My article for the February Crossways newsletter for St Paul’s Church Spennymoor and Whitworth Church.
Then Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it’ (Matthew 16:24-25, NIV).
What would be today’s equivalent of the Ten Commandments? One of them might be this: You shall be true to yourself.
It’s the basic storyline of many of our favourite films. The lead character is trapped, perhaps by something tangible, or perhaps by the expectations of those around them. But eventually this person plucks up the courage to break free from those constraints, and they find true freedom in expressing who they really are. Familiar, isn’t it?
But, in many ways, the life that Jesus calls us to is the exact opposite. Instead of self-fulfilment, we are called to self-denial. Instead of being true to ourselves, we are called to lose ourselves. What does this mean?
Jesus came into this world to rescue us from sin. And the way he did that was by dying in our place on the cross.
Jesus calls us to follow him in the way of the cross. That means leaving behind our sin. But it also means, for the sake of the kingdom of God, being willing to lay down things that are not sinful, such as our desire for fulfilment, or comfort, or success, or recognition. It means giving our lives for the sake of others, just as Christ gave his life for us. Doing this will be costly, and it might involve suffering for the sake of the gospel.
This is utterly incomprehensible to those who haven’t understood the cross. But, paradoxically, it is only as we deny ourselves that we discover our true selves. It is only as we let go of our attachment to this life that we find our true home in God, as we await the glories of the new creation.
Self-denial doesn’t mean our lives will be full of misery – far from it! We have the promises of God’s word to encourage us, the presence of God’s Spirit within us, and each other’s support to strengthen us on the way.
The season of Lent begins on Ash Wednesday, 22nd February. Traditionally, Lent is a time for self-denial and for focusing on the cross as we approach Good Friday. What will that mean for you this year? Giving up chocolate? Perhaps! But I hope it will mean much more than that.
May God give each of us the faith and the courage to take up our cross and follow his Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, whatever the cost, knowing that beyond the cross lies a glorious resurrection.