Then Jesus told his disciples, "If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me." Matthew 16:24
I nod my head because I believe that is true. I can say, "amen" in gentle agreement because I have preached this and sometimes lived it and know it is a truth that is ultimately good, though not easy. This is the Gospel. This hard thing is a grace in our lives because it insists that we give up those lies about what satisfies and, instead, follow the only One that truly does. Out of love, Jesus asks us to deny ourselves in order to follow him, because ourselves want things that we don't need and things that hold nothing for us except fleeting pleasure and empty promises. Nothing that lasts. They are things that I use to replace God with something far less than who he is and what he offers. And sometimes, as a follower of Jesus for many years, I forget that this is an ongoing battle. I forget that it is a continuous bending low to pick up a cross my flesh doesn't want, a retrieving of that cross that I laid down so that I could have something else that was easier for a while.
How long has it been, I asked myself recently, since I was truly convicted by my sin nature? Oh, not a specific infraction, not a fleeting "oh...I need to do that differently next time. Rely on God more. Use kinder words. Think more holy thoughts, etc." kind of conviction. But, how long since I have been truly convicted by a truth I live that is contrary to the Gospel, by a lifestyle choice that doesn't match with the "amen" I utter when I hear sermons on denying myself? Truths like: "I need this stuff more than I need God, delicious food is better than Christ, my feelings are truer than scripture." It's not that I would ever say any of these out loud with any passion or certainty, but my thoughts or my actions seem to confirm their reality. Do I desire something more than Him. Do I find greater pleasure in the created things more than in the Creator? Do I know the truth but just find it irrelevant or too hard in my situation?
This morning, as I read in my Lent devotional about the mobs shouting, "Crucify Him," I realized that the crowds calling for Jesus' death were saying out loud the truth that I sometimes live. Crucify him. He asks too much of me and I don't want to deal with it. Get rid of him. Holy Spirit, go away. I don't want to hear what you have to say this time. And I can see that there are ways in which I am no different than the screaming mob. I think when I am unable to understand the violent crowds calling for Jesus' death, I am in danger of forgetting my own flesh; in danger of forgetting that I, too, deny Him, instead of myself. Maybe I'd rather think of myself more like one of his disciples in the story. Oh...well...I guess that works, too. After all, it wasn't just the mobs denying him, being swept up in a bigger plan. His disciples deserted him, too. Fled for their lives. Most notably, Peter, who literally ran to save his own flesh.
Following Jesus doesn't mean that we will never do it again...that we will never struggle against our flesh and find ourselves losing the battle. But choosing Jesus means that our experience gets to be like Peter's. That the merciful rooster crows, that conviction that is both painful and good, and we are reminded of Jesus' words about our weakness. That we see our flesh for what it is and weep bitterly. In those moments, we are reminded that, to follow him, we have to stoop down and pick up our cross again. And like Peter as he ran to the tomb on resurrection day, we are surer than ever that denying ourselves holds far more hope and joy than we could imagine. And sure that Jesus is what we need. That He is ALL we need.
This truth settles in around me and it feels good, but it feels hard, also. Jesus knows. He bent down low and picked up the cross first. And He's right there with me, shouldering most of the weight of it, anyway. So I journal and pray and then whisper, "amen," and I know I will need to remember it all again soon. Probably even again today.