The following post is from my old website, asHeWalked.com. It’s adapted from a sermon that I preached in 2008.
I was recently walking through a local bookstore when the title of a book caught my eye. For the past several days, my thoughts had been continually returning to the subject of denying myself; so, this title especially jumped out at me. It was entitled “Killing Yourself to Live.” I immediately knew that it was made for me. The title was perfect. I walked over to the bookshelf and picked it up in order to inspect it. “Could this be the Christian book that would summarize my sermon’s thoughts?” I wondered. As I read the back cover, it hit me like a ton of bricks. It said, “Sometimes, the best career move a musician can make is to die.” I stood there in awe. This was my sermon. Everything that I wanted to say was summed up in that one phrase. It wasn’t a Christian book. It wasn’t about dying to self. In fact, on the surface it had nothing to do with Christ; however, that phrase stuck out to me. I loved it; though, I felt it needed to be changed: “The best spiritual move a Christian can make is to die.” You know, Paul once said that “those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (Galatians 5:24). As Christians, we must crucify our flesh. We kill our ‘selves’. In Second Corinthians, he said that “while we live we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be manifested in our mortal flesh” (2 Corinthians 4:11). We are being “given up to death for Jesus’ sake”; what a powerful thought! And yet…are we?
Read along with me:
And he said to all, ‘If any man 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; and whoever loses his life for my sake, he will save it. For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself?’ (Luke 9:23-25)
Jesus once spoke these words to his disciples nearly two-thousand years ago. And today, we hear the same words that they did: “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” I want to look at this one verse. I believe, after much thought and prayer, that this verse is one of the keys to living a successful Christian life. Jesus tells us that if any would come after him; they must perform these three tasks. So, it seems to me that if Jesus demanded his disciples fulfill these wishes; he would desire them for us as well.
According to the US Census that was conducted several years ago, nearly 80% of Americans identify themselves as Christians. Theses statistics tell us that there are around 240 million ‘Christians’ in the US. That is an awful lot of people who claim to “come after Jesus.” Jesus said that anyone who would come after him must deny himself. That would mean that 240 million people, just in the United States, are denying themselves daily. I think maybe the modern Christian has read this passage wrong, because from my experience there’s a lot more indulgence than denial going on. You know, later in this chapter of Luke, a young man comes to Jesus and tells him “Lord, I want to follow you, I’ll do anything”. Jesus responds, “Follow me then.” And the young man replies “First, let me go bury my father”. Jesus’ response is harsh at best, “Let the dead bury their own dead” he says. This certainly doesn’t sound like the effeminate Jesus that so many people try to paint a picture of. After this, another man comes to Jesus and says ‘Lord, I’d do anything to follow you”. Jesus replies, “Then follow me”. The young man says “First, let me go say goodbye to my mother and father”. And what are Jesus’ words? “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God”. Jesus demanded full surrender and total self denial. I see these same events occurring regularly in our churches today. People worship; they lift their hands; they sing and sincerely praise God; then they walk out the doors and live just like the rest of the world. They sincerely want to give God glory and to worship him. They just sincerely want what their own desires more. So, they aren’t willing to do what Jesus has asked; that which we are about to discuss.
Jesus says “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself”. What does it mean to deny yourself? Take a look at Luke, chapter 4. Jesus has just been baptized in the Jordan by John the Baptist. And the Holy Spirit comes on him like a dove and immediately leads him out into the wilderness. The Holy Spirit leads Jesus to a place where he lacks two essentials to life: food and shelter. Jesus remains there for forty days, fasting and praying. Jesus denies himself the very necessities of existence.
You know what’s funny; how we pick and choose the words of Jesus that we like. For instance, people love to quote “Judge not, lest you be judged”. But for some reason, no one seems to want to talk about “When you fast…” because fasting requires giving up something that we don’t have to sacrifice. In all my years of going to church, I don’t believe I’ve ever heard a decent sermon on fasting. And yet, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus devotes the same amount of time to fasting as he does to prayer and giving to the poor. For some reason, people are averse to denying their bellies. So many people indulge themselves, simply because they can; it’s available to them. But I say to you, deny yourself because you can. If you have the spirit of God in you, you have died to sin. You have crucified the flesh. You are no longer controlled by your cravings and urges; you are controlled by God alone. After fasting for forty days, Satan comes to tempt Jesus. And Satan tells him, “You’re hungry, turn these stones to bread”. And He responds with the words “Man does not live on bread alone but by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God”. Until you have denied yourself that bread, how can you honestly say that? Denying yourself, fasting, is one of the only ways to know for a fact that you don’t live by bread alone. I’m not saying to turn fasting into a legal rule. I’m not saying to fast because you have to. I’m saying that we should all fast because we can! Because it’s not the food that sustains us, it’s Jesus Christ. So I urge you all, fast. Whether you are able to fast from one meal a week, one meal a month, or one meal a year. Follow in Jesus’ footsteps by denying yourself the bare essentials of life; discover the power of God.
So, Jesus said “anyone who would come after me, must deny himself and take up his cross daily’. What is taking up our cross daily? When Jesus was sent to earth, his goal was the cross. His whole purpose was centered upon taking up a cross and denying himself. By doing this, he kept himself from many of the common pleasures that we, as human beings, take for granted. For instance, he never had the pleasure of a wedding or having a child. He never had the joy of owning a home or car. Jesus spent his life taking up his cross and serving others. Jesus may have had fun. However, that was not his objective; fun was never the end. Service and love were the end and so it should be with us. Today, statistics tell us that our young people spend hours each day watching television. I know of families where, after dinner, everyone goes to his own room because they all want to watch different shows. This should not be. There are so many Americans; so many Christians that have allowed pleasure the opportunity of choking their spiritual life. Paul said, “Everything is permissible, but not everything is beneficial”. And yet so many Christians today have decided that just because something is permissible, that it’s fine to do. But I tell you, deny yourself those pleasures because you can. Sure, you can watch TV all day long, but what good does it do you in the long run? What eternal rewards will you reap from that all day marathon of ‘Extreme Home Makeover’? It’s not that this is an evil thing; TV itself is not evil or wrong. But it’s not necessarily the best thing to do either. Rather than filling our lives with good things, why not focus on the best things? How much more time could you devote to prayer and studying God’s word by cutting back on the time you spend doing things that are simply pleasurable. You see, the problem is not the television. The problem is not reading or sports or anything else. These are good things. The problems begin when these things begin to control us. There are thousands of people who, every Wednesday, must be in front of their television in order to see who gets kicked off of American Idol. You see, their lives begin to be shaped by what is coming on the television. Rather than forming their lives around Jesus and letting their free time be taken up by Christ; they form their lives around television and sports and work and school and somehow, the one thing that matters; the only thing that matters gets relegated to Sunday morning and a couple of seconds before we eat. Do you not see this problem? We have pushed Jesus Christ; the one we sing about in church; the one we talk about to our Christian friends; the one who was beaten and nailed to a piece of wood; we’ve taken him and decided that the ‘things’ we do are more important. People say, “I’d pray and read the Bible more if I had the time.” Make the time! If we continue letting our pleasures rule us; we’ll never have time for God. If you missed your favorite football team play, you’d be depressed for hours; yet, for some reason you can leave your Bible untouched for days and you’re perfectly fine. Where’s the passion? Where’s the fire? Jesus died for you! The disciples of the early church were so passionate and filled with the Spirit of God that they met together every day. Yet, we find it a chore to meet together once a week. Deny yourself. Not because it’s a law. Don’t deny yourself because you must. Deny yourself because you aren’t controlled by your flesh. Deny yourself because you can. If we’d spend less time trying to fill our days with pleasurable things to do; we might actually find the time for our salvation, Jesus.
Jesus said, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself, take up his cross daily and follow me.” There is a verse in First John that I’m reminded of when I read Jesus’ words here in Luke. 1 John 2:6 states, “By this we may be sure that we are in him: he who says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked.” John makes it clear that those who abide, or live in Jesus must walk as Jesus did. They must follow him. So, the question becomes, how did Jesus walk? Paul writes, in his second letter to the Corinthians, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” Jesus knew no sin. Peter once said, “He committed no sin; no guile was found on his lips.” Jesus lived a life of perfect love. We should seek no less. Our lives should be characterized by a constant striving for perfection. Jesus once said, “You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Perfect! Why are we satisfied with mediocrity? Jesus says that we “must” be perfect and yet, when we find ourselves in sin, the response is often “God will forgive me.” We need to be weeping every time we sin. Sin is not something to write off or joke about. Sin is serious. The entire book of Leviticus is about being set apart unto the Lord. Peter borrows a verse from that Old Testament book when he commands his hearers, “As he who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in all your conduct.” I find that many people are satisfied with conduct that is less than holy. I long to be “perfected in love” as John writes in his first letter.
I’d like for you to imagine something with me for a moment. Imagine that your favorite football team is in the playoffs. They’re about to play a game that will determine whether they play in the Super Bowl. This game will separate the men from the boys. You turn on the TV and begin to watch as the first quarter slowly goes by. No points are scored; no field goals, no touch downs. The second quarter passes; still no points. The third quarter slowly ticks by and leaves both teams with nothing. The fourth quarter is finally dwindling down. Only five minutes left, then four minutes, then three, then two, then one. Finally, with twenty seconds on the clock, the opposing team makes it to the 30 yard line and kicks a field goal. It’s going, it’s going, and it’s good. The crowd goes wild. You, however, are less than excited. Ten seconds on the clock and your team needs to at least make a field goal. There’s dead silence in the stands. The opposing team kicks off. The ball seems as if it’s never going to fall from the sky. Finally, the ball is in play and the clock begins to quickly count down. Within seconds, the ball begins to move down the field. There’s no more time on the clock. This is it. As the opposing team’s players come at your favorite team; they are swatted away like flies. The ball is at the 60, then the 50, then the 30, then the 10. It crosses the goal-line. It’s good! The crowd explodes in a rush of both excitement and frustration. Your team is headed to the Super Bowl! So, two weeks pass and the day of the big game arrives. The pre-show is on and they’re talking about who they think is going to win. It’s a fifty-fifty shot. Both teams have an equal chance. It is a complete toss-up. But suddenly, the coach from your favorite team walks out on to the field and says “I’d like to thank all of our fans. However, we’re tired and we really don’t want to deal with it. So, we give up. We surrender. I mean, we made it to the Super Bowl. Most teams don’t make it nearly this far. So, we’d like to congratulate…”
There are thousands of Christians around the world that are living like that football team. They have worked hard. They have trained by reading their Bibles, praying and attending church. They’ve won some games. However, they get to the end; they get to the Super Bowl of Christianity and they simply give up because it’s too hard. It seems too difficult. We have the opportunity to live holy lives; yet, so many of us have decided that we’re going to give up at the Super Bowl. We don’t want to go that far because it would require self-denial. There are so many Christians that are playing a professional football game like they’re still in high school. Christianity does not consume their lives. Jesus does not fill every crack and crevice. However, and here’s the dangerous part, they don’t care. They say, “I’m saved. I’m under grace. Jesus has forgiven me.” Ok, well, what was Jesus’ attitude about sin? He said that “if your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to enter life maimed or lame than with two hands or two feet to be thrown into the eternal fire. And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and throw it away; it is better for you to enter life with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into the hell of fire.” We cannot take sin flippantly. We must cut out anything that causes us to sin. If the internet in our home causes us to sin; cut it out. If our sense of humor causes us to sin; cut it out. If talking around a certain person always leads to gossip; cut it out. Jesus commands us to take sin seriously. We must deny ourselves sin. If you’ve done all that you can to deny yourself sin and you still find yourself falling into it; pray that God would “provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.” People love to quote Jesus’ encounter with the adulteress woman; yet, they often stop before the end. “Ye who is without sin, throw the first stone” Jesus says. However, they often fail to preach on Jesus’ words to the woman: “Go and sin no more.” Sin is not something that we can deal with lightly. We must each “go and sin no more.” Jesus desires to free you from the bondage of sin. However, we must deny ourselves. Self-denial is that which will lead to freedom from sin and into perfect love.
I believe that Jesus was serious when he said, “anyone who would come after me must deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow me.” However, this is a teaching that is hard and quite uncomfortable. No one wants to deny themselves anything; much less everything. A little less than a year ago in Turkey, three Christians were befriended by five Muslim. They told them that they were interested in becoming Christians. They spent a great deal of time with the Christians; learning and planning. Finally, on April 18th, 2007 the Muslims raided a Christian publishing house and tied up the three Christians. They began to stab these three young men repeatedly. Finally, the Muslims slit the three Christian’s throats leaving them for dead. These three young men sacrificed everything for Jesus Christ. For them, “to live was Christ, and to die was gain.” There is one way to live for Jesus Christ; that is the way of self-denial. When we deny ourselves, we make room for Jesus Christ and our neighbor. As we kill ourselves, Jesus will be brought to life within us. We don’t deny ourselves because we must. We deny ourselves because we can. We have been given the opportunity to house the very Spirit of God. Please, do not take this fact lightly. Do not live flippantly. If God’s Holy Spirit has made his home within you live like it’s true.