Jesus defines in His Word what it means to follow Him; to be a Chirstian. The definition is not open ended, or left to an individual to interpret as that person sees fit, or in accordance to their particular way of thinking and living.
In the 9th Chapter of Luke, Jesus asks His disciples, His followers, who the crowds assembled about them believe Him to be. Verse 20 picks up from that point.
20 “But you,” He asked them, “who do you say that I am?” Peter answered, “God’s Messiah!”
21 But He strictly warned and instructed them to tell this to no one,
22 saying, “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, be killed, and be raised the third day.”
23 Then He said to them all, “If anyone wants to come after Me, he must deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow Me.
24 For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life because of Me will save it.
25 What is a man benefited if he gains the whole world, yet loses or forfeits himself?
26 For whoever is ashamed of Me and My words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when He comes in His glory and that of the Father and the holy angels.”
The Master lays out the requirements for coming after Him in verse 23, which is the central point upon which I am convicted and led to speak. These requirements, although there are two here, are so all-encompassing that we must understand their full meaning to truly see what it means to be a Christian, or "Christ-one", or follower of Christ.
Requirement 1: Deny yourself.
Requirement 2: Take up your cross daily.
It is the season of Lent. People bearing the title "Christian" all over the world are depriving themselves of various *things*, each in accordance to what willpower or level of commitment they possess. I recently did a quick look to see what folks are giving up these days, and made a list:
*Things we stuff in our faces: Caffeine. Chocolate. All sweets. Meat. Cheese. Bread.
*Things which bring comfort: Sleeping on beds. Spoons and forks switched out for chopsticks.
*Things which show an attempt to nourish the spirit: Turning off the TV. Reading the Bible. Trying to control the tongue and stop cursing.
Some of those things are good for the soul, some good for the body.
But what does it actually mean to "deny yourself"?
The Greek word we translate as "deny" is "aparneomai" (ä-pär-ne'-o-mī), and is defined thusly: To Deny; To affirm that one has no acquaintance or connection with someone. To forget one's self, lose sight of one's self and one's own interests.
If anyone wants to come after Him, let him affirm that he has no acquaintance or connection with himself, let him lose sight of himself and his interests, take up his cross, and follow Him. Not “spend less time being himself. Not “have less acquaintance”; HAVE NO ACQUAINTANCE. Let him affirm that he has no acquaintance with himself! It's not, "I don't talk to that guy much these days, just off and on, you know, depending on what's happening", it is, "Man, I don't even know that dude anymore. I'm not connected or affiliated with her. We're not friends; we're not even associates. I barely recall what he looks like."
So on the one hand, the institutional church provides a festival called Lent; an amalgam of an ancient Babylonian festival usurped into "Christendom" by the Roman church. What had once been commemorated as the 40 days of mourning by the wife of Nimrod over the death of her son Tammuz came to instead signify the 40 days of Jesus' fast in the wilderness and being tempted by Satan. This was the modus operandi of the Roman Empire; take the ingrained festivals of the conquered people, regardless of their origin, and bastardize them into whatever the sanctioned state religion of the Empire happened to be, under which they were wanting those people to live. They understood that letting people have their time honored traditions was a great way to keep their newly conquered slaves pacified and relatively content.
Today, before Lent begins, participants get to gorge themselves beforehand on "Fat Tuesday", deprive themselves of something on "Ash Wednesday", usually something of some relevance to their flesh, for 40 days or so, and afterwards stick a big, self-satisfied smile on their faces when they then go *back* to whatever it was they "sacrificed", because they've done something they felt they should do, either to better themselves, or maybe, just *maybe*, glorify God... before getting back to living their lives as usual.
On the other hand, there is the requirement of Jesus to His followers to deny all of their very selves, with no expiration date or time limit on the commitment, no hope of going back to what they are giving up, and not for as long as they can hold out, but forever... and ever. In fact, He tells us that if we try to *save* our selves, our way that is apart from His Way… we lose everything.
One focuses on denying the flesh for a month and a half, so we can feel good about what *we* can achieve in our lives. The other focuses on denying our very selves for the remainder of our lives so we can marvel in humility and awe at what only the *LORD* can achieve in our lives.
We are called to put our flesh to death. Not just by what we *say*, but in the open, in how we *live*. It is to be clearly visible. A condemned person carrying the transom of their cross in Roman times was a spectacle people came to watch, along a road where everyone could see everything going on. The condemned person did not spend any time talking; it was all he could do to carry its weight, and it was a one way trip. Everyone saw him and his cross, and everyone knew he was going to die and he was not coming back. And to follow Jesus, we are to do this within plain sight. Every. Single. Day. There is no allowance made for failure to do this; it is a requirement of being a follower of Jesus, as laid out by HIM.
Here is where the rubber meets the road, where it gets painful. The moment you and I find ourselves saying "Well, you know *me*," or, "you know how I do..." we're in trouble. We are in trouble, because at that moment, we are not in the act of denying ourselves, but *confirming* ourselves.
Growing up, I used to say to my Dad, regarding some chore I didn't do or only half-did, or in having to account for losing my glasses, or misplacing my house keys, "I forgot. I’m sorry, Dad, I forgot to do it." And even though that was the truth, even though, if it were at all possible, I would set immediately about the task of doing whatever it was I had "forgotten" to do, he used to say to me more times than he probably said my name,
"Forgetting is no excuse!"
And it isn't. It's a reason for whatever my negligence happened to be, but it did not excuse me or in any way let me off the hook of responsibility for my actions. There were still consequences to be suffered for whatever it was I had done.
What the LORD showed me about my life; its true condition apart from HIM, is that I am selfish. This man, who must be put visibly to death every single day, that you see before you, is as selfish a human being as they come. I am so selfish, that left to my self, as much as I would give my life to trade for the lives of my wife and my children, I will abandon them to my own self-serving pursuits, and take no opportunity whatsoever to be in their lives, and share mine with them; if I am left to my *self*.
This past Thursday I failed in this abysmally. I failed to obey, and die. I was focusing on my annoyances, my irritations, my decaying, decomposing, dead *self* and the foolishness to be found of late in my work life, same as all of us have experienced in one form or another.
I had a wonderful opportunity to sit with my wife, and my youngest daughter, and play a game of Scrabble. On the surface, that's not a big deal, right? ...well. Here is what my obedience to the mandate of our Master would have looked like; to be the Daddy, the faithful steward of her life that she *needs*, *THAT I NEED TO BE, WITHOUT FAIL, EVERY SINGLE DAY THAT I BREATHE IN AND OUT":
• I am together with my wife and daughter instead of holed up by myself.
• I am reinforcing bonds in a sensitive child in the middle of two siblings, just as I was, and needs strengthening from her father.
• My wife is happy. My daughter is happy. I am happy.
• I am, together with my wife, taking part in a rare opportunity to sharpen that little girl's skills with both spelling and arithmetic, while she is too busy enjoying herself to notice.
But I failed in the task of obedience set before me, and that is *disobedience*, plain and simple. To fail to obey is to disobey, and by my disobedience I had no part in that moment of development of my child, of sharing my life with people I love most in all the world.
Every moment we draw breath is spent doing one of two things, obeying God, or disobeying Him. There is no middle ground. No grey area. And we will be recompensed for our time spent doing those two things in our flesh when we stand before the Master to be judged.
14 For it is just like a man going on a journey. He called his own • slaves and turned over his possessions to them.
15 To one he gave five talents; to another, two; and to another, one—to each according to his own ability. Then he went on a journey. Immediately
16 the man who had received five talents went, put them to work, and earned five more.
17 In the same way the man with two earned two more.
18 But the man who had received one talent went off, dug a hole in the ground, and hid his master’s money.
19 “After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them.
20 The man who had received five talents approached, presented five more talents, and said, ‘Master, you gave me five talents. Look, I’ve earned five more talents.’
21 “His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful slave! You were faithful over a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Share your master’s joy!’
22 “Then the man with two talents also approached. He said, ‘Master, you gave me two talents. Look, I’ve earned two more talents.’
23 “His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful slave! You were faithful over a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Share your master’s joy!’
24 “Then the man who had received one talent also approached and said, ‘Master, I know you. You’re a difficult man, reaping where you haven’t sown and gathering where you haven’t scattered seed.
25 So I was afraid and went off and hid your talent in the ground. Look, you have what is yours.’
26 “But his master replied to him, ‘You evil, lazy slave! If you knew that I reap where I haven’t sown and gather where I haven’t scattered,
27 then you should have deposited my money with the bankers. And when I returned I would have received what is mine back with interest.
28 “ ‘So take the talent from him and give it to the one who has 10 talents.
29 For to everyone who has, more will be given, and he will have more than enough. But from the one who does not have, even what he has will be taken away from him.
30 And throw this good-for-nothing slave into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’
Just like that evil, lazy slave, I had a reason to not be the husband and father I'm supposed to be. What's more, it's a reason which the Master recognizes. "Master, you gave me stewardship over this little girl, but I needed my space. I was irritated with the foolishness and upheaval on my job; I was stressed. I just wanted to sit in my office and vegetate over a cartoon and forget..."
I needed. I was irritated. I was stressed. I just wanted. I. My self. The thing I am told to deny and put to death and become a slave. I.
Have mercy, O LORD. If I do that... and it does not please the LORD to break me, and lay it open and bleeding in front of my brothers and sisters and be healed... and instead it pleases Him to harden my heart, and let the corpse open its wasted, cracked lips and talk about "I" as though it is entitled to its own will and pleasure, and not put to death DAILY in service unto YHWH... if I do those things, I get even what I *have* taken from me. If I do those things, since I want them so badly instead of HIM, the LORD will grant me reason after reason to continue *just* the way *I* want. He'll give me, as Cyril showed us recently in the Word, the desires of my heart; only then an unregenerate, atrophied heart, until what I want comes out of my nostrils and I choke on it, like the quail meat the children of Israel craved when they took the LORD's manna for granted. Until my corpse, this flesh, this body of death to which I am chained, swells with sin's putrefaction; in a mockery of life, where only the parasite of sin actually lives.
Here's what I deserve to hear the LORD say to me for my disobedience.
"Oh. So you want to be selfish and ignore the task I have assigned to you, which would enrich your life and those I have entrusted into your care?
"You really want to squander your stolen breaths, instead of giving that time, which *I* gave to you, to the family you will answer to Me for?
"You want to act like the Way to Life is wide enough for your filthy *self* and your foolish reasons for being what you are, when I *told* you how Narrow it was?
"I give My Son to be poured out in sacrifice for your sin, and you want to serve your *self*, instead of deny it and serve Me?
"You know what? SO BE IT! You're a mite short on reasons to be alone, so I'm going to feed your mind with some more "reasons" until the delusion is so great that you believe it with all your heart and you are left to indulge in your self and all your wants. And, so you can spend even more time with your self, I will strip you of what you call yours, this precious gift of wife, these precious talents of children I have given you, and for which you WILL NONETHELESS answer to Me for in full.
“And if, once the consequence of your sin is suffered, you do not then humble yourself and obey my commandment to deny yourself and die, I will sever you from Me for your lack of fruit which *I* prune you to bear, AND YOU WILL GO THE WAY OF ALL BRANCHES SEVERED FROM MY SON, THE TRUE VINE; bundled together and disposed of in fire that is not quenched."
The language which the Master uses in Luke 9:23 can perhaps seem as though it were a suggestion, submitted for our approval. I submit that it is a command. It is the requirement to call yourself "Christian" and not be a liar. It is HIS DEFINITION OF WHAT IT MEANS TO FOLLOW AFTER HIM. He was laying down the rules in clear language, and did not leave out the consequences of disobedience to that command.
Deny yourself and die to this life daily, or be denied even what you think is yours, and lose your life eternally.
NOR did the Master say that we must deny our selves as best he can, put ourselves on the cross and struggle for life, gasp for air where circumstances permit, and follow Him. NO. And we're doing that. But NO. Deny yourself and go visibly to your death every single day. No reasons we may give will save us from failure to do this. There is, in fact, no excuse. The trial, the test of what the LORD says is right, is not to be failed.
Paul tells the church in Philippians 2:12-13:
"12 So then, my dear friends, just as you have always obeyed, not only in my presence, but now even more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.
13 For it is God who is working in you, both to will and to act for His good purpose."
This is not for us to presume that *we* are causing our salvation to come to pass by setting ourselves to the task of obedience to God; it is the other way around. God does the work in us to cause us to want to obey Him, and when we see and accept that we can not obey without Him, we can not refuse to associate with who we are without Him, we can not, without Him, stop sinning without full adherence, reliance, and trust in Him, that we are slaves and can not save ourselves... our response is not "well I'm just going to fail anyway. He'll forgive me." and trample all over God's grace, like the Blood of His Beloved, Only Begotten Son is cheap as tap water. How dare I? How dare we? Many of us have children of our own. The parents will remember our children hugging us about the neck. Those of us who are not remember hugging someone caring for us about the neck. Our God gave His Only Begotten Son, Whom He loved so much that all things are made through Him and for Him, over to be brutally beaten, tormented, His body torn, nailed to a tree and crushed under the weight of *our* sin, HOW DARE WE?? Our response is to fall upon our faces when we fail, in trembling and in fear, BECAUSE IT IS GOD WHO IS WORKING IN US, BOTH TO WILL AND TO ACT FOR HIS GOOD PURPOSE, and cry out to Him, "O GOD! Have mercy! You gave Your Son to purchase me from death and make me Your slave, and by my disobedience I have treated the sacrifice of His Blood as though it were nothing, as though it had no value. Because *I* wanted. I felt. I *LIVED*!! I am commanded to die, and I LIVED!
Have mercy, LORD! You will be glorified by Your grace of my obedience or by Your wrath in my disobedience! Please, do not make me into that which I deserve; an object lesson, a tale cautioning others of what not to do! By Your grace and mercy, I refuse to associate with who I am! Please, O LORD, make me into that which obeys You in all things and puts to death all that is not pleasing to YOU! May I be found in obedience to you, unto death, even as the Master obeyed YOU unto death on the cross! Have mercy, O LORD."
That is to be our response. Not apathetic despair; fear and trembling before the LORD. Obedience to His Commands. We can not deny ourselves and die without believing in Him. We can not believe in Him without loving Him. We can not love Him without obeying Him. We can not obey Him without repenting of our sin and turning to Him for forgiveness. We can not repent without being called out from our grave of sin and granted it as an undeserved gift from the Father.
We can not be ourselves and obey the LORD at the same time, you see. We can not be ourselves when we are commanded to utterly reject... and refuse to even associate with ourselves.
To declare, "This is who I am, and these are my tendencies and I'll always be this way." is flagrant defiance of the command of the LORD to follow Him.
So when I say, "I am selfish" and continue to be selfish without putting my *self* to death and putting an end to my selfishness, I am in rebellion against the LORD, and earn not for myself the title of Christian! A Christian is an obedient slave of God. I instead earn the title of evil, lazy slave, and all the rights and privileges which the evil, lazy slave gets; stripped of even what he has, and cast into outer darkness.
When we say among ourselves, "This is how I act; this is how I've always acted," ...*and stay that way*,...we become what Solomon called in Proverbs 26; a fool repeating his foolishness, a dog returning to its own vomit.
That is, ironically, the declaration of an obedient slave, just not a slave of God.
In other words, when we do these things, and simultaneously declare that "we believe in God", we are *lying*. We are living a lie. What we are *really* saying in truth is, we believe not in God, but in our *selves*.
We, and our way of doing things as we have always done them, because we have always been this way, or we have always had to conduct ourselves in this way, for whatever the reason, become slaves to the thing which should be dead but instead as conquered us.
*We* become an idol unto ourselves, because our way is what dominates, our way has become the victor and places the shackles upon us, not the LORD's way; not obedience, to deny it and put it to death.
2 Peter 2:19 speaks of "slaves of corruption", telling us that "people are enslaved to whatever defeats them." It goes on from there:
"20 For if, having escaped the world’s impurity through the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they are again entangled in these things and defeated, the last state is worse for them than the first.
21 For it would have been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness than, after knowing it, to turn back from the holy commandment delivered to them.
22 It has happened to them according to the true proverb: A dog returns to its own vomit, and, “a sow, after washing itself, wallows in the mud.”
Brothers and sisters, we are NOT TO DO THIS. We are not to look at our history, the circumstances of our upbringing, the crap going on around us, and lean on it as an excuse; we are to put it to death. When we don't put it to death, we only make everything worse. We bear our cross and writhe in agony on it, when we are to just trust the LORD, obey His Word, and DIE.
We are not to struggle and wrestle with ourselves, we are to reject ourselves, refuse to associate with ourselves, and put ourselves visibly to death every single day of our lives.
It should be like, "That Steve, that was one *selfish* mean-spirited dude right there. When was the last time he holed himself up in his “bat cave” and forced people to talk to the side of his head because his attention was on *his* pursuits instead of the task set before him by God, to love his wife as he loves himself, and treat his children like a steward who must account for them before his King? When was the last time his selfishness branded him an affliction to his wife, and a pestilence to his children?" That's what needs to be visibly seen. That's what needs to be said of me because it is *seen* of me, not because I run my mouth at length about it. If I say with my mouth that I am different--if I declare there is change in my life, and I'M STILL ACTING LIKE *ME*, I am begging to find myself stricken like the fig tree.
I'm asking God to say to me, "Oh. So you must think I'm stupid. I've shown you what the cost is of belonging to Me, of being *My* slave, sealed by *My* Spirit, dwelling in *My* secret place, abiding in *My* shadow, kept securely within *My* hand, and you're still running off at the mouth talking about how *you* do things. YOU HAD BETTER HOPE THAT IT PLEASES ME TO CAUSE YOU TO REMEMER YOURSELF AND YOUR PLACE BEFORE YOUR SOUL IS REQUIRED OF YOU."
LORD, have mercy upon me. Have mercy upon all of us. If it would please You, Father, cast us not away from Your presence should we forget our place, should we disobey and CONFIRM our selves and live, instead of DENY our selves and visibly die. Please, LORD. You, Who ALONE CAUSES US TO WILL AND TO ACT ACCORDING TO YOUR GOOD PURPOSE, grant us this grace. We can not obey without this grace, O LORD. Give us the grace to obey You, Master. Grant us, I pray, grace to reject what we have been all our lives instead of continuously confirming it every time we open our mouths to speak. Have mercy, O LORD, and grant us grace to put ourselves to death, trusting in You, and not our selves, relying upon YOU and not our selves, adhering to what YOU command and not to what we prefer and are used to, LORD.
I beseech You in the Name that is above every Name, the Name of Jesus, the Son of the Living God.