We follow Jesus by going where He goes. But few people ever ask Him, “Where are you going?” We assume He’s headed to financial abundance, good times, and of course at the very end of the trip, heaven. The sign-up list bulges with names for that kind of journey.
That’s why it’s shocking when Jesus cradles your head in His hands and says straight into your face, “I must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised” (Matt. 16:21).
Talk about putting a damper on the whole Follow-Jesus thing.
His next statement equally unsettles us: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Matt. 16:24).
These aren’t words I necessarily want to wear on a tee-shirt. Yet, if we follow him, at both large and small crisis points we’ll be required to deny—say “No”—to ourselves.
Self-denial leads to taking up your cross. The link between those two makes sense. Some experiences of self-denial are going to be excruciating. I’m talking about tears, the feeling of throwing your heart under a bus.
Our first reaction is to refuse with expletives, while fighting to save, to hold onto our lives. Jesus adds, “Whoever would save his life will lose it” (Matt. 16:25). Even if you persist in clutching what He was requiring you to lose, you’ll lose it anyway—Perhaps not only the thing itself, but your interest in it, the fulfillment, or the enjoyment of it.
Stories abound of people who have held onto things at great personal cost, and compromised their integrity and even their identity in order to do so. Then having “saved” it, they quickly “lost” it.
One athlete revealed in an interview how he had made his sport the purpose of his life. The day he established himself in the top echelon of it, the thrill of his victory suddenly reset to zero. Regardless of the accolades that followed, he couldn’t shake the sense of depression and waste. This always happens when we try to save something. We are after all, lousy Saviors.
Then Jesus goes on to issue one of the most stunning promises ever. “Whoever loses His life for my sake will find it” (Matt. 16:25). Nothing ever lost for the sake of Christ is truly lost. In some way, shape, or form it always ends up being found. That’s because when we lose something for His sake, we’re basically “losing” it into His hands. Jesus is after all, an excellent Savior.
Time out. You probably know somebody who broke all the rules and got exactly what they wanted. They don’t seem to have lost a thing. They “saved” it all. Jesus doesn’t deny such a thing is possible. People make terrible decisions and move up. They do destructive, selfish things and feel happy with the outcome. Every day this happens.
But then He poses a hypothetical. What if they got everything they wanted—in fact, the whole world!—and then forfeited their soul? (Matt. 16:26). Yes, they could say they got an exciting gulp of life’s champagne. But they threw away the fountain of fellowship with Christ. Worse, when they realize their mistake one day, what will they possibly give to get back what they lost?
The book of Hebrews warns us that Esau couldn’t get back what he lost even when he “sought it with tears” (Heb. 12:17). He had been hungry one day and had swapped his inheritance for one bowl of porridge. No doubt it was the best bowl of porridge he ever had, with that special spiced gravy all served up in his man-bowl.
It was so tasty for that moment.
Don’t live for the moment. Jesus said, “The Son of Man is going to come with His angels in the glory of His Father and then He will repay each person according to what he has done” (Matt. 16:27). This is the grand moment. For some, sadly, it will be about forfeiture. For others who have lost for his sake but haven’t yet found, that will be a time of celebration.
Never envy those who seem to be getting all their rewards now.
During my first week of grad school, I took a look at the syllabus and wondered how I could still have room for a life. As stress levels went through the roof, one of my classmates (who was not yet thirty years old) developed shingles. The rest of us stole time from our families or resigned ourselves to living in a quasi-exhausted state.
But not everybody. Some folks casually came and went. When paper or quiz deadlines were announced, they never flinched. In fact, they never tested or turned in homework of any kind. They were called auditors. They paid a cheaper price to attend class but with no commitment to assignments. Their nights and free time belonged to them.
I couldn’t decide whether I hated them or wanted to be them. They absorbed the same material as I, but without the emotional trauma that comes from the work-family-study crunch.
The only substantial difference was that they received no credit for attending those classes, while I did. Still, now and then the question would cross my mind, Why am I doing this to myself?
Eventually, my moment came. I graduated. I walked in a public ceremony, received honors from my college, and a master’s sash around my neck. I got a diploma and letters after my name. The commitment that seemed so unreasonable, so crazy at times, went somewhere.
Yours will, too.
Photo Credit: Sean O Domhnaill