”If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” (Luke 9:23)
What does it mean to follow Jesus? There are plenty of answers we could give to that question and many of them would give some helpful insights. But Jesus himself tells us what it means to follow him in Luke 9 – it means to deny ourselves. But what exactly does that look like?
When we talk about denying ourselves, we usually mean denying ourselves something. We are in the midst of Lent at the moment where we may well have chosen to give up something or deny ourselves some treat. If I’m on a diet, then I might choose to deny myself that piece of delicious chocolate cake. Or if I’m feeling virtuous, I might deny myself the opportunity to take revenge on the coworker who has really annoyed me. I might even think of those who go to the extreme of becoming a monk or a nun, and deny themselves material things, and give away everything.
But denying ourselves something isn’t really what Jesus is talking about here. In fact, he illustrates what it means to deny ourselves in the very next words:
If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross…
Following Jesus means taking up our cross. Now these words of Jesus have taken on the status of a proverb in our culture. “We all have our crosses to bear” we might say to one another. And our cross to bear would be something we have to put up with. Perhaps that diet or annoying coworker again! What we tend to mean by ‘our cross to bear’ are the minor annoyances that come our way in the course of life.
But that couldn’t be further from what Jesus meant if it tried! Jesus’ disciples would have known exactly what Jesus meant, and the chances are they would have been utterly appalled by it. Crucifixion was the most brutal and painful form of execution invented by the Roman empire. It was so horrific that no Roman citizen was to have this punishment inflicted upon them. Only the lowest of the low and the worst of the worst were to be crucified. It was a painful and public show of humiliation and harm. The criminal would be expected to carry their cross through the city to the place of execution. There they would be killed slowly in the sight of everyone. To take up your cross is not to endure a minor irritation. It is to walk to your execution. Taking up your cross means going to die.
Following Jesus means denying ourselves. And denying ourselves means dying to ourselves.
Let’s just pause for a moment and consider what this isn’t. It isn’t a call to inflict pain on ourselves. Sadly some have heard Jesus’ words and think that he wants his followers to hurt themselves. Jesus would walk that road of pain and suffering for us, and he isn’t calling us to cause pain to ourselves. Please hear that. If you are hurting yourself, Jesus wants you to find freedom from that. Please do talk to someone.
Nor is Jesus talking about hating yourself. Denying and dying are very strong words. It can seem as if Jesus is talking about having such low self esteem that we dislike ourselves. But that’s not what Jesus is talking about either. I know that because he created each and every one of us. And because he went all the way to the cross for each and every one of us. He loves and values us that much.
So what does Jesus mean by denying ourselves and taking up our cross? It means dying to our own pride and self-sufficiency. It means dying to our thinking that we are the centre of the universe. It means dying to being the ruler of our own life, and letting Jesus rule as he was always meant to be.
It is not an action or giving something up. It is a way of life. And it is the way to life. Jesus goes on:
”For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it.”
We all want life, don’t we? Everyone around us is looking for the secret to life. And we are all looking in particular directions to try and find life. Some people try money. Some people try fame. Some people try family. Some try career, some try health, some try reputation. Wherever we are looking, we are trying to find life.
But, if we are the ones in charge – whether we are working for our bank balance, love interest or lifestyle – if we are the ones in charge, we will ultimately lose. And we will lose our life.
Charlemagne was ruler of the Holy Roman Empire back in the 9th century and has power, prestige and wealth above anyone else at the time. Around 180 years after his death, his tomb was opened. There they found incredible treasures buried with him, and Charlemagne himself seated on a throne, with a crown on his head. But he has a Bible open on his lap and a bony finger pointing at this verse: “For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself?”
Whoever wants to save his life will lose it. But whoever loses their life for Jesus. Whoever steps out of the driving seat of their life and lets Jesus run things. Whoever loses their pride and self-sufficiency and asks Jesus to take over – they will find life.
If we want to follow Jesus, we need to deny ourselves, take up our cross, die to our pride and self-sufficiency and let Jesus the King rule. That is a terrific thing to focus on and think about during Lent this year.