Then Jesus told his disciples, “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 will find it. (Matthew 16:24-25)
Last week I wrote about Jesus’ instructions to his disciples in the gospel of Matthew (see the verses above) and how difficult they sound to modern ears. However, the alternative to denying ourselves, taking up our cross, and losing our lives for his sake is to go through life stuck being pre-occupied with ourselves. Our “natural” self is under the tyranny of sin, so it is impossible not to sin, not to be prideful, idolatrous, greedy, or envious – even when we don’t want to be.
So, what Jesus is offering us in these verses is not some kind of dreary or meager existence fit for a Cistercian monk, but instead, freedom from the tyranny of sin. It all begins when we hand our “natural” self over to him. As C. S. Lewis once wrote: Jesus will give us a new self – his own will shall become ours.
I ended last week’s post with this quote from C. S. Lewis – and I continue with more of Lewis’ thoughts on this subject from his book, Mere Christianity: “The terrible thing, the almost impossible thing, is to hand over your whole self – all your wishes and precautions – to Christ. But it is far easier than what we are all trying to do instead. For what we are trying to do is to remain what we call ‘ourselves’, to keep personal happiness as our great aim in life, and yet at the same time be ‘good’. We are all trying to let our mind and heart go their own way – centered on money or pleasure or ambition – and hoping, in spite of this to behave honestly and chastely and humbly. And that is exactly what Christ warned us you could not do. As He said, a thistle cannot produce figs. If I am a field that contains nothing but grass-seed, I cannot produce wheat. Cutting the grass may keep it short: but I shall still produce grass and no wheat. If I want to produce wheat, the change must go deeper than the surface. I must be ploughed up and re-sown.”
When we turn to Jesus and claim him as our Savior and commit to following him as our Lord – actually, our “boss,” as the word in Greek literally means – we are in a sense “losing” our life. We are letting our old life “die-back,” so to speak, by handing over to Jesus control of it. We are in effect saying, “I am choosing now to make what I want what You want.” This is how true freedom begins for each one of us. The way to be free from the tyranny of the natural self is to “lose” our life by turning it over to Jesus.
But let me be clear, it isn’t a matter of gritting our teeth and trying harder to be un-selfish. In fact, we have to stop trying harder. Instead, we turn to Jesus. And each time we catch ourselves turning away from Jesus, we simply turn back. This is what it means to repent – to change direction — to turn back to Jesus. So it’s turning instead of trying. We don’t exert our will; instead we say, “Thy will be done.” The point here is that we are not supposed to be in charge anymore. Jesus will place the Holy Spirit in charge of making the necessary changes within us. And under the power of the Holy Spirit our new, true, self will emerge.
There are certainly things we can and should do to cooperate with the work of the Holy Spirit within us. Things like reading from the Bible daily whereby we will learn more and more about God’s point of view, which is so foreign to our natural one. And, over time, the words of Scripture (and the images of glory associated with them that come to mind) will begin to take up residence in our thoughts and the Holy Spirit will use those words and ideas to renew our mind and heart. Another important habit to develop is that of offering praise to God throughout the day and giving him thanks for everything, large and small. It is also important to confess our sins regularly, claiming our heavenly Father’s forgiveness, and trusting in his love enough to ask him to show us something in our lives which is displeasing to him. This kind of faithful vulnerability before the Lord is so helpful to the process of transformation. In so doing we give the Holy Spirit the kind of access to our lives what he needs to rework our nature so that we begin to become more and more like Jesus, which is what God intended for us all along.
And as we become more and more like Jesus we will feel the need, less and less, to call attention to ourselves. We won’t be nearly so preoccupied with trying to address our needs because we are trusting Jesus to fill them…and he will. And we will discover we are so content walking in God’s love we aren’t so concerned anymore with trying to get our own way. Who needs their own way when they have godly contentment?
And not only that, we will discover that it isn’t so difficult to do the kinds of things the apostle Paul calls for us to do in his letter to the Romans. Blessing those who persecute us (12:14) and not repaying evil for evil (12:17) will make more and more sense to us in light of the transformation of our natural self. What seemed unpleasant or unthinkable becomes increasingly normal behavior for us. There is no cross we cannot bear “by him and with him and in him.”
So those who stop trying to hang on to their life, but instead “lose” it, to Jesus, will come to find their true self.
Next week: a new series, Cure for the Soul, begins.
If you would like to hear this sermon on Matthew 16:21-28, please click on the pulpit icon, below: