I’ve been thinking about taking up my cross, denying myself, and following Jesus. A lot. It’s a horrifying thought—sacrifice myself, deny the very impulses that give life to my hands and feet, follow someone I have never seen, heard, smelled, or touched. It’s all there…and in case I have any doubts, the one voice I do constantly hear is the one that says, “Yeah, He’s right.”
I constantly reply, “I wish He wasn’t.”
In his book After You Believe NT Wright explores what it means to be a Christian—a follower of Jesus. Early on in the book he poses a question (and provides an answer) which essentially defines the content of the remainder of the book. He writes,
‘How should I behave?’ contains two significantly different questions within it. First, it refers to the content of my behavior: In what way should I behave? In other words, what specific things ought I to do and not to do? But second, it refers to the means or method of my behavior: granted that I know what I ought to do and ought not to do, by what means will I be able to put these things into practice? […] Interestingly, Jesus seems to have given both sides of this question the same answer: ‘Follow me!’ This is both what you should do and how you should do it. (14)
And how do we follow Jesus? By taking up the cross and denying ourselves—necessary precursors which must be recognized, accepted, and in place before we ever take our first step behind him. Wright goes on, “The theme is stark and challenging: in order to develop Christian character, the first step is suffering” (177). I heard this while listening to some older music last night. It’s an old Petra song called ‘Hit You Where You Live.” This short lyric stands out to me as one of the best lyrics Bob Hartman ever wrote:
The evidence leads to conviction
When we don’t live everything we say
There’s got to be a crucifixion
We can live dying everyday
A crucifixion. It’s not original to NT Wright or Bob Hartman or any of the other hundreds of writers who have dragged their arms across the paper, pen in hand, and dared to etch these words into the fabric of their heart. I know why I sing them and write them and repeat them: to remind myself, constantly, that this is the life I was chosen for and that I chose. Frequently this life makes no sense and oftentimes God’s silence is deafening. He’s there; he’s not there. The road up Calvary, surrounded by thousands of people, is a lonely road.
The idea was original with Jesus and picked up on by those who dared drag their cross around the Roman infested Middle East. Peter said it. Paul said it. John said it.
Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is true worship. (Romans 12:1)
He also wrote and, worse, I assume, believed and, worser, expected those who read his writing to also believe:
I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who love me and gave himself for me. (Galatians 2:20)
I could go on and on and on and on quoting this author or that author and demonstrating unequivocally that we are, as disciples, called to the crucifixion driven life. (Well, we are also called to the Resurrection Driven Life too, but one is necessarily a result of the other; and the other necessarily a precursor to the other; I’ll leave it up to the Holy Spirit to teach you which is which.) But the fact is, regardless of how many people say it or how eloquently they say it, no matter how poetically it is written or how much it is romanticized, this life, this life of self-denial, cross bearing, and Jesus following is not for the faint of heart. And there are times when I am sick of it; tired of trying.
I know what you’re thinking: that is rather anti-climactic. I’m sorry to disappoint you. I’m sorry if the perception of the Christian life we sometimes give off to those around us goes something like this: “Oh, I found Jesus and now my life is set! I can smile all the way to the bank! I can rest easily at night” and that that perception, however well intended, is decidedly, emphatically, wrong. I’m sorry if you have been misled to believe that dying is meant to be, uh, fun.
It’s hard. I’m not crying about it. I am pointing out that sometimes, all the times, this life—this learning to live the Jesus life—is terribly confusing. I’ve come to believe that it (this crucifixion driven life) has nothing to do with whether or not I succeed or whether or not I actually contribute to the world or make a so-called difference. Frankly, I believe this crucifixion life is the most personal aspect of our lives and it is, to be sure, the one place along our walk where God most loudly announces his love for us. Love.
It’s hard to believe that God loved us so much that He gave His one and only Son. It’s even harder to believe that He loves us so much that he requires us, as part of the plan, to take up our cross, deny ourselves, and follow Jesus. It’s hard to believe that he loves us so much that he calls us and when he calls us, he bids us come and die. It’s hard to believe he loves us so much that he is bound and determined to rid our lives of all that destroys us, of all that fails to bring glory to his name, of all that does not bear his image. “We are being recreated in the image of our Creator,” Paul wrote.
And some can say this with a smile and a Hallelujah! But Paul and others know the truth that that which lives inside of us is dark and must be murdered and that the darkness wages war, a bloody, violent, aggressive war, a counter-offensive, and that it seeks to maintain its strongholds at all costs. It’s hard to imagine that God loves us so much that he not only points out what the strongholds are and where they are, but that he also leads the charge against them.
There is no hope for me, you realize this, right? It is simply impossible for me to believe in this God, let alone purposely decide every day to deny myself, take up my cross, and follow Him, right? And, let’s be honest, the cross I am called to bear is not a hangnail or a splinter or a crank boss. The cross is an instrument of death. It is the very means God uses to unwrap and undo self-sufficient humans.
I saw the fruit. It was good for food. It was desirable for gaining wisdom. It was pleasing to the eye. So I ate. The fruit became my cells, my tissues, my organs, my systems, and my being. Now I have to throw it up and my insides must be turned outside. I must be undone. (I think it much easier to sit around pots of meat and leeks and vegetables in Egypt, but don’t we all?) Who can rescue me from such a life? Who can fix me? Who can bring life out of death? Who cares so much about my life that he is willing to let me die (forces me to die?) in order that I might live? I can’t do it. I have no power.
Christians, then and now, are the only persons on the face of the earth who worship a crucified Savior—to all appearances in every and all cultures a rejected, humiliated, and failed Savior. [...]
These are background observations for understanding why what I am calling ‘acquired passivity’ is so difficult for us to take seriously and then embrace—and why it is absolutely necessary to embrace it if we are to accustom ourselves to living in a world characterized by the grace of God, for ‘by grace you have been saved.’ There are no other options. It’s grace or nothing. There is no ‘Plan B.’ (Eugene Peterson, Practice Resurrection, 93)
“But Lord,” I say, “I don’t know where I am at or where we are going.”
And his reply?
“Well, Jerry, if you are following Jesus, does it matter?”
“My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Corinthians 12:9)