Take Up Your Cross
This series began by referencing Piper's Six Keys to Detecting the Prosperity Gospel (https://www.desiringgod.org/interviews/six-keys-to-detecting-the-prosperity-gospel),and there was much to say about the first one: No robust doctrine of suffering. This doctrine is crucial to spiritually navigating times of suffering without capsizing.
The second key is: No clear call to deny yourself.
The hallmark Bible verse is, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24). Piper says,
In other words, normal progress in the Christian life comes by saying “No!” to lesser values and “Yes!” to Christ. Many of those lesser values are the kinds of pleasures that prosperity preachers don’t like to say no to. So is there a good doctrine of self-denial?
I think I encountered this challenge this year more within myself than with anything anyone said to me during our difficult trials. After weathering the initial onslaught of my daughter's cancer diagnosis (where the "Why, Lord?" question was not really one that bubbled up within us), I was surprised to detect the presence of...well...petulance...in my attitude. I started praying "whiny" prayers. They weren't "Why, Lord" woes, but kind of moans lamenting various losses our family was experiencing and would experience in light of this one big challenge. Theologically, lament has wide Scriptural support, and I expect to address that more in this blog as the year continues. But, I had moments of Job's whininess at time. Just as it seems evident to me the differences between Job's heartfelt laments and his whininess, I could recognize the difference in my own complaints. At the root, I detected that I basically felt that all of this was unfair.
Why on earth would this thought even occur to me?
I believe one answer is that I had imbibed a splash of prosperity gospel untruths--that the abundant life means that we will not encounter severe difficulty...just minor ones. I neglected to understand the critical role that suffering plays in one's sanctification, and I certainly skirted the need for self-denial in the process.
It's a little surprising exactly, when you understand a couple of things about me. First, to be frank, one doesn't complete a PhD and start a family and career all before age 30 without a certain level of self-denial and perseverance. That decade of my life in particular, and to some extent, each one thereafter, involved self-denial regarding lots of things--time to myself, time with friends, disposable income, low stress. I took this on willingly to attain a goal. I'm an early riser and a hard worker. I'm bright, but sometimes my most notable quality in the workplace is a whole lot of elbow grease. Mine is an immigrant family, with an educated-but-rooted-in-blue-collar-sensibility work ethic.
And yet, in my humanness, I never approached this level of self-denial in my spiritual walk, no matter how long my "quiet time" grew to each morning. Quiet time that doesn't translate into a wholesale orientation toward self-denial (while avoiding unnecessary martyrdom, which I had learned early on as a pastor's kid is also a trap for the self-righteous) is simply not going to cut it when life gets scary.
So, what can I and others learn about self-denial?
This Gospel Coalition article (https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/deny-yourself-cross/) , which reflects on the Matthew 16 passage above, discusses how "deny" could also be translated as "disown" or "renounce." Author Christy Gambrell writes,
Self-denial, then, is intentional disowning of the self, or stepping away from relationship with the self as primary. Jesus is not making a statement about whether the self is bad, but about who we are most closely associated with. Who is our primary allegiance to—him, or ourselves?
This is not a "periodic practice," Gambrell says.
We aren’t occasionally called to pick up a certain cross; we are called to an entire way of life. We often speak of whether we are willing to “count the cost” of discipleship. But the real issue is not the costliness of following Jesus—it’s our willingness to follow him regardless of the cost.
I've prayed at times to the Lord, with arms open in surrender, saying, "I'm all in." But, each time, I learn that there was something else that I had held back. I had to pray it again this year, and then right after I did--let me be perfectly frank--all hell broke loose. I had to weather through and then pray it again...and mean it much more emphatically this time.
When I teach psychology or research methods in the classroom, I like to break difficult concepts down to one or two central points. Right now, if I were to summarize the secrets of the Christian life--that is, what it really means to be a Christian in the day-to-day--I'd say:
Jesus tells gives us this so very clearly in his amazing teaching and prayer in John 15-17. Vine and the branches. The World will hate you. The Holy Spirit will help you. "In this world you will have trouble." The goal is glorification. We are to remain in the world, but need His protection. Unity in the Spirit.
This is His final great teaching on earth before Gethsemane. It's kinda important.
It's a message we desperately need to hear right now, because we have been and are continuing to be indoctrinated by our culture to not engage in self-denial. Rather, we're taught to do quite the opposite. Mark L. Taylor says, “To embrace and love the executed God is to be in resistance to empire," and we need reminders right now that our goal isn't to become part of a worldly empire...it's always been to resist it. Star Wars metaphors for the win! The church gets itself into great difficulty when it fails to understand this. Catholics and Protestants alike look back at the Medieval church with its corrupt alignment of church and state and rejoice that the Reformation and Counter Reformation did away with how unrecognizable the church had become since the first century A.D.
However, it's been a long time since these reformations. Many us are saying (hopefully prophetically---i.e. speaking out in truth) that we are there again. If you haven't read Dr. Tim Keller's second part of his four-part series: The Decline and Renewal of the American Church, now is the time! Here it is: https://quarterly.gospelinlife.com/the-decline-of-evangelicalism/
Other voices are clamoring for our attention. As quoted in this article (https://relevantmagazine.com/current/nation/biblical-scholar-donald-trump-jr-tells-young-conservatives-that-following-the-bible-has-gotten-us-nothing/), this past December, Donald Trump, Jr, addressed a conservative crowd with these words,
We’ve turned the other cheek and I understand sort of the biblical reference — I understand the mentality — but it’s gotten us nothing. OK? It’s gotten us nothing while we’ve ceded ground in every major institution.
At least it's honest. If the most important thing to us is to take more "ground" in the culture wars, we are clearly missing the message of taking up our cross. We are also missing Christ's teaching in John 15-17 where he tells us how we are to engage the culture. We often just don't want to listen and overly complicate what's a fairly simple message.
Speaking of simple, over the centuries of church history, some pretty simple people have gotten the Christian walk astoundingly right. I've been spending a lot of time lately with Brother Lawrence's The Practice of the Presence of God (it's a short read, but took me awhile, as I tried to digest and live out what he was saying. Still not there yet, but I'm practicing!). Before becoming a lay brother in a religious community, he was a simple peasant. As a lay brother, he mainly helped out in the kitchen. Yet, his book is full of letters where he boldly wrote to leaders of monastic communities teaching them the way to practice the presence of Christ...rather than merely go through the motions of religious observance. Yikes! He's pretty bold, too, in what he tells them!
As Paul says in I Corinthians 1:26,
Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth.
We need to remember this. Sometimes the most prophetically true and Biblical voices are at the margins. Actually, many say that often it is only at the margins where truth and change come about. Those in power all too often become so engrossed with holding on to what they have that they relinquish the call to be always growing, changing, sanctifying, repenting, reforming.
I've asked it before in this space, and I'll ask it again. Who are we not listening to, when we open our ears to Donald Trump, Jr., or Jerry Falwell, Jr.? And who is at the margins, like a modern-day Isaiah or Huldah, patiently reminding us of the truth, perhaps not from a glistening, ginormous ministry center?
Every day, these words of Christ have been coming to mind: "My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me" (John 10:27). Would we know His voice, even if it contradicts what we've been taught and indoctrinated against? Whose voice are we following? Are we sure it is Christ's?
My prayer for myself everyday is that, dumb sheep that I sometimes am, often whiny and bleating along the way, may I through God's grace follow His voice, even in the dark places.