incorruptible. I therefore so run, not as uncertainly; so fight I, not as one that beats the air: but I keep under my body, and bring it into subjection: lest that by any means, when I have preached to others, I myself should be a castaway” (First Corinthians 9:25-27). 
     Some successful coaches from a more recent era have described what is necessary for an athlete to achieve greatness in the sports world, as follows:

- “I told them it would be up to me to try to instill in them the things that I believe are necessary to win, and that’s mainly to be willing to give up a lot of things that they would otherwise enjoy doing.” (Don Shula, coach of the NFL’s only undefeated team, describing his approach to his players in the book The Winning Edge 1). 

- “Superior players don’t complain about such restrictions, they take pride in them. They understand their willingness to sacrifice places them among that rare breed of individuals who will do whatever is necessary to attain their goals.” (Collegiate championship-winning coach Lou Holtz, in his book Winning Every Day 2).

     But is such a sacrifice of temporal indulgences worth it, in light of the potential long-term rewards? Consider this quote from a book about Sebastian Coe, an English middle-distance runner and Olympian who set 11 world records, one of which stood for approximately sixteen years (according to Coe’s Wikipedia entry). The quote is by Coe’s father, Peter:

- “The last thing I want to remember about these Games is that picture of elation as Seb crossed the line, a man who had borne up and gone out and done exactly what he had set himself.”3 

     If such things are true of a life lived in pursuit of physical excellence and success, is it not reasonable that the same truths hold for those who crave eternal spiritual life and peace?  Is there some valid reason to assume that the opposite should hold true, as those who object to the “straight and narrow” doctrine would contend?  Is adherence to certain rules (including rules regarding moral propriety) really so prudish, restrictive, and unenlightened?
     When people describe as negatively constraining the road that Jesus said we must walk in order to gain eternal life, they demonstrate themselves to be unenlightened.  Even practitioners of other disciplines that have some “religious” connections (as Yoga seems to have with both Hinduism and Buddhism) will contend that self-denial and adherence to goal-oriented guidelines pays off in both the physical and the spiritual realms.
     As an Idahoan, I’ve had many opportunities to hike, including some rather strenuous treks on single track trails to high mountain lakes and to the mountaintops beyond.  The ways are narrow, yes – but you get to breathe fresh air, and enjoy an amazing view at the summit (along with the satisfaction of achieving a personal goal).  I consider this in comparison to the plight of the vagrant hitchhiker one sometimes sees on the side of a busy highway.  Sure, he’s on a wide, paved road, headed wherever the next willing driver might take him (at their expense, of course).  As he waits out in the elements for someone else to carry him along, weighted down by a pack that carries all his possessions, he gets to watch semis going by and throwing debris into his eyes.  He has the privilege of breathing exhaust fumes.  He can enjoy absorbing the high decibel level of traffic noise.  Call me crazy, but I’ll glady take a day pack, a trail map, and a bit of difficulty over that alternative. Yes, you must walk the straight AND narrow road to enter life.  If that means others see you as an archaic, deluded, religious loser, just keep focusing on the finish line; the one those “liberated” people will never have the satisfaction of crossing.  And, like a high-wire walker, don’t spend too much time looking down! 

1. The Winning Edge, Don Shula with Lou Sahadi. Copyright 1973, E.P. Dutton & Co., Inc., p. 151.
2. Winning Every Day – The Game Plan for Success, Lou Holtz. Copyright 1998, Harper Business, p. 61.
3. Running with the Legends, Michael Sandrock. Copyright 1996, Human Kinetics, p. 314.