Thursday, March 1, 2018

Self-Denial







There is a disastrously erroneous message being preached in some of the largest churches in the world. On the surface it seems very positive and encouraging and indeed many have responded to it very enthusiastically for that very reason. It is often called, “the prosperity gospel.” The basic premise is that it is God’s will—as taught by the Holy Scriptures—that all God’s people should prosper in this life. In other words those who put their faith in God and his son Jesus Christ will enjoy material abundance, financial success, personal happiness, health, vitality, and everything else associated with worldly prosperity. Many of its proponents enjoy lavish lifestyles including multimillion-dollar homes and personal jets.

Although it is largely a homegrown American theology, it has spread all over the world and has particularly flourished in places of extreme poverty and hardship. It’s devotees believe that faith is the key that unlocks the promises of western affluence and abundance.

What can we say in response to this? First we should acknowledge that God does indeed want us to flourish. He intends our ultimate good not harm. Knowing God’s love for us will indeed create an abiding joy in our life. What it does not mean, however, is that our lives will be free of hardship or trouble.
Jesus never promised anything like that. In fact he said the opposite. He said, “In this world you will have trouble.”

In this morning’s gospel Jesus speaks of his own immanent rejection and suffering. Peter is disturbed by this idea and tells him, “that be far from you Lord!” Jesus in return offers him this sharp rebuke, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

The blessings of the gospel are spiritual rather than material. If we only look to Jesus because we seek worldly comfort or gain than our minds are set not on the things of God but on human things. The Christian life is not about glorifying ourselves but glorifying God.

If we want to become Jesus’ followers, if we want to live as he lived, and to do the things that he did, he tells us we must take up our cross. This is what it means to be disciples of Christ rather than just consumers of a blessing we suppose him to offer. But what does taking up our cross mean?

For Jesus’ original hearers this expression had a very clear and startling message. The cross was a method of execution used by the Roman Empire against political dissidents. It was a humiliating, shameful, terrifying, and excruciating way to die. This is what it meant to them. Remember that at the time Jesus spoke these words he had not yet suffered on the cross. His disciples did not in any way connect the cross with Jesus or his victory over sin. Jesus was saying, if you want to follow me it means willingly accepting the rage, contempt, and aggression of the world. It means being willing to be stripped, tortured, and murdered. It means becoming an enemy to the empire and a byword to all respectable people.

Not exactly health, wealth, and prosperity! He couldn’t have made being his disciple seem less attractive. His point wasn’t of course that we some how earn our way to God’s favor through suffering, but he was warning us that following him would not always be easy.

In our own context, the prospect of painful execution for following Jesus is far less immediate. Taking up our cross has taken on a much broader meaning. It means self-denial something which is at the heart of this season of Lent. Now no one should think that giving up chocolate is even remotely similar to crucifixion, but for you it might be a small way in which you begin to put Jesus’ words into practice.
How so? It contradicts the attitude that says my feelings, my desires, my comfort, and personal happiness is my main goal in life. Self-denial means pushing the self off of the throne and inviting God to take its place.

Self  denial means putting others above my self. It means being willing to deny myself for a purpose beyond my self. It means sacrificing for a greater cause. It means recognizing that my life is not my own to do with whatever I want, but that I belong to God, created for his purpose, and bought with a price.

Self denial might mean putting aside my feelings to do something kind for someone I dislike. Self-denial might mean giving to the church or to the poor instead of buying myself a new pair of shoes. Self-denial might mean getting up early for church when I would rather sleep in. Self-denial might mean skipping lunch and spending that time in prayer instead.
  
We all know that sometimes in life we need to practice sacrifice, discipline, and self-denial if we want to be happy. It might seem in the short term that sitting at home all day watching Netflix and eating junk food will make me happier than going to work, but in the long term the effect that it has on my health and finances will not make me happy at all!

Jesus says that our efforts at securing our own well-being are misguided. If we try to save our own life, if we cling so tightly to this world, we will never find that happiness we seek. Ultimate fulfillment will slip through our fingers and the life we tried so hard to save will lie in ruins. If instead we lay down our lives, if we give ourselves for things that are greater than us, if we live for God above self, than, surprisingly, we will find true fulfillment and joy.

God does indeed want us to prosper, but the prosperity he wants to give us is so much more than the kind that we think we want. It is worth more than all the wealth, power, and accolades of the world.

This Lent I invite you to find abundance through self-denial, glory through the cross, and your life hidden with Christ in God.