I Just re-read these words of Jesus from Matthew 16:24, where “Jesus said to His disciples, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow Me.” Short, sweet, and right to the point; no way to miss the meaning here.
As I look around online and in my local Christian bookstore I see a lot of books about a lot of topics… but rarely do I see one on the topic of self-denial. And the occasional few that do deal with this very difficult topic are rarely best sellers. Why is that?
Because, in our sinfulness, we as human beings resist the concept of dying to self. Even as believers, unless we’re in step with the Holy Spirit and submitted to God’s control over our lives we find this whole idea to be odious and repugnant at worst, and uncomfortable at best.
That’s why Bible studies that promise to help us cope better with the pain of our lives or books with the concept of “happiness” somewhere in the title end up flying off the shelves. That’s why sometimes we Christians tend to cherry-pick certain Bible verses that provide comfort, those verses that talk so much about the love of God. That’s why we can tend to focus on those to the exclusion of all those other verses… you know, like the one I just quoted at the beginning of this blog, verses about dying to self and the high cost of personal discipleship.
I’m so thankful that God does love me, with all my faults and failures… and He loves you, too. But there’s more to being a Christian than figuring out how to make this earthly life more comfortable and there’s far more to discipleship than simply following the rules so I will feel peaceful and happier. That focus keeps me at the center of it all, not Jesus.
The Apostle Paul had it right when he referred to himself repeatedly as a bondslave of Christ and his attitude proved those weren’t just words to him. Before Jesus knocked him off his horse on the road to Damascus Paul had actively persecuted the newly growing Church, causing many to be imprisoned and beaten for their faith in Christ. He was a zealot, determined to squash this “dangerous” movement before it could cause any more damage and he truly thought he was doing God a favor by doing so.
Once Jesus saved him and called him to be the apostle to the gentiles, Paul saw things in a completely different light. He now saw this newly growing church to be the work of God on earth and he saw Jesus to be the only Son of God, sent to die for the sins of the world. And he dedicated his life to following Jesus’s teachings and instructing as many others as possible to do the same.
But in the back of his mind, Paul couldn’t forget how much pain he had caused to those who loved Jesus. These memories of families torn apart and of men and women suffering greatly because of his actions, these were constant reminders of how undeserving he was in receiving the love of God. They kept him humble, kept him willing to undergo whatever Jesus called him to, because he saw himself as the slave of God, deserving of nothing good.
Do I see myself as the bondslave of God? Honestly? Because I am. And so are you. I’m equally as undeserving of the free gift of salvation as Paul was and, like him, I should allow the reminders of all my failures and selfishness to drive me to submit all of who I am to His leadership and sovereign will over my life. In short, I should take up my cross and follow Him daily. Whether the circumstances of my life are mundane and uneventful, or painful and difficult, this attitude makes all the difference.
I love these powerful words from Oswald Chambers: “Paul said, ‘you are not your own . . . you were bought at a price . . .’ (1 Corinthians 6:19-20). Paul sold himself to Jesus Christ and he said, in effect, I am a debtor to everyone on the face of the earth because of the gospel of Jesus; I am free only that I may be an absolute bondservant of His. That is the characteristic of a Christian’s life once this level of spiritual honor and duty becomes real. Quit praying about yourself and spend your life for the sake of others as the bondservant of Jesus. That is the true meaning of being broken bread and poured-out wine in real life. Every tiny bit of my life that has value I owe to the redemption of Jesus Christ. Am I doing anything to enable Him to bring His redemption into evident reality in the lives of others?”
As believers, Jesus calls each one of us to a life of service and sacrifice. The cross I’m called to bear may be different than the one you’re called to bear but the thing they all have in common is the fact that they involve personal submission, pain, and humility; we can’t truly pick them up until we die to our own self-will, to our “right” to have things our way.
Once we’re saved, we’re destined to become more like Jesus. We shouldn’t strive to be the best human beings we can be, because that’s missing the whole point. We should instead strive to allow God’s Spirit to break us and make us conformed more and more into the image of Jesus. And this process takes place as we deny ourselves through the power of the Holy Spirit, take up our cross and follow Him.
It’s really easy for you and me to glibly say the words “dying to self” and not see how they practically impact us every moment of every day. Years ago, I found this poem by an unknown author; it reminds me I still have a lot of self that remains to be overcome every time I read it and I hope you find it to be as challenging and thought-provoking as I do. So, I will close with:
Dying to self
We must understand what it means to die to self. When you are forgotten, neglected, or purposely set aside and you sting from the insult, but are happy at being counted worthy to suffer for Christ, that is dying to self.
When your good is evil-spoken of, your wishes are crossed, your advice disregarded, and your opinions ridiculed, yet you refuse to let anger rise in your heart but take it all in patient, loving silence, that is dying to self.
When you lovingly and patiently bear any disorder, irregularity, annoyance, and you endure waste, folly, extravagance, and spiritual insensibility as Jesus did, that is dying to self.
When you are content with any circumstance, food, offering, clothing, climate, society, solicitude, and interruption by the will of God, that is dying to self.
When you never care to refer to yourself in conversation, record your own good works, seek after commendation from others and are content with being unknown, that is dying to self.
When you see another person prosper and you can honestly rejoice with him in spirit without feeling envy or questioning God, even though you have greater needs or more desperate circumstances, that is dying to self.
When you can receive correction and reproof from one of less stature than yourself and can humbly submit inwardly as well as outwardly without rebellion or resentment rising up in your heart, that is dying to self.
Ask yourself this question: am I dead to self? You will be empty of self-upholding the law of God in an evil society and display a heart filled with forgiveness… when you learn what Jesus meant by this, “if any man wishes to come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.”