If it weren’t for the addition of a single word in Luke’s account of Jesus telling his disciples to pick up their cross and follow him, it’s possible we would think our Lord referred to a one-time, no-turning-back decision to deny oneself and die, whether it be (literally) a martyr’s death, or (figuratively) the moment we’re saved as we die to our old nature and follow Christ.
For some, this death to self does become evident in literal cross-bearing. Most of the disciples and many believers throughout history have fulfilled this command in this way.
But that word daily in Luke 9:23 removes the call to costly discipleship from the realm of choices grand and spectacular, making sure we realize self-denial and cross-bearing impinge on our day-to-day choices.
“If anyone wants to follow after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow me,” Jesus says.
The vision of taking up a cross every day means the way of Jesus is one of suffering on the path the glory. The vision of self-denial is one of transformation and joy that can only be had by allowing God to strip us of everything sinful as he frees us to become the person he’s always intended.
A Prayer to Die
A few months ago, I began asking the Lord every morning to give me chances that day to die to myself, and for the Spirit to help me recognize those opportunities. He has never failed to answer this prayer. Not once. Every time I’ve asked him to show me opportunities to die to myself, he’s come through. Annoyingly so. On occasion, I’ve thought it might be best to stop praying this prayer, as I grew tired of the spiritual discomfort.
What has been most illuminating about praying this way is how mundane some of the daily choices are. The opportunities to take up one’s cross seem almost pitifully small. Surely there are bigger and more impressive examples of cross-bearing and self-denial than the mere willingness to be inconvenienced, or the decision to set aside something I want to do for the sake of what someone else requires in the moment, or the choice to forgo something I desire and think I deserve so as to serve someone else.
The chances to deny oneself and pick up one’s cross every day seem so tiny, which must be one reason I’ve so often overlooked them. In times past, I would make a series of small selfish decisions every day, and because I saw them as small, I minimized their selfish roots. I would react to interruption and inconvenience with ambivalence at best or frustration and resentment at worst, or I would demand my way so as to fulfill “small” wants and “insignificant” desires, assuming in these cases that some grandiose gesture of self-denial wouldn’t matter because the selfishness in my “needs” was so minimal (if I even recognized the selfishness).
And yet it’s the small decisions of daily life that make us what we are. The Spirit uses those seemingly insignificant daily decisions to transform us more into the image of Christ. Likewise, it’s the small decisions, the daily acts of selfishness that, combined over a lifetime, turn us into little beasts.
A house can fall because of an earthquake, but it can also collapse after years of being eaten away by termites, the little creatures you think are tiny and insignificant until the full extent of their power affects the structure.
The Selfishness of Selflessness
I also experienced a strange and ironic turning of selflessness back into selfishness. I noticed how the call to self-denial can in itself be twisted into a method of self-magnification. Almost immediately, as I began recognizing the daily opportunities to deny myself and pick up my cross, I felt a twinge of pride in setting aside my own interests for the sake of others. I’m on the path to self-denial. This is what it looks like to follow Jesus.
And that little turn is one of Satan’s most ingenious schemes, to twist the call to self-denial into an occasion for self-righteousness, to deceive us into applauding how we’ve dethroned the self when instead we’re seated on the throne with a firmer grip than ever before.
The prayer to find ways to die every day can in itself turn into inordinate self-focus if not directed Godward. It is Jesus I’m following, and he is the One who must have my attention. My focus isn’t to be on myself as the follower. Neither should I look for ways to feel better about myself as the self-denier or crossbearer. It is looking to the glory to come, standing in awe of the One who has called us and who promises to sustain us, trusting in magnificent grace that saves and transforms—that must be the reason for daily death.
Death to Life
We die daily because we believe there is joy on the other side of the cross, life on the other side of this tomb. We must bury the old self every day because, like a zombie, it keeps wanting to return and claim its territory, when Christ has already dealt that old nature its mortal wound and promises one day to eradicate every selfish stain and free us for everlasting happiness.
And so, the prayer to die daily is just another way of saying, “Lord, help me to see the opportunities to follow you.” We wish to submit ourselves to the death of certain ambitions and attitudes, to kill off our sinfulness and selfishness, to mortify all wrongheaded desires and decisions, and to rise every day in the Spirit, awakened to the majesty of a Savior who promises nothing else than glory. Try it yourself. Lord, help me see the ways you’d have me die today. I guarantee he’ll answer that prayer.
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