For an Informed Love of God
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Deny Yourself (Mark 8:34)
How is the new life that we live with Christ different from the life we lived before the gate? How is the path different?
The path is different because it is the path of discipleship, of following Jesus. As we follow Jesus, we start to “look” more and more like him; and as we look more like him, we look less like the world.
There are many descriptions in the Bible of the path of discipleship and why it is so different from the world, but my favorite is in the book called “Mark,” chapter 8, verse 34. This is the pivotal verse in my life when it comes to how I think about life as a follower of Jess. It changed the way I think, and actually led me to write this blog and the forthcoming book.
We are at a turning point of Jesus’ story. Jesus has been conducting a public ministry, speaking to large crowds, teaching about the kingdom of God, and doing miracles to prove his authority. At Mark 8:27, it is like Jesus has finally come to the point where he is willing to ask the disciples to make a commitment. Who do they think that he is? Peter, probably speaking for all twelve of them, says, “We believe you are the Christ, the Messiah, God’s king who was to come into the world.” Jesus accepts Peter’ confession as true.
But then everything in the gospel story changes. Jesus’ ministry becomes mostly private, not doing as many miracles, and primarily teaching the twelve disciples what it is like to live as disciples in God’s kingdom. In verse 34 Jesus says, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”
If anyone, man or woman, wants to follow Jesus, to be his disciple (to be a “Christian” we tend to say), then they must do two things. They must “deny himself” and “take up his cross.” When Luke tells this same story, he clarifies that we are to take up our cross “daily” (Luke 9:23). What does this mean? The answer to this question shows why the path is so different from the world.
To “deny” yourself means to say “No” to yourself and “Yes” to God. Paul is not talking about asceticism — forgoing earthly possessions, not eating certain foods, ignoring the world, etc. To say it differently, the process of denial is “to humbly submit my will to God.” It is to go through life repeating the words that Jesus said the night before he died. When he was praying in the garden, he said to God his Father, “Not my will but yours be done.” It is what millions of Christians have prayed for centuries when they repeat what we call the “Lord’s Prayer.” “Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10).
What does it look like to live out this prayer? Someone hurts you. Your natural reaction is to lash back, to get angry. But the path of discipleship is “not my will but yours.” It is humbly submitting my will to God’s will. Instead of getting angry, we realize that God is calling us to forgive even our enemies. A verse that is becoming more and more important to me is Paul’s instructions to the church in Ephesus. “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you” (4:32). When I am hurt, I am called to submit my will to God’s will and follow his example. This is what it means to “deny” yourself. Now, I don’t always do it. Sometimes I like to reword Jesus prayer: “not your will but mine be done.” But that’s not what Jesus said.
What does it mean to “daily take up your cross”? The cross was a horrid symbol of pain, shame, and death. A person hung on it, naked, until his skeletal structure collapsed and he suffocated to death, without air and with his body drowning in its own fluids. Every day we are to live in such a way that it is apparent to everyone that we have died to ourselves, to our selfish ways and ambitions, and live for God. Another translation words the verse: “If any of you wants to be my follower, you must turn from your selfish ways, take up your cross, and follow me” (NLT).
Something unfair happens and instinctively we want to get even. But we have died to that “right,” we have prayed “not my will but yours be done.“ Hopefully we humbly submit our will to God’s will, and we respond in kindness and humility ands compassion. Will you always do this right the first time? Of course not, and that is, in a sense, okay. Life is a journey. God understands that over the years we have created habits of our heart that are not easily broken, and he is patient with us as we learn to walk the new path. Nevertheless, we are called daily to humbly submit our will to his.
To get back to the original question, why is the new path of discipleship different? It’s because we have been changed. We now follow Jesus, and the new longings in our heart are to do his will, not our own.
Don’t be frightened. God is not standing there with a scowl on his face, arms folded, with a whole new list of things we can do and things we can’t do. Remember the theme verse of this blog. “You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore” (Psalm 16:11, ESV). The path of discipleship is the path of joy, but it is also a path that is different.
Because Jesus is different.