Observations from today’s readings and today’s S-WOD, Thursday, 29 July 21:
Luke 9:23-25, 62 — “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it. For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself?” … Jesus said to him, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”
Jesus defines the path of discipleship which cannot be followed without the power of the Holy Spirit. It starts with denying self, putting to death selfishness. That alone is worth meditating on all day today and with great self-examination. Denying self is not the same as self-denial.
Self-denial is essentially abstinence, restraining oneself from having or doing something which is wanted or enjoyable in order to achieve some sort of goal. Self-denial is often practiced for both practical reasons and for spiritual reasons. Take fasting for example: Fasting is a spiritual discipline taught in the Bible, but it is also a very popular dieting method. Fasting as a spiritual discipline involves refraining from food and drink in order to focus on God, His grace, His sufficiency, and our communion with Him in prayer. However, the dieter refrains from food merely to lose weight, either for health reasons for aesthetic reasons.
Self-denial can be healthy or unhealthy, helpful or hurtful, both in its practical forms and it spiritual forms. Self-denial can be an act of sinful, destructive self-centeredness, whether it be manifested in forms of self-loathing or self-righteousness and self-sufficiency. The Bible warns against self-denial in quest of sanctifying merit, self-centered suffering in order to achieve rather than receive righteousness. In any case, self-denial involves a struggle with self which ultimately cannot be won through our own might; it is a battle against the flesh which cannot be won in the flesh, only in the Spirit – “For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate…. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out.” (Romans 7:15, 18) Self-control is not the fruit of will power but rather the fruit of the Spirit. (Galatians 5:23)
- Colossians 2:23 — These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.
Denying self is dying of self, putting to death self-centeredness, selfishness, self-reliance, self-ambition, self-motivation, self-righteousness, etc. Denying self is making Christ the focus rather than ourselves, glorifying Him rather than ourselves, seeking to know Him rather than to discover ourselves, finding true fulfillment in Him rather than seeking self-fulfillment. It is identifying ourselves as His rather than attempting to choose our own identity. Denying self is surrendering our will, our goals, and our objectives to His will and purposes and placing no hope or trust in our own abilities apart from Him. While self-denial might be an attempt to change behaviors in order to change the heart, denying self involves a change of heart which subsequently changes behaviors – “It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth; this defiles a person.” (Matthew 15:11) “For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.” (Matthew 12:34)
Of course, though our heart determines our actions, our actions also change our heart; so, the Bible does call us to behavior modification in order to protect and cultivate our hearts towards Christlikeness. However, behavior modification without the heart’s ultimate desire for Christlikeness merely cleans the outside of the cup and puts whitewash on a tomb full of dead bones. The motive for loving behavior must be love itself, love which can only be instilled in us by God who is Love and the source of all love. We must abide in His love to be able to love others and for His love to be perfected in us over time.
Many pursue acts of self-denial in an attempt to strengthen their will power, their self-control. However, the Bible makes it clear that self-control is a fruit of the spirit, not the flesh – “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.” (Galatians 5:22-24) Examining these verses, you will see that the ‘bookends’ of the fruit of the spirit (the first and last attributes) are “love” and “self-control.” Why? Because what you really love is what will ultimately control you or determine your actions. As much as you might try to resist yourself, in the end, you will surrender to what you care about most. The secret to living a godly life is to truly desire God’s will above your own selfish, self-centered desires. When you want what God wants, doing it is no longer difficult – “For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome.” (1 John 5:3)
- Luke 9:25 — For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself?
We were created to live for Him and to glorify Him, and Jesus warns that if we don’t deny self we will “forfeit” ourselves – hard words to accept. We see throughout Luke 9 how the disciples stumble over “self,” fighting over which of them would be the greatest (9:46), getting jealous of other preachers (9:49), and letting anger disorient them (9:54). For their self-centeredness, Jesus rebuked the disciples and reminded them, “For he who is least among you all is the one who is great.” (9:55, 48) How many of us are working diligently to become the least for His glory?
- Luke 9:23 — And he said to all, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.
- Galatians 2:20 — I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.
- Galatians 5:24 — And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.
Taking up the cross is a daily process that is not just about suffering (everyone suffers) – it is about claiming our identity in Christ, living for Christ alone, and willingly suffering maltreatment in our relationships with others for His glory and to proclaim the Gospel in our ministry of reconciliation. Taking up the cross daily involves proclaiming the grace of God by forgiving unconditionally, giving abundantly, loving your enemies, and proclaiming Jesus, regardless the personal cost, so others might come to know Him as their Lord and Savior. Giving, forgiving, witnessing, and suffering for sake of the Gospel require faith – “And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.” (Hebrews 11:6) Every day, God will give you the opportunity to do all these things; will you be faithful in faith?
- John 8:12 — Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”
- John 10:27 — My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.
- John 12:26 — If anyone serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there will my servant be also. If anyone serves me, the Father will honor him.
Following Jesus – this is where the rubber meets the road. Jesus first commanded the disciples, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” (Matthew 4:19) The Bibles says they “rose and followed him.” (Matthew 9:9) Those who recognize who Christ really is, who truly appreciate grace and the gift of eternal life, who are truly amazed by the immeasurable riches they have received in Him, and who understand their total dependence on Him (like the vine is dependent on the branch – John 15) follow Him. Those who don’t rest solely on His grace and walk in the Spirit cannot follow Him (see Matthew 9:27 and Matthew 19:21). You can’t live your life and follow Jesus at the same time; it is an all-or-nothing proposition. Jesus is the Way, the Truth, the Life, and the Light. When we are not following Jesus, but rather going our own way, we are walking in darkness. (John 8:12) We must follow without any hesitation, wholeheartedly (Luke 9:59), no looking back. Those who do follow Jesus will reign with him in the Kingdom. (Matthew 19:28)
“Cross” Fit S-WOD (Spiritual Workout of the Day) – 29 July 21: Deny self, take up your cross, and follow Jesus today.