No matter how well-intentioned and devoted were my parents and teachers, my education and experiences were only raw materials. Something was lacking. When I tried to forge those raw materials into a life as a husband, father, attorney, church and community leader, I came to know that lack in my heart although I could not name it. I was on the rise in those days, but I was lost.
The gleam of trophies and awards blinds one to spiritual need. Why do I need a Savior when I am doing well on my own? Why should I ask for mercy? Only losers need mercy. Only losers beg.
Unfortunately, the benchmarks of my faith community and the world coincided in the fatal delusion that material success achieved while professing moral values guaranteed God’s approval. The discontent in my heart told me otherwise. The approval and admiration of others for the achievements of “the young Christian lawyer” rang hollow in my unfulfilled soul and could not satisfy the hungry loneliness of my heart.
I now recognize that the discontent in my heart was the Holy Spirit telling me that “what is prized by human beings is an abomination in the sight of God” (Luke 16:15). Such discontent is the holy call of God to leave our neatly fenced world of comfort, possession and control to embark on the journey into the mysteries of faith like Abraham who “set out, not knowing where he was going” (Heb 11:8).
On this side of the fence is everyone and everything that we hold near and dear. There is only Jesus Christ and a vast unknown on the other side. Although Jesus knows we are hungry, he invites us on a walk, not to sit down with him at a lavish banquet. This frankly is so disappointing and disillusioning that most people who come to look over the fence turn back figuring that whatever they have stored in their spiritual cupboards is better than foraging along the road with him.
We would employ a new marketing plan and make a more attractive offer at this point, but Jesus is not us. He simply states his invitation: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23, ESV).
Jesus is talking to you and to me, not to the generic crowds. The Greek language does not have Him speaking in the plural of “any” and “their,” but in the singular “anyone,” “him,” “himself,” and “his.” The use of the masculine gender is not exclusive, but the singular tense shows that his challenge is intense and personal.
He is not calling us to a weekend retreat, a Bible conference, a financial stewardship seminar, or a short-term mission trip. Neither is he offering us a job with paid leave and a retirement plan. He posts his schedule as “daily,” meaning 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and 52 weeks a year for life. A “hit or miss,” part-time hobby featuring a two-hour a week excursion to a worship service and an occasional small group discussion will not suffice as an acceptable response.
Jesus challenges us to leave behind our “What’s in it for me?” thinking. More than that, he asks us to set aside our desires and ambitions along with everyone and everything we claim we can’t live without. Instead, he tells us to pick up and carry at all times whatever most closely identifies us with him and his suffering and death.
Note that suffering and death have no intrinsic moral or spiritual value except as messengers of our need for Someone who can overcome the squalid, fatal powers of this world. Jesus’ call is to trust the Father who so loves us that he gives eternal life to whoever believes in his Son (John 3:16). Suffering and death only make sense if they lead us to new life in him. Identifying with Jesus’ in his suffering and death means giving way to the wild freedom of an all-consuming love that leads us into the fire, not away from it.
There is no holding back or turning back in following him. Taking the cross and clinging to it in our daily lives will so fill our hands, minds and hearts that we will have no strength and ability with which to grasp the material handholds of this world. Nor will the world be able to grasp us because we are crucified to it. Attaching ourselves to Jesus Christ in ruthless trust means of necessity that we will detach from the world.
Many spiritual teachers advise emptying ourselves of thoughts and desires so that God may fill us. They offer various formulas and techniques to accomplish and verify success in self-denial, but I find that such programs keep the focus on me and my comparative progress in the form of “navel gazing.”
I have learned what the Apostle Paul discovered– even if I were to master spiritual practices, gain spiritual insights and understanding, practice a zealous faith, and deny my physical desires and needs, it would mean nothing if I didn’t know in my heart and head that the Father and Son loved me and I didn’t live out my trust in that love (1 Cor 13:1-8; see also 1 John 4:19-5:2).
Jesus said that his love is deep, intimate, and passionate. He seeks to possess you personally and completely. He accepts no half-way measures of association and activity (Matt 7:21-23) He wants to consummate his relationship with you and with me, not merely count us in his circle of friends and acquaintances.
Merely going through the motions means loveless human relationships of convenience and appearance. Why are we willing to settle for distant, pro forma relationships with Jesus who is so madly in love with us that he would rather die than live without us? Who loves you like that for real?
You have settled if your life and heart are burdened by religious obligation and the need for the approval of others in fulfilling those obligations. You have settled if the need for material comfort and security rule your life. You have settled if you feel that you cannot live without someone else who isn’t Jesus Christ. You have settled if you have concluded that you have everything you need right here and now and there isn’t anything more that you want beyond the fence. You are making dough, but you aren’t baking cookies.
The only reason for denying yourself, taking up your cross and following Jesus is love. He only offers you himself, his passionate, eternal love and nothing else.
Be warned that your committed relationship with Jesus will disturb others who are close to you. They will urge you to be reasonable and take and do all things in moderation. They will tell you that following your heart will make for a poor match and you can’t live on love. They will lie to you that obedience is drudging compliance, not a passionate response of the beloved to the Lover’s voice and touch. They will appeal to your talents and tell you that they can’t possibly get on without you.
Remember that his call is as personal to them as it is to you. Those who make it all about them or all about you, are not making it all about Jesus and that’s what his call demands of us.
If your heart is stirred, and still discontented by the gap between how you are living now and how it ought to be in the yearnings of your heart, be glad that Jesus is still calling you. It is not too late. He wants you with him. There are more chapters to be written in your story. Your unfinished dough is yet to be the cookies you’ll share. The great affair of eternity awaits your “Yes.”
“O taste and see that the Lord is good. Happy are those who take refuge in him” (Ps 34:8).
Under the mercy of Christ,
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