There’s a destructive cycle often lived out in Western, wealthy Christianity—and in my own heart. Here’s the cycle:
We Christians believe we have a small calling, so we call on a small god, and we grow a small faith. Our small faith fuels our small calling, which in turn perpetuates our belief that our god is small and asks us to do small things.
I’m attracted to this cycle as much as anyone. Messages to pursue safety and comfort engulf me. The dominant goals in my community are health, good education for our kids, a strong retirement account, and plenty of sports on the weekends. We’re all pursuing these goals, even in our churches. We’re cheering for one another as we chase our small dreams and claim it’s what our small god would want.
The calling is small because we can do it in our own power. We’re neck deep in self-help theology, and we applaud one another when we look within ourselves, pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, and do whatever it takes to self-actualize. If the God of the Bible doesn’t fit our small calling, we rewrite or misinterpret what he says.
Many churches in America have exchanged God’s true calling, God’s true character, and the true faith for a manageable, small cycle. But Jesus destroys the small cycle when he calls us to follow him and die.
“If anyone would come after me,” Jesus said, “let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it” (Mark 8:34–35). This call to deny ourselves, take up our crosses, and follow Jesus is not small and manageable.
Scripture calls us to live out a big, risk-taking, self-denying cycle. To answer this call we need a huge God capable of doing huge things. We need a faith that’s robust and doesn’t reject hard things but acknowledges that the hard things are, in fact, what God has designed for our good and his glory. This cycle—the opposite of the small cycle—acknowledges our calling is big, our God is big, and he will give us a big faith to carry out our big calling.
Your Unique Calling
The calling Jesus places on his followers—to deny ourselves and lose our lives—will present itself in many unique ways. Our God is creative, and we are his workmanship (Eph. 2:10). Our callings will be as diverse as we are, but they will all demand self-denial. We may be called to cope well with what God ordains in our ordinary lives: sickness, conflict, or even abundance. We may be called to the mission field, to inner-city work, or to adoption.
But whether we’re called to the seemingly routine tasks of normal life or extraordinary adventures in far-off places, we’re all called to deny ourselves. And we’ll be unwilling to do that if we worship a small god who gives us a small faith. We must fix our eyes on the true God who’s “able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think” (Eph. 3:20) because “the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in [us]” (Rom. 8:11). The God who created the heavens and the earth, the One who gave up his Son for us, the One who raised him from the dead calls us to big things, in his big name, requiring big faith.
The small-cycle life prevents us from laying down our lives in Jesus’s name. Our will power and our desires cause us to prioritize ourselves. We believe false messages: God couldn’t possibly want me to stay in this marriage, God wants me to be happy, God made me this way, God wants my kids to be safe, God doesn’t want me to be foolish and live there. As a friend recently told me, “My willpower tells me to get out of this difficult situation. My abilities tell me to run away from this hard life.”
But when we surrender ourselves to the big cycle—when we acknowledge who God is and what he asks of us—he empowers us. We experience the reality of 2 Peter 1:3: “His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence.”
Whether your calling is to cross the street and love your neighbor or to cross an ocean and bring Christ to a dark nation, you must know his character in order to grow a faith that reflects him and respond to the tasks he’s given you. Daily—no, hourly—we must reject the small cycle. By renewing our minds, remembering who God is, and growing in faith, we are empowered to answer Jesus’s freeing call to deny ourselves.
Editors’ note: A version of this article appeared at The Oshman Odyssey.