Open Mouth, Insert Foot: Learning to be a Disciple the Hard Way (2)
Jesus refuses to trick us into following him by making empty promises or giving us a false hope of earthly wealth and comfort. There is no bait and switch with Jesus! He is up front and brutally honest about the cost. Continue reading . . .
In the previous article we looked at Peter’s response to our Lord’s declaration concerning his impending death in Jerusalem. In his words to the apostle, Jesus gives us great insight into the nature and implications of being his disciple.
Jesus refuses to trick us into following him by making empty promises or giving us a false hope of earthly wealth and comfort. There is no bait and switch with Jesus! He is up front and brutally honest about the cost. In describing discipleship, he mentions three things explicitly.
(1) Self-denial – This does not mean that you are disciple of Jesus if you deny yourself that second helping of ice cream or third piece of pie. Did you eat only one blueberry donut in the Café this morning, resisting the urge to buy and eat a second? Good! But that’s not what Jesus is talking about here. This has nothing to do with physical asceticism, as if being a Christian is a matter of giving away your TV or not eating chocolate for a week. He’s not talking about making yourself miserable by turning down the ordinary pleasures of life.
What Jesus is saying is that to follow him we must stop following ourselves! Self ceases to be the ruling passion of our lives. It is self-will, self-seeking, self-promotion, and self-assertion, that Jesus has in mind.
He isn’t asking you to add him on to all your other pursuits in life. He isn’t asking that he be made one among many passions or hobbies or interests, alongside your devotion to your favorite sports team or your commitment to golf. He isn’t saying, “Hey, I hope you’ll think about me as often as you do designer coffee or that you’ll give as much money to my church as you spend on the latest fashion or I-phone.” He isn’t asking that you slip him in between your job and your family, or alongside your financial investments or your love for computers.
Jesus is saying: “If you want to follow me, you have to die to everything else, including yourself. I alone must be the all-consuming passion of your life. I must be the focus of every breath you breathe. I’m not asking you to quit your job or neglect your family or abandon your hobbies or stop going to movies. I’m asking that all these things and everything else be subordinate to your devotion to me, that you look to me and not to anything else as the primary love of your life.” “I must be the center of your existence. Everything else is circumference!”
Jesus is saying that if you want to follow him you must be prepared to shift the center of gravity in your life from a concern for self to whole-hearted devotion to the will of God.
(2) Self-crucifixion – Self-denial means crucifixion! Jesus here appeals to the horrifying image of a death march! This image would have struck the Jewish mind of his day as utterly abhorrent and repugnant, for crucifixion was a distinctly Roman and therefore pagan means of execution. The words of Jesus evoke the picture of a condemned man walking to his place of execution with the instrument of death carried upon his shoulders.
Taking up your cross or bearing your cross has been horribly distorted in the modern mind. He’s not talking about bearing patiently with some physical affliction, like bunions or arthritis or premature baldness. Irritating and nosy in-laws is not your cross to bear! Addiction to pornography or alcohol is not your cross to bear!
The cross is Christ’s. You and I must be willing to suffer as he did. We must be willing to join him on the pathway to execution and to embrace the shame, humiliation, rejection and scorn that he endured (see Luke 9:23; 1 Cor. 4:9-13). And this is something that we must embrace daily! This isn’t a momentary, one-time act of spiritual heroics, but a constant, daily, moment-by-moment commitment. John MacArthur put it this way:
“The bumper-sticker sentiment, ‘Try Jesus,’ is a mentality foreign to real discipleship – faith is not an experiment, but a lifelong commitment. It means taking up the cross daily, giving all for Christ each day with no reservations, no uncertainty, no hesitation. It means nothing is knowingly held back, nothing purposely shielded from His lordship, nothing stubbornly kept from His control. It calls for a painful severing of the tie with the world, a sealing of the escape hatches, a ridding oneself of any kind of security to fall back on in case of failure. A genuine believer knows he is going ahead with Christ until death. Having put his hand to the plow he will not look back” (202).
(3) Follow Me – This command is not the spiritual equivalent of the child’s game “Simon Says.” Discipleship is more than a reflex imitation of what Jesus would do in any given situation. It is a following of him in thought, feelings, motivation, intent, plans, power, values, character, etc.
If you are left in any doubt about what denying yourself and taking up your cross and following Jesus really means, simply read vv. 34-38 again:
And calling the crowd to him with his disciples, he said to them, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel's will save it. For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? For what can a man give in return for his soul? For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels” (Mark 8:34-38).
Some read these verses and conclude that it is selfish and sinful to have any concern for the welfare of one’s soul. Others have said to me: “Sam, you are a Christian Hedonist. You believe that the pursuit of pleasure in God is absolutely essential to a godly, Christ-honoring Christian life, right?” Yes. But how do you make that work in light of vv. 34-38?
Doesn’t this passage in Mark dilute, if not destroy, my emphasis on the pursuit of one’s pleasure, even if that pleasure is in God? I don’t think so. In fact, it encourages your pursuit of pleasure! Let me explain what I think Jesus is saying.
When he calls on you to deny your “self” he doesn’t mean that you should give up all concern for the state of your body and soul. Jesus isn’t advocating the suppression of personal desire or recommending that you dress shabbily or skip meals or stop putting on deodorant before you come to church. Jesus is actually appealing to the concern you have for yourself and the eternal welfare of your soul. The only way you can respond appropriately to his call for “self” denial is if you are wholeheartedly committed to the happiness and eternal welfare of your “self”. I know this sounds paradoxical, if not downright contradictory, so let me explain what I think he had in mind.
Imagine what your response would be to these words of Jesus if you were convinced that concern for your own soul was sinful or selfish. You would forfeit all incentive for obeying him! The only reason it makes sense to heed his exhortation is because of intense, personal, passionate concern for what might happen to you if you don’t. Jesus calls on us to deny ourselves because otherwise we’ll die! We must “lose” our lives if we hope to “save” them. And it is the legitimacy of that personal hope on which Jesus bases his appeal. Clearly, Jesus grounds his exhortation in the inescapable reality of human desire for one’s own welfare and happiness and well-being.
Jesus is aware that we desire what is best for our selves. He neither rebukes us for it nor calls for repentance as if it were sinful. In fact, he intentionally targets that universal desire and entreats us based upon its undeniable presence in our souls. His somewhat paradoxical advice is that the best thing you can do for your “self” is to deny “self”! Eternal life is the best and most advantageous thing you can obtain for your “self”, but it may cost you temporal life and the passing pleasures of sinful self-indulgence.
What possible profit is there from enhancing your physical life now if it costs you eternal life in the age to come?
Jesus is simply asking that you sacrifice the lesser blessings of temporal and earthly comforts in order to gain the greater blessings of eternal and unending pleasure. Do what is best for your “self”, says Jesus, and deny your “self”! To refuse to follow Jesus is to deny your “self” the greatest imaginable joy. His call is for us to renounce our vain attempt to satisfy our souls through illicit sex and ambition and earthly fortune. Instead, do yourself a favor. Follow Jesus and gain true life, true joy, true pleasure.
Jesus is not telling us to ignore our needs or to repress our longings but to fulfill them . . . in him!
The paradox is unmistakable. Peter was for saving. Jesus was for losing. Peter’s saving would be loss. Jesus’ losing would be gain!
The options are simple: Dedicate yourself in this life to the protection, preservation, and promotion of your earthly welfare and you will lose the opportunity for eternal life. Or be willing to sacrifice all that this life and this world offer and in eternity find life abundant and inexpressibly joyful.
Each of us must weigh the values: what is more precious, the wealth and acceptance and fame of this world, or your very soul? If you sell your soul to gain what this world offers you, what will you give to win it back?
Let me conclude this two-part series on true discipleship by making an appeal to all who are reading this: Come and follow Jesus! It’s costly. It can be painful. It may result in loss of comfort, convenience, reputation, power, influence, money, fame, and a whole host of other things this world tells you that you can’t live without. It might even end up costing you your physical life.
But that’s nothing when you contemplate the eternal reward: unending fellowship and joy and pleasure and forgiveness and fullness in the presence of God . . . forever and ever!
If, on the other hand, you are embarrassed with what Jesus says, if, even worse, you are embarrassed by Jesus himself; if your response to the call of Christ is cowardly retreat into the comforts of this life and a refusal to heed his ways and obey his will, the result is that he, too, will be ashamed of you at the final judgment.
Run to him! Give it all to him! Cast yourself on his mercy! Cry out for the forgiveness that comes from his dying on the cross and rising again.