We don’t follow the way, life, and pattern of Jesus in our lives…JUST BECAUSE WE THINK WE OUGHT TO. Instead, we enter into his discipleship because we finally recognize that the way of Jesus leads to freedom from ourselves and helps us experience a life that is abundant in all ways. But before moving forward too quickly, it is essential that we understand the situation in which we find ourselves…before we can even begin to follow the way, life, and pattern of Jesus’ life.
When we think of how to describe the modern Christian, we hardly think of self-denial or sacrifice. In fact, I asked a room full of Christians, “Do you perceive the contemporary Christian as one who lives a life of sacrifice and self-denial?” The room quickly erupted into a chorus of no’s. How tragic. We have moved so far away from the disciplined life of sacrifice and self-denial exemplified in Christ and the early Church that these words do not even come close to describing us.
Jesus, after telling Peter that he was more concerned about the ways of the world rather than the ways of God (and then also calling him Satan), told his disciples in a huge teaching moment, “If you want to follow me you must deny yourself and pick up your cross daily.” Did you get that? The essential characteristic of a follower of Christ is self-denial. It is recognizing and giving up our way, our will, our wants, needs, and desires…crucifying them…so as to be raised to new life by the Holy Spirit. So what is the situation in which we find ourselves?
Paul described his (and our) condition this way, “So I have learned this rule: When I want to do good, evil is there with me. In my mind, I am happy with God’s law. But I see another law working in my body, which makes war against the law that my mind accepts. That other law working in my body is the law of sin, and it makes me its prisoner. What a miserable man I am! Who will save me from this body that brings me death? I thank God for saving me through Jesus Christ our Lord! So in my mind I am a slave to God’s law, but in my sinful self I am a slave to the sin and our minds that consider the law of God that is written on our hearts through the Holy Spirit. From the earliest age, our bodies dictate what we want, how we act, and how we respond. The urges, tendencies, and compulsions of our bodies tell us what we need to do in order for it to be satisfied. The body says, “I want! I need! React! Respond! Satisfy me!” And when we see the urges, tendencies, and compulsions of this body of sin left unchecked (unsubjected)…we witness gluttony, envy, lust, pride, selfishness, self-preservation, sexual perversion, etc…and many times these self-seeking characteristics come at the expense of other people. Each person has his or her own unique and individual struggles and tendencies that have been molded and shaped based upon physiology, upbringing, and other environmental influences…and without another power at work we all would stay in those enslaving and destructive places forever. That is why many stay enslaved by the self-centered, ego-centric, self-serving, self-indulgent body…because they (we) have not entered into a life of spiritual discipline that puts this body of sin into subjection to the power we have been given by God. It was Paul who said, “The mind of sinful man is death, but the mind controlled by the Spirit is life and peace.”
When our lives are dictated by our sinful and carnal bodies…we live enslaved and oppressed. But when our bodies are put in subjection to the ways of the Spirit there is freedom, life, and peace. Yes…it is completely counter-intuitive to the way the world thinks and operates…but it i know this to be true. Where the Spirit of the Lord is….there is freedom.
Jesus had a real physical body. He had urges. He had compulsions. He had tendencies. His physical body was not magically different than ours…somehow exempting him from the same trials and temptations that we face. But…what we see in the way, life, and practice of Jesus…is a life of submission, sacrifice, and dependence. Jesus lived a life of spiritual discipline in which his physical body (with all its misgivings)…was in complete subjection to the Holy Spirit.
In Jesus…we do not see a man that ran around with his arms wildly flailing in the air without purpose. We see a man that beat his body into submission…sacrificially giving everything to God…so that the Holy Spirit worked through him perfectly in amazing power.
This is hardly the path the contemporary Christian takes. We are cool with the easy, fluffy parts of Jesus, but we hardly enter into a strict discipleship of self-denial so that our wants, needs, desires, struggles, tendencies, and compulsions are put in complete control of the Holy Spirit. In the church, we are curiously ignorant of the necessity of spiritual discipline. Somehow we have made it good and appropriate for Jesus and the early church…but hardly important for ourselves. The tragedy is that we view any sort of spiritual discipline (e.g. fasting, solitude, silence, etc.)…as was mentioned earlier…as burdensome and enslaving rather than full of blessing and liberation.
We very easily believe that “everything is going well in my life and I really don’t have any need for spiritual discipline.” If you believe that to be true, why is it that Jesus believed it to be essential for his own life? Why is it that the disciples and early Church believed the disciplines essential for their lives? Maybe it is because they understood that the greatest life that we can possibly live RIGHT NOW is one in which it is completely given over to the Holy Spirit.
Self-denial and sacrifice is the path of those who follow Christ…and the beginning steps of experiencing life to the fullest…of living life in great abundance through the Holy Spirit. It is only in a life that sacrifices our own individual wants, needs, and desires…that denies our own desires, compulsions, and misgivings…and replaces them with the wants, needs, and desires of God.
It is in a complete sacrifice of self and dependence on the Spirit of God that we find the secret of consistently loving when any person warrants less than a loving response from us. That is the secret of experiencing joy, not just in the good times but also in the bad. That is the secret of experiencing and being peace…when crushed by the violent oppressor. That is the secret of being patient…when situations and people are not meeting your expectations. That is the secret of kindness flowing through our lives…even when a repulsive person does not deserve it. That is the secret of gentleness when another really deserves a swift kick in the backside. And that is the secret of self-control…even when our bodies are crying and screaming to be satisfied.
If we have been ignorant of the sacrifice and self-denial that Christ calls us into…then we may need to examine what exactly the spiritual disciplines are and how they might help us experience an abundant life here and now…not just in the great times of life…but also in the difficult times of life.