Then he said to them all, “If anyone wants to follow after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow me.” – Luke 9:23
My wife and I both love Oswald Chambers and his devotional book, My Utmost for His Highest. One theme he repeatedly visits is that our most important need as Christians is a deep, intimate relationship with God and Jesus Christ. It’s the foundation of all spiritual growth, and the only way we can become what God desires us to be. But it requires absolute surrender of ourselves in obedience to God. Coupled with his definition of sin as rebellion against God and refusal to surrender the claim of sovereignty to ourselves, it shines a slightly different light on the above verse.
When we come to Christ in faith and obedience we voluntarily surrender any right to ourselves. We give up all claims to our rights and desires in favor of God directing our actions, our thoughts, and our life. It is by choice; it is also paradoxical to everything the world proclaims. The world tells you no one can tell you what to do or think. You, in essence, are your own god, and you control your life. Jesus tells us unless we deny our right to ourselves we can not be his. It is the one major barrier that stands in the way of being in a right relationship with God.
Even after we become Christians we struggle against the desire to be in control. It’s because we were born with it, the world reinforces it, and behind it all, Satan continually tells us the lie that we CAN be our own boss, when in fact we are nothing more than rebellious children who in reality are controlled by him. Desperately insisting on our “rights”, we impose the worst sort of tyranny on ourselves: we become slaves to our own passions. In truth there is only one thing we control in our lives: our ability to choose.
We can choose to cling to the illusions of our “rights”, thinking that it somehow gives us freedom and empowerment even while we are enslaved by them as they drag us further and further from God. Or we can choose to surrender ourselves to God through Christ and enjoy the true freedom of an intimate relationship with him and access to the power which He is willing to supply in abundant measure, to help us overcome the slavery of sin and the world.
That’s what Jesus is telling us in this verse from Luke, and I like the fact that Luke chose to include the word “daily” in his version of it. If we choose to follow Christ then each day we also must choose to surrender to his sovereignty in our life. We must deny the claim to ourselves and give ourselves completely to his claim to us as Lord. Then we must take it a step further. The cross in Jesus’ time meant only one thing: death. We put to death the claim to self, in order to follow Jesus and allow him to transform us into new creatures, controlled and guided by the Spirit of God.
Paul expressed in a slightly different way: “Therefore, brothers and sisters, in view of the mercies of God, I urge you to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God; this is your true worship. Do not be conformed to this age, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may discern what is the good, pleasing, and perfect will of God.”(Romans 12:1–2) We are to become living sacrifices: we live but our self-destructive desire to be our own god is put to death (a friend of mine once said that ‘the trouble with a living sacrifice is that it keeps trying to crawl off the altar’). It is not a one-time event but an ongoing process. It happens through a transformation of our thinking, a choice to obey God in all things, which brings our minds in harmony with His purpose and design for us.
If we think that we have salvation from our sins through Christ’s sacrifice, but are unwilling to change our way of living we are telling ourselves the worst kind of lie. We can’t claim Jesus as Lord and still claim a right to live as the world does. Jesus doesn’t allow that kind of compromise. Either he is Lord of all of us, or we have no part of him whatsoever. That’s our choice, and making no choice at all is still a choice. In reality, there is only one good choice and that’s to obey Jesus and surrender yourself to him. Whatever you think you might have to give up will pale in comparison with what you receive in return.