“And he said to them all, If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me. For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: but whosoever will lose his life for my sake, the same shall save it.” ~ Luke 9:23-24
Today’s text is a well-known passage of Scripture. Yet, it bears some re-examination because there is always more we can learn from God’s Word.
Perhaps the most stark/bracing section of Jesus’ words, in the text, are the requirements for discipleship. Specifically, a disciple must do three (somewhat) sequential steps:
- Deny self
- Take up his/her cross daily
- Follow Jesus
For whatever reason, our minds usually ‘zero in’ on the third step, which by itself is quite a challenge. However, before we can even get to following Jesus we must start with the first two steps.
This FIRST step is, in our modern society, is both profound and counter-instinctive. Self denial means a refusal to give in to one’s desires. It means that when personal desires, wants, ambitions, aspirations present themselves that we we ‘look the other way’; it means a refusal to focus on self at all.
This concept is sometimes applied by individuals today, for example: the student who studies instead of partying; the dieter who forgoes pastries; the parent who attends to a child’s needs instead of their own.
However, the self-denial of a disciple differs in that there is no TANGIBLE reward.
The student’s self-denial produces a MEASURABLE gain in knowledge. The dieter’s self-denial produces a MEASURABLE loss of pounds/flesh. The parent’s self-denial produces a MEASURABLE gain in their child’s well-being/happiness.
In contrast, a disciple’s self-denial will NOT produce a humanly MEASURABLE gain in his/her lifetime. For example, at the end of John’s life he was an exile in the small prison island of Patmos; at the end of Paul’s life he was a repeat offender with multiple convictions, for some of which he received beatings. Indeed, as Scripture tells us:
“For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory; While we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen: for the things which are seen are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal.” ~ 2 Corinthians 4:17-18
The disciple is challenged to deny him/herself for an unseen, intangible reward given posthumously.
Nevertheless, (despite its challenges) the emphasis is on the act of denying self. The disciple cannot follow Jesus without first denying his/her self. If we are preoccupied with our wants or needs we cannot follow Jesus. If we are fulfilling our ambitions, we cannot follow Jesus. If we are driven in any way by SELF-fulfillment or SELF-actualization we cannot follow Jesus. if we are ‘taking care of number one’ we cannot follow Jesus. The first step of the disciple is becoming not about the disciple.
TAKE UP YOUR CROSS DAILY
The SECOND step is perhaps even more incredulous than the first. Let us remind ourselves that carrying The Cross was a means of torture. It was part of the crucifixion process. Carrying the heavy cross was a means of exhausting the victim so that he would die more quickly after, later, being nailed to it and hoisted on it.
Jesus, therefore, is instructing those who want to be His disciples to accept the difficulties, God lays out for them, even as Jesus Himself accepted The Cross that God chose for Him to bear on our behalf.
There are difficulties and challenges, trials and tests, that God puts in our lives; and we are instructed not to run away from them, not to complain about them (not to focus on self), but rather to take them on. Yes, He wants us to shoulder those burdens even though they EXHAUST us.
Ask Paul, beatings and imprisonings are exhausting (2 Corinthians 11).
Training your children in the WORD is exhausting. Living by faith is exhausting.
Taking care of aging/sick parents is exhausting.
Taking care of a disabled child is exhausting.
Living within your means is exhausting.
Making hard choices is exhausting.
Resisting temptation is exhausting.
Gracefully, sharing the Gospel with unbelievers is exhausting.
Always, standing up for what is right is exhausting.
Forgiving those who have wronged us, over and over and over again, is EXHAUSTING.
Admitting our own wrongdoing and asking for forgiveness is EXHAUSTING!
And you have to do it EVERY LIVING day! Everyday, everyday, the disciple is required to accept the challenges, the difficulties, the tests and the trials God presents to him/her.
Why? Why? WHY?
Because it is God’s intent to KILL us, to put us to death! So that Christ can live in and through us!
As Scripture reminds us:
“I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me.” ~ Galatians 2:20
The trials we face, the cross we must carry daily, are meant to free us from the vestiges of the sinful nature that so often entraps us. And so the trials, if we face them–the cross, if we carry it daily–give us hope; hope that that new life in Christ will become ever more a reality for us.
“My brethren, count it all joy when ye fall into divers temptations; Knowing this, that the trying of your faith worketh patience. But let patience have her perfect work, that ye may be perfect and entire, wanting nothing.” ~ James 1:2-4
This is the final step. Much has been and will be written/said about following Jesus. However, here we want to focus on the fact that it is the third step for anyone who wants to be Jesus’ disciple. It is a crucial inescapable step, but it comes after two preceding steps.
The point is this: we struggle with following Jesus because we try to put this step first; indeed we often try to ignore the other steps altogether. But we cannot follow Jesus if we are preoccupied with our selves, our own agendas. Likewise we cannot follow Jesus if we fail to accept the challenges/trials God puts in our lives.
The extent to which we focus on Jesus exclusively and the extent to which we accept the road God has set before us, will determine the extent to which we are able to follow Jesus.
Runners in a race (e.g., at the Olympics) first focus on the goal, they empty their minds of everything else. They accept the course they have to run, for they have no other way to reach their goal. THEN, ONLY THEN, are they ready to run the race.
If we intend to be disciples of Jesus, we must do the same.