And more, much more than this, I did it my way,” sang Frank Sinatra. There is something life-affirming about doing it “my way,” charting one’s own path, following one’s conscience and talents and not compromising one’s values along the way. But when it comes to the ways of God, it is best to do it God’s way, as Jesus did in following the path to the cross.
The prophet Ezekiel spoke to the people of Israel about God’s ways, in particular the ways of righteousness and wickedness, promising that God granted each person individual responsibility for sins committed. It might seem strange to us that people would protest about a move from corporate to individual responsibility, but Ezekiel records the complaint from the people that “the way of the Lord is unfair.” God responds with incredulity that the divine ways are questioned: “Is my way unfair? Is it not your ways that are unfair?”
The complaint of the people seems to have been grounded in a static notion of who counts as the righteous and the wicked. But what about when the righteous turn away from righteousness or those who are wicked turn away from wickedness? God offers judgment: “When the righteous turn away from their righteousness and commit iniquity, they shall die for it.... Again, when the wicked turn away from the wickedness they have committed and do what is lawful and right, they shall save their life.” Conversion and justice are at the heart of God’s verdict. God weighs our repentance and changes of heart; perseverance in the ways of righteousness is essential, not just a claim of past righteousness. So those who “considered and turned away from all the transgressions that they had committed, they shall surely live; they shall not die.”
God’s way is always the way of righteousness, though this way can be surprising and baffling, shocking us with the depths of God’s mercy. We might as a result stubbornly decide that God’s way is “unfair” or attempt to resist God’s paths, but the ways of God are the way of compassion. Since it is Jesus, the preeminent model for us, who followed God’s ways perfectly, Paul begins his beautiful hymn to Christ by encouraging the Philippians to have “the same mind, maintaining the same love, united in spirit, intent on one purpose” as did Jesus. He asks that the Philippians “with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others.” This way, says Paul, was the perfect path forged by Jesus, in which only obedience to the will of God was followed.
In having this attitude, which Paul encourages for all Christians, Christ was willing to empty himself, “taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.” It was a way that in the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus asked to have taken from him, so that he could follow some other path; yet it was the path that God gave him that Jesus walked in humility, obedience and sacrifice to his death. We are, of course, more like the interlocutors of Ezekiel, who cry out, “The way of the Lord is unfair,” than like Jesus, who was ever obedient. This is not to say that to question God’s way, as Jesus did, or to ask for another path is improper. It is only when we reject the ways of God that we begin to wander away.
Yet, as Ezekiel demonstrates, even if we have wandered away, God offers us chances to be converted and repent. This merciful offer is on display in Matthew’s parable of the two sons. In the parable, one son says no to the father’s request to work in the vineyard and the other son says yes. But the son who said no to the father later changed his mind and his ways, while the son who said yes decided not to work in the vineyard. If we are the son or daughter who is saying no to the father, we can still change our ways, just as the son or daughter who says yes and then rejects God can still turn back. You did it your way, but more, much more than this, why not try God’s way?