In light of a recent sermon series, my regular Bible reading, prayer and the resulting contemplation and conviction, I am seeing some Scripture passages in a new light.
How is it possible – in fact, necessary – for the sinless, perfect, and holy Son of God to deny Himself? John 10:30 clearly states: I and My Father are one. Yet, in Philippians, the Apostle Paul tells us that Jesus, being in the very nature of God, did not consider equality with God something to be used for His own advantage.
Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. ~Philippians 2:5-7
Jesus laid aside His privilege. He relinquished His authority, yielded His rightful position in the throne room – even though He was and is worthy of all glory, honor, and praise. Our Lord did this so He could be filled with the power of the Holy Spirit and do the will of the Father.
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My meditation on these passages and other Scriptures has led to a heightened awareness of my propensity to rationalize, even justify my old nature – my sinful thoughts, selfish attitudes, and inclination to cling to everything that, with the help of the Holy Spirit, I ought to demolish. Praise God that He is softening my heart and revealing these truths to me! I am realizing afresh that the high calling of following Jesus requires me to willingly and intentionally choose to deny myself if I desire to be filled with the Spirit and be used by God.
Mark’s gospel account tells us:
When He had called the people to Himself, with His disciples also, He said to them, “Whoever desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me.” ~Mark 8:34
Hearing those words is difficult. Putting them into practice seems utterly impossible. We cringe at the mere thought of self-denial, as it is so contrary to our human nature. Are we supposed to take Jesus at His word? Self-denial – did He really meant that? Surely we ought to pursue self-fulfillment or self-actualization instead of self-denial.
And yet, self-denial – “deny himself” – is clearly there, annoyingly, and not just once, but repeatedly in the gospels. If we aspire to be devoted disciples of Christ, we need to seriously consider these words: “If anyone would come after Me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me.” ~Matt 16:24
When we indulge selfish thoughts and sinful tendencies, we give free rein to our rebellious nature. Rather, we should deal with our sin and rebellion as Paul writes in Ephesians 4:22:
. . . put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires . . .
Those who are born-again followers of Jesus Christ are new creations in Him, and the new creation must rise up and repeatedly say NO to the old self. In addition to denying our sin-riddled former self, Jesus instructs us to take up our cross.
Continuing on in the passage from Mark, Jesus says:
“For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel’s will save it.” ~Mark 8:35
I believe we err if we apply the “take up your cross” portion of Scripture to temporary trials such as illness, unemployment, strained relationships, etc. Jesus is not talking about a temporary inconvenience or burden. When we read His words closely, and in context, we discern that He is telling us if we avoid the cross of self-denial in this life, we will lose that life.
Our Savior’s loving counsel is this – don’t throw away your life living for yourself . . . but follow Me. Don’t follow the old self, because he is a liar and a fool; he wrongly believes the immediate and temporal pleasures and distractions of this world are more important or better than the infinite satisfaction of eternity with God the Father.
Some of us want all God offers and we want all the world has to offer as well. The truth is, we cannot have both. We cannot follow Christ while we are also following the world. Jesus said:
“No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other.” ~Matthew 6:24
When we choose to take up the cross of self-denial, we must turn our back on the things of this world – all that hinders us and the sin that so easily entangles. In doing so, we become free to follow Christ. We die to our old self in order to live with Him.
Jesus knows that our old self wants to give in to worldly temptations – possessions, fame, wealth, power, security – and dangerous distractions such as alcohol, drugs, and pornography. Our world tells us if we have these things, we will be happy. But this message leads not to happiness, but to perpetual bondage, because there is always MORE to possess, MORE to control, MORE to build and achieve. The pursuit of MORE is never-ending and unsatisfying, and ultimately, it will cause us to lose our life.
Fully understanding the allure and pull of the MORE mentality, Jesus cautions us with these words:
“For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul?” ~Mark 8:36
Of what value is it to desire and accumulate the perishable possessions, prestige, and power of this world if that worthless pursuit causes a man to lose the one thing that will last forever – his soul? Therefore, if we genuinely want to come after Jesus, if we treasure and long for the peace and joy of eternal life with the Father, we will do battle daily with our old self in order to be able to take up the cross of self-denial.
Finally, in this discourse with his disciples, Jesus says:
“For whoever is ashamed of Me and My words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him the Son of Man also will be ashamed when He comes in the glory of His Father with the holy angels.” ~Mark 8:38
Lest there be any misunderstanding, Jesus makes it clear that it is not only the pursuit of “stuff” that keeps us from carrying the cross of self-denial, it is also the yearning and pandering for the approval and accolades of others – other sinners! – that impedes us.
Our old self seeks the approval of the world, and the selfish aspect of our sinful nature is determined to have its own way. We can spend weeks, months, even years in a perpetual stew because someone belittled our brilliant idea or a minor detail didn’t go exactly as we planned.
This is an area where I struggle, and I suspect I’m not the only one who does so. When I’m tempted to fuss and fume, worry, or sulk when my ideas, opinions, or plans are dismissed, I have to consciously remind myself that I have no right to expect to get my way. I must be vigilant to not allow the “root of bitterness” to spring up and cause trouble.
James addresses the issue this way:
“What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you?” ~James 4:1
I wonder – how often do church fights and schisms happen because pride and ego keep us from extending grace to each other? Do we refuse to give in solely for the petty reason that concession will mean we won’t get our way — are we really that self-centered? Perhaps we are, but when we are willing to take up the cross of self-denial, we are freed from the obsession to be in control. When we are willing to empty ourselves, as our Savior emptied Himself, we will discover it is easier to live at peace with each other and there will be room for the Holy Spirit to fill us with His power, enabling us to do the Father’s will.
We must daily wage war against the old self. Each day we must choose to take up the cross of self-denial and follow Jesus’ example of emptying Himself to do the Father’s will. As new creations in Christ and by the power of the Holy Spirit, we are well-equipped to bear the painful, difficulty, glorious, and temporary cross of self-denial.
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