My freshman year of high school I weighed 93 pounds. The lowest weight class in wrestling was 103 pounds. I had nothing to worry about. My sophomore year in high school I weighed 120 pounds … on Mondays. By the time Thursdays rolled around I weighed 103 pounds. I didn’t lose 17 pounds every week because I thought I would be healthier. I lost it every week because I wanted to make weight and wrestle at 103 pounds. At least I thought I did. As my senior year came around I weighed 130 pounds and I wrestled 130 pounds. I still wanted to wrestle, but I wanted to enjoy life even more.
We often try and fail at things more often than trying and succeeding at things. When it comes to sin we always have Romans 7 to fall back on (you can’t see it, but I have my tongue tucked nicely into my cheek right now), “I do what I don’t want and I don’t do what I want.” This is the Christian’s excuse for sinning and disobedience. If I’m really honest with myself it’s not that I don’t want to do something but do it. Rather, I do because I really do want to do it. I’m not in the habit of doing things I don’t want to do. Lots of guys never made weight because they didn’t really want to make weight; at least not as much as they wanted to eat or not run.
Before his transfiguration Jesus has an interesting and honest conversation with his disciples about the cost of discipleship.
Then Jesus said to his disciples, “If anyone wants to come after me, they must give themselves up, and pick up their cross, and follow me. Yes: if someone wants to save their life, they must lose it; and if anyone loses their life for my sake they will find it. What use will it be, otherwise, if you win the whole world but forfeit your true life? What will you give to get your life back? You see, the son of man is going to ‘come in the glory of his father with his angels,’ and then, ‘he will reward everyone for the work they have done.’ I’m telling you the truth: some of those standing here will not taste death until they see ‘the son of man coming in his kingdom.'” (KNT)
Jesus makes it very clear that discipleship is a matter of the will, “If anyone wants to come after me …” Don’t misunderstand, you could never want unless the Holy Spirit has worked in you making it possible for you to want. Us Wesleyans call this prevenient grace, the grace of God that goes before. Grace is opposed to earning, not effort. In fact, one could make a good argument that grace is given for the very purpose of enabling our effort. Before we can follow Jesus we must actually want to follow Jesus.
The implications of this are enormous. The next time you find yourself staring temptation in the face ask yourself, What do I want more, to give in or to follow Jesus? I maintain that if you lie to yourself at this point you are going to fail. However, if you decide that you want Jesus more then the problem is solved. On the other hand, if you find yourself wanting the temptation more then you have some work to do. This is where the practices of denying, taking up and following come in.
Once we have decided what we want we can act. Should we find ourselves wanting whatever is contrary to Jesus we will, if we have prepared, be able to allow in that moment Jesus to transform our desire, our wanting. This doesn’t happen overnight. In fact, it is something we must practice everyday. We begin becoming the kind of people who naturally want to follow Jesus by first giving ourselves up.
Learning to tell ourselves, ‘No,’ whenever we want and being successful is something we can grow in. This is, in my opinion, one of the benefits of fasting. For instance, you may wake up one morning and head straight for the coffee. Instead of indulging your desire make the conscious choice to abstain. You don’t have to abstain for any reason other than learning to tell yourself, ‘No.’ If I can’t deny myself in something as small as a cup of coffee then chances are I’m not going to be able to deny myself when it comes to lying, fornicating, gossiping, stealing, etc. Those things are much stronger and more connected to our emotions than a cup of coffee is.
Denying ourselves also involves a healthy amount of self-examination. Some of John Wesley’s accountability questions can help here.
- Am I consciously or unconsciously creating the impression that I am better than I am? In other words, am I a hypocrite?
- Am I honest in all my acts and words, or do I exaggerate?
- How do I spend my spare time?
- Is Jesus real to me?
After we learn to deny ourselves … then and only then … can we move on and learn to take up our cross (daily, says Luke). Jesus was not prophesying about the fashionability of cross-shaped jewelry. The cross was a torture device designed with one purpose in mind – kill slowly and painfully. The end result of the cross, always and everywhere, is death. Not even Jesus escaped this reality. The cross kills, pure and simple.
This is why the Apostle Paul invites us to, “put to death the deeds of the body” (Romans 8:13) and to “put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly” (Colossians 3:5). It is why he writes to the Galatians, “those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (5:24) and “through the cross of Jesus the world has been crucified to me” (6:14). To take up our cross means putting the old self to death. First we practice giving ourselves up in both practice and when it matters. However, until we crucify ourselves, our old selves, we will never know Christ and the power that raised him from the dead. We will never become the kind of people who naturally obey him and want to follow him.
Having given ourselves up and taking up our crosses we are then ready to follow him; not just in desire but in reality. It is this reality, this fruit-filled reality, that Jesus is talking about when he says, “he will reward everyone for the work they have done.” Having the right intentions is not enough. Having the right desire, as important as that is, isn’t enough. Unless we act on and perfect (by the enabling grace of God) that desire so that it bears fruit then we will be nothing but branches that fail to produce fruit.
This process is very much connected to the process of repentance. Until our vision of Jesus expands then our intentions (i.e. desires) will not change. And unless our intentions change we are not likely to change our means. However, as we practice denying ourselves (some new means, I think), taking up our cross (definitely new intentions, no one accidentally climbs up on a cross), and following Jesus we will find that we have come full circle. What we once wanted that was not Jesus gets crucified and what we are left with is Jesus and his promise, “Yes: if someone wants to save their life, they must lose it; and if anyone loses their life for my sake they will find it.”