In my last post of this short series, I briefly wrote about what it means to “deny ourselves” and how it specifically relates to obedience, the way that God defines how we love Him. Jesus’ call to deny ourselves entails a violent, radical resistance to self-promotion, self-preservation, and every expression of self-service in our time, emotions, thoughts, money, and every level of our existence. It requires a reorientation of our entire existence to understanding that we take in breath not for ourselves, but for His sake (Luke 9:23-24; Luke 14:26-27). I’d encourage you to read a previous blog I wrote on this particular phrase here for more.
Though the first step of “deny yourself” seems like such a far-reaching call when we really understand what Jesus is saying, the Lord beckons into His likeness even further. For we must remember that conformity to Him, fellowship with Him, and everlasting joy in making much of Him is the driving motivation behind His call.
The second step on the path to discipleship is taking up our cross daily. Though we often speak of them together and assume they are the same thing, Jesus’ call to take up our cross is distinct from denying ourselves. The cross is not an instrument of beauty, but an instrument of death. Jesus, the Beautiful One, endured the cross and despised its shame for the joy set before Him (Hebrews 12:2). “The cross will cut into our lives where it hurts worst, sparing neither us nor our carefully cultivated reputations”, AW Tozer says.
In the Roman world at the time of Christ, the only time when someone carried their cross was when they had been sentenced to death and were walking with it to their execution. Jesus is saying “if you want to be Mine and if you want to love Me, every day for you is a march to your death”. Though our modern version of Christianity in the West has very little or no place for persecution, martyrdom, mocking, or self-denial, we must come to the realization that these words of Jesus are not radical, are not just for the missionaries, and are not just for Christians at the end of the age. Jesus is describing normal Christianity.
The call to take up our cross is a call to embrace the difficulty and suffering that comes our way as the result of our obedience. Because we can’t just choose to love God through our obedience in one single moment but must choose it every day, we must embrace what comes our way because of that obedience every day. We must not shrink back from Jesus’ call to die “daily” (1 Corinthians 15:51), as we deny ourselves and experience persecution or trouble because of our obedience. Though both external and internal pressures may become difficult, God’s promise is that we can have a rich, full joy in those moments. As John Piper so eloquently put it, the Lord has called us to “suffering, not joylessness”. As we obey and suffer for our obedience, deep joy comes because the Holy Spirit affirms the path we are walking as the difficult way that few find (Matthew 7:14). We can have a joy no one can take away, knowing we are having our lives conformed to the life of the most joyful Man who has ever lived (Psalms 45:7). Because God created us for His glory, He created us for our highest joy. The truest and deepest joy we can experience is only found when our lives are wholly consumed with the glory of Another.
““Blessed are you when they revile and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely for My sake. Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” (Matthew 5:11-12 NKJV)
In this [inheritance of the resurrection and Christ’s kingdom that is coming] you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while, if need be, you have been grieved by various trials…Though now you do not see Him, yet believing, you rejoice with joy inexpressible.” (1 Peter 1:6-9 NKJV)
“but rejoice to the extent that you partake of Christ’s sufferings, that when His glory is revealed, you may also be glad with exceeding joy.” (1 Peter 4:13 NKJV)
As we say “yes” to obedience day by day, our Helper, the Holy Spirit (John 14:16), will actually help us follow through with our decisions to obey. The Spirit is also our Comforter (John 14:26), bringing us surpassing peace and inexpressible joy in the place of suffering for our obedience, reminding us always that we are being conformed to Christ’s likeness and we are making much of His glory.
Denying ourselves and taking up our cross is what it means to actually follow and love Jesus. The way is difficult and the gate is narrow. Few find this way and still fewer persevere on it. Our only hope is that the glory of Jesus will so conquer us that we would be free to follow Him on this path for His name’s sake. May Jesus Himself be our magnificent obsession on the road to our death, so that we may inherit true life in the age to come.
In my final article in this series, I’ll elaborate a little bit more on what Jesus meant when he spoke the final phrase of His call to discipleship: “Follow me”.