READ : Like 9:23
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.”
Luke 9:23 rsv
Did it ever seem to you that God was calling, that the Lord of the universe was trying to get your attention? Once a little Jewish boy named Samuel was serving as a helper to the priest in God’s temple. During the night, he heard his name called, “Samuel, Samuel.” Answering “Here I am,” he got up from his bed and ran to Eli the priest. What did he want? Eli said, “I didn’t call you.” So the boy went back to bed. After a while, the voice came again, “Samuel.” Samuel got up, went to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you were calling me.” But Eli said, “I did not call, my son, lie down again.” When he was just dozing off again, Samuel heard the voice a third time. He got up and hurried to Eli: “Here I am, for you called me.” Then it became clear to the old man that the Lord was calling Samuel. So he said to him, “Go, lie down, and if he calls you, say, `Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening'” (see 1 Sam. 3:1-18).
Maybe you’re something like Samuel in the midst of that remarkable experience. You’re conscious that someone, somehow, is trying to get a message through to you, but you don’t know yet who the person is or what the message may be. You just know that someone seems to be calling.
I am thinking of an experience I had like that when I was quite young. I can visualize in my mind the place where it happened. I was climbing a favorite tree near my house. It had one branch that was of a perfect size and height for a young boy to “skin the cat.” I was swinging on that branch, having a good time, not a care in the world, when suddenly I was aware of something like a Presence. There was no one there that I could see. I didn’t hear a voice. But I felt somehow visited, and the feeling was good, happy. I felt like I was surrounded by love. I knew that something, or someone, was there, caring about me. I didn’t tell anyone about it at the time, but it gave me, I remember, a feeling of security and hope about the future.
Some years later, when I was in high school, a friend of mine talked to me about Jesus Christ. He said that in Jesus, God had come down to us to share our life. I learned about His self-giving love and His death for the sins of the world. I heard how He rose again and was alive and could come into my life. I became a Christian that night, inviting Jesus to be my Lord and Savior. And that seemed to make a connection with what I had experienced years before. The Lord had long ago been getting my attention, letting me know that He was there, preparing, I felt, to call me to Himself.
I want to think with you about what it’s like when Jesus calls us and what it can mean for our lives after that. Today I’m thinking of His word, “Anyone who wants to be a follower of Mine must renounce self.”
A WORD TO SEEKERS
This is a word, apparently, for those who have already formed some acquaintance with Jesus. He’s already invited Peter, James, John, Andrew and the rest to follow Him. Peter has just made, speaking for all the others, a remarkable confession of his faith: “You are the Christ of God.” Jesus has shared with them what’s ahead for His life. He’s going to Jerusalem, there to suffer, die, and be raised again. So those to whom He speaks are already instructed, already interested in discipleship.
Those are the people for whom I have a special message. If you have no interest in becoming a Christian, not the slightest desire to follow Christ, I’m praying that something of that interest can be awakened in your heart. Often, I try to address people like you, but now I want to pass along Jesus’ word to those who are already thinking about making a commitment, already responsive enough to listen to what He says about discipleship.
I’m struck by the way the Lord puts it, “Anyone who wants to be a follower of Mine.” There’s no demand here. Allegiance to Jesus is not forced on anyone. Jesus is calling the person who wants to follow: If you will, if you choose, if that’s what you really desire. Let’s say you’re drawn toward Christ. There’s some fascination about Him for you. You feel a tug of longing to throw in your lot with Him and become one of His. Let’s say you’re asking, you’re inquiring, you’re eager to learn what it might mean if you did follow Him. It’s to you that He sends a special call.
NO TO SELF
If you have begun, at least, to believe in Him, if you sense some love for Him, if you want to serve Him, if what you’re after is a continuing relationship with Jesus Christ, then here’s what’s involved: Deny yourself, say no to yourself. Even more, renounce yourself.
According to Jesus, that’s the first thing that will be involved, the inevitable consequence of your wanting to follow Him: you will give up your right to yourself. That No to self-centeredness is apparently involved in saying a genuine Yes to Jesus Christ. “Self” is seen here as a kind of rival lord, an alternate king to be obeyed. Jesus is saying here that none of us can serve two masters. You can only follow, obey, be yielded to one. To come behind Jesus, then, is to welcome a new Lord. It’s making a deliberate choice to displace the old one – King Self.
C. S. Lewis puts it powerfully: “Christ says, `Give me All. I don’t want so much of your time and so much of your money and so much of your work. I want you. I have not come to torment your natural self but to kill it. . . . Hand over the whole natural self, all the desires which you think innocent as well as the ones you think wicked – the whole outfit. I will give you a new self instead.'”
All of us have a supreme loyalty of some kind. There’s someone whom we finally elect to please, one above all the others. Allegiance to that one will take precedence over other loyalties. That one will show the way, play the tune to which we march.
For most of us, as we normally live our lives, that person is ourselves. “What’s in it for me?” is characteristically our bottom-line question. “What will satisfy my longings? Advance my career? Help me toward fulfillment? Make my life better? What is in my best interests, long term?” If pleasing others, especially those who depend on us, can fit into that framework, we’ll do it. We’ll gladly please them. But the strongest appeal is usually our self-preservation, self-enhancement. Finding ourselves, fulfilling ourselves, being all that we can be, looms largest. Pursuing that goal, we make self the dynamic center of our lives. We make our welfare, security and happiness the highest court of appeal.
To follow Christ, on the other hand, is to organize life around a new center, to take on a new loyalty. You might call it a “change of administration.” We’re welcoming a new leader. The people hearing Jesus on that day could have avoided this radical change of masters if they drifted off, if they went back home, if they gave up the idea of being Jesus’ followers. But they could not avoid it if they elected to stay with Him. They had to choose, really, whether they would renounce self or renounce Jesus. Once His call had come, those were the only two options.
HOW TO DO IT
Let’s suppose you want to do it. You want to renounce self. How would you go about it? First, you’d do it decisively, with an action orientation. If discipleship is only a reverie, an idea you contemplate, you’ll never really follow. Following begins with some kind of step. You’ll decide to say no to yourself, not only in general but at some specific point.
Maybe there’s a relationship you’ve been involved in that you don’t feel right about. Deep down, you know that the Lord would never approve of this, but it’s something you’ve wanted. To renounce self means to say no to that. Or maybe there’s something that you realize you ought to do. It represents the path of duty for you. It’s the will of God for you. It’s the right thing. But up to now, you’ve been stubbornly unwilling to do it. To renounce self is to start giving in to that. It’s to say, “All right, Lord, with Your help I’m willing to move in that direction.” I can’t emphasize too much the importance of a simple commitment like that. You’ve often heard it: “The journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step.”
Not only will you renounce self decisively, you’ll have to do it repeatedly. Jesus said “Follow me” to those men by the Sea of Galilee early in His ministry. But then, after His resurrection, after Peter’s denial and restoration, Jesus said it once more, “Follow me.” And in this passage, He says to all, “If you want to follow me, deny yourself [renounce yourself] daily.” It’s like a fresh decision every morning, like a covenant to be renewed, a choice to be made again and again.
But didn’t we mean it the first time? Yes, of course we did. We gave ourselves wholeheartedly to the Lord. But if you’re anything like I am, you have a way of taking yourself back, letting King Self climb up on the throne again. Each day we say a fresh no to him in order to say a contemporary yes to Christ.
You see, when we first make this choice and this decision, we’re sincere, we’re earnest, we’re dedicated, but we’re also naive. Going in, we have no idea about all that it may mean. The ten-year-old boy, for example, can’t imagine when he turns his life over to Christ what pressures and temptations he may encounter during puberty. The soldier doesn’t know in boot camp what he may have to face on the front lines. And the young bride and groom, as they take those vows – do they really know how tough it may get, how costly it may prove to keep them? They mean it when they profess their loyalty. But later on, the choice will present itself in new, challenging ways.
As we walk along, we discover more and more what discipleship is really about. We discover it as we keep on listening to His word, receiving fresh light. We discover it at the points where His lordship clashes with the appeals of our self-interest, conflicts we never would have imagined or anticipated. Each step of obedience, then, yields new insight, new strength. Each act of disobedience, on the other hand, muddies the waters and finds us slipping back.
The Lord takes us seriously when we set out to be disciples, even though we scarcely realize what we’re getting into. Then He leads us along, step by step, asking, “Will you follow here? Will you take this small step of renunciation, or this large one?” Since discipleship is one big “yes” followed by many little ones, it means one great “no” followed by a host of other negations. You never get to the point where you don’t need to renounce that old pretender, King Self.
Do you ever wonder why Christians keep on following even when the going gets tough? Think about the apostle Paul. Five times he endured 39 lashes with a whip. There couldn’t have been a square inch of flesh on his back that wasn’t crisscrossed with scars. He was beaten with heavy batons. He was adrift for long hours in the deep. He was persecuted, stoned, imprisoned, threatened with death many a time. Why do you keep it up, Paul? Listen to what he says about himself and his companions, “For the love of Christ controls us, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore, all have died. And he died for all, that those who live might live no longer for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised” (2 Cor. 5:14-15).
The apostle is convinced that one man, Jesus, has died for all of us. That means in a sense that each of us has gone down into death. Everyone’s life has been forfeited. But for those of us who are still alive, that means that we don’t belong to ourselves any more. We’ve been ransomed, claimed, bought with a price. We’ve been astoundingly loved. And that love so grips our hearts, so masters our lives, that we want to say, gladly say, “Not my will, Lord, but Yours be done.” I pray that you will so be convinced about Jesus’ death for you and so mastered by His love that you will gladly today, tomorrow and always, renounce self to follow Him.