24 Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. 25 For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. 26 For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul?
The first step is difficult already. The center of our being that we have lived in for some years must be challenged. A massive disequilibrium is about to take place. The root of faith must have existed first before the realization of it to every corner of our life. And the first one to be attacked is the central command, the self. If we are in a war, all fights in the battlefield will end better and faster if the top commander is subdued. As long as the top commander of our enemy remains, the battlefield will continue to be filled with blood. Jesus’ strategy is to aim right away at the center of our being. The will must be subdued. The will of man is controlling the man. Friedrich Nietzsche knew this and he spoke in quite detail about the will of man. He identified that the most important will in man is the will to power. This will to power is what drives people to do things, good or bad, just or unjust, honest or deceptive, and so on. While I don’t agree with Nietzsche’s identification that the will to power is the dominant will, his treatment of the will of man is spot on. The will is actually at the center command in every man. James Smith in his “Desiring the Kingdom” also pointed out to this truth. The will or the desire of man guides the person to do things. And even to be things. Smith spoke about Christians who are supposed to desire the Kingdom of God. But the kingdom of the world is so dominant that even Christians are lured to desire the kingdom of the world. In order to reorganize a person, the will must be subdued. The will must be put in its proper place. Such is what Jesus was teaching. The first step is extremely difficult to do because it takes the war right at our own personal center command. He said: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself.”
Denying self is not something we can do easily. We have learned since birth to follow what desire we have. Our desire dictates our choice, move, action, thought, and so on. A baby is naturally moved by his desire to fill his stomach with food. If he doesn’t get it immediately, he cries aloud. His cry is a protest. When mom’s milk is given to him, he stops crying and starts sucking. As he grows older he desires more things. He desires to play. He moves to find an interesting toy to amuse him. If he can’t find it, he cries aloud. His cry is a protest. He must find it. His desire drives him. Until an interesting toy is found he would not stop crying. When an interesting toy is found, he stops crying and starts playing with it. As he grows older, his desire grows with him. He becomes more complex. He may desire a bike. His desire got him nagging his mom and dad every minute. He won’t stop nagging until his desire is met. He will be sleepless at night as long as his desire is not fulfilled. When mom and dad finally buy him a bike, he stops nagging and starts biking. Desire or will is very strong. It commands the mind to think ways to get what he desires. It commands the emotion to express his desire dramatically. There are layers of desire that he can build in order to conceal his real desire. Detecting the real desire is difficult to do. Usually only the self knows what his real desire is. Other people might be deceived into thinking of his other desire as the motivation of him doing something. This is where things got complicated.
For example, someone works so hard, day and night, 24/7, taking no vacation. People think that he is doing that for survival purposes. That his desire is to take care of his family. That his desire is to put food on the table. That his desire is to pay for his kids’ tuition. Those might be right. But those might not necessarily be the real desire that drives him to work relentlessly like that. He might appear as someone very responsible. He might appear as someone very caring to his family. But who would have thought that his real desire is actually to escape from his family. That his real desire is to have the least amount of time spent with his family and much more time spent in his work. This situation is not uncommon. Many people do not find that he desires to be with his family. There are many possibilities as to why. The main point here is that the self alone knows what his heart desires. It is not shared with others. It can very well be concealed deep within.
Human mind is quite complex. In its complexity our mind can often be deceived into believing falsehood as truth. When we speak the falsehood into our mind enough time we would believe the falsehood. Certainly we would still feel the strange feeling that what we believe is not absolutely right, but yet the mind has no more resistance to it, unlike the first time falsehood knocked on the door of our mind. The alarm is no longer blaring. It has been soothed by the falsehood’s lullaby. Then our mind got quite confused. A certain politician desires to get to the top because power is very attractive to him. So he maneuvers here and there, lobbies different parties, in order to gain the support he needs. And now is time to gain the support of the masses. But the crowds won’t conspire with him. He has to front a likeable image. He has to show the “good side” of him. So he begins listing all the good things the people desire from a politician. After studying the list, he begins looking at possible promises to make. So he makes promises to the crowds. At one time he promises to fight for justice with his life. This promise gains him a massive support from the people who have suffered injustice. For them he appears as a hero – a knight in the shining armor. At another time he promises to raise the quality of life through equal healthcare for all. Again a massive support is received through his promise. Especially he got it from those who now have no healthcare. He appears as the giver of hope – someone that people can rely on. In public he appears to be a genuine hero with pure heart and beautiful personality because of the image he builds. An image of the person who fights for the oppressed. A person who fights for the underprivileged. A hero image who would lay his life for the sake of others. Everywhere he goes, that’s the image he is bringing. Soon he begins believing that he is a hero. Soon he begins believing that he is that good. But deep down he knows that the only reason he goes into politics is to get to the top, to achieve that massive power. At one time or another he would be confused at himself. When interviewed by a journalist about his motivation to move on with his candidacy as president, he always halts for a moment, for in himself there is a conflict. If he is going completely honest, he would say for the sake of power. But it would ruin his reputation and his deepest desire to be on the top would be in jeopardy. So he can’t say that. He can’t be honest. He must put on his mask, the mask of the hero that he campaigned himself for quite some time. But he knows that that mask is not him. He knows that he is no hero. He knows deep down that he is an egotistic self-centered man. What to do? When he opens his mouth to answer the journalist’s question, he knows that the mask is the answer. This layer – the mask – is hard to penetrate. There is a critical interest that he needs to protect. But the real self is what Christ is aiming. That real self is what must be denied. If you think it is easy, you need to think again.
Someone might be in the process of searching what his true self is. There are so many voices and pressures from people with great influence that stir his interpretation of his self. This is quite difficult to figure out. The self can be easily confused. The younger the person is the more difficult it is. The true self is usually hidden in all the dreams, the projected self-image, the imagination of the idolized person, the desire to become someone else, or the creation of the ideal self in the mind of the person. The pressure of the surrounding for the person to be molded by the opinion of the influential people forces him to be dishonest. Without honesty, the true self can’t surface. It will remain hidden, undetected. But the self actually knows there is something wrong. But the gate to discover the true self is through honesty. In this world of lies and deception, the self is deceived to the point of hiding the true self from the world and from himself. Now, if denying self is applied but to the false self, then this step is not completed. Because the false self is like a mask. It can be deposed. The step of denying self can be manipulated as a tool to create yet another mask. But the eyes of God penetrate even the deepest of the soul. The piercing gaze of God will keep pounding the heart of the person.
Take a look at Peter. When Jesus revealed all the disciples would be scattered when Jesus was taken, Peter declared that he would not leave Jesus (Matthew 26:30-31).
31 Then Jesus said to them, “You will all fall away because of me this night. For it is written, ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.’ 32 But after I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee.” 33 Peter answered him, “Though they all fall away because of you, I will never fall away.”
There Peter projected his false self. He projected his creation of his ideal self. He said all the right thing. For a Teacher, Peter’s declaration should encourage Jesus. Normally the teacher would appreciate what his student bravely speaks in wholeheartedly following the teacher. If the true self is projected, then yes the teacher should be appreciative. But Peter’s declaration hid his true self actually. This is most disturbing. Peter was not a recent convert. He had been following Jesus for quite some time now. He had been doing amazing ministries, healing the sick, casting out demons, etc. (cf. Matthew 10:1-15). He had received mystery upon mystery of the Kingdom of God from the Son of God Himself. Yet at the crucial time he could not be honest to himself and to Jesus. The pressure to appear good forced him to choose to project his false self. Jesus knew Peter’s true self. So Jesus revealed the hidden true self of Peter in Matthew 26:34:
34 Jesus said to him, “Truly, I tell you, this very night, before the rooster crows, you will deny me three times.”
But peter still wanted to appear good. Even though his Master had corrected him, Peter insisted that his false self was his true self. Matthew 26:35 recorded Peter’s insistence on his false self:
35 Peter said to him, “Even if I must die with you, I will not deny you!” And all the disciples said the same.
Apparently all the other disciples too wanted to appear good. And we all do, don’t we? We all want to appear good. We all want to be praised by others. We all want to be considered worthy. And so even if we have to deceive our own self, we would do so. Besides, it is always difficult to detect the false self from the true self. Until the real trial is set right in front of us, our true self will not come out. Peter’s trial is written in Matthew 26:69-75:
69 Now Peter was sitting outside in the courtyard. And a servant girl came up to him and said, “You also were with Jesus the Galilean.” 70 But he denied it before them all, saying, “I do not know what you mean.” 71 And when he went out to the entrance, another servant girl saw him, and she said to the bystanders, “This man was with Jesus of Nazareth.” 72 And again he denied it with an oath: “I do not know the man.” 73 After a little while the bystanders came up and said to Peter, “Certainly you too are one of them, for your accent betrays you.” 74 Then he began to invoke a curse on himself and to swear, “I do not know the man.” And immediately the rooster crowed. 75 And Peter remembered the saying of Jesus, “Before the rooster crows, you will deny me three times.” And he went out and wept bitterly.
Jesus’ prediction came true. Peter’s projection of his self was proven false. The correction Jesus made stood. It was a painful experience for Peter. He knew deep down that his true self was to escape suffering, to run away from pain, even at the expense of denying his Master. The trial proved it in a painful way. Peter had to discover that his own projection of his self was plain wrong. He did not want to accept that he was actually filled with fear. He wanted to appear brave. He wanted to appear loving his Master more than his own life. But the trial proved that he actually was afraid, and that he actually loved his own life more than his Master. In the trial, instead of denying self, Peter denied Jesus. Thus he failed the first step of following Jesus.
Face to face with our true self is a dreadful encounter. It’s like we find our self naked in public and people can look at our ugliness without we are able to find any cover to conceal it. That night, Peter met his true self head on. He finally realized that that’s the true self he must deny. But he couldn’t bring himself to do just that. He couldn’t deny himself. The urge flowing in his body was to embrace himself. The drive was to save himself. He had to do it. Self-preservation kicked in so strongly. He couldn’t resist. That’s what he’d been doing all his life. Losing his own self was not in his plan. It never was. And so it never is in our plan either. We prefer that we keep our own self and at the same time following Jesus. This is what we always want. This is the true self of each and every one of us. But this is a trap. It will not happen. We can never have both. Peter was tricked into thinking that he could have both. He persisted that he would. But he couldn’t. He wouldn’t. As he was trying to save himself, Peter felt the pounding in his deepest soul, that he just lost his soul. The piercing gaze of Jesus penetrated the dark corner of his soul, and God found Peter’s true self hidden there. Luke recorded the moment Jesus looked at Peter after he denied Him three times:
“61 And the Lord turned and looked at Peter. And Peter remembered the saying of the Lord, how he had said to him, “Before the rooster crows today, you will deny me three times.” (Luke 22:61)
Peter’s bitter weep was a reflection of him losing his soul. True is what Jesus said:
25 For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. 26 For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul? (Matthew 16:25-26)
The reality of losing one’s soul is extremely bitter. Peter couldn’t face it. Adam too couldn’t face it. So he hid his nakedness. And even then he still needed to hide. So he hid behind trees. He did not only hide physically, but he also hid spiritually. When God asked him his whereabouts, Adam never answered it properly. He was hiding himself from God. He couldn’t cope with his broken soul. Nothing can be done on his part to regain his soul. Nothing he could do would redeem him his lost soul. Nothing Peter could do to redeem him his lost soul. Following Jesus is not a walk in the park. It is most difficult. Ever since Adam and Eve fell into sin, the entire human race fell with them. Nothing humanity could do to redeem their lost souls. Not collectively, not individually. And in fact, ever since humanity fell into sin, all we ever did was to deny God in order to embrace our false self.
Following Jesus means we do what Jesus does. Where He goes we too must go. What He does, we too must do. The apostle Paul was inspired by the Holy Spirit to pen the eternal truth about the Son of God denying Himself:
Christ Jesus, 6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. (Philippians 2:5-8)
Jesus’ denial of His self is different than ours. Jesus has no false self. All in Him is true. What He denies is His rights as God. If He doesn’t empty Himself of His glory, none of us would be saved. His denying His rights is to save our souls, not to save His own. His losing His life is not to save His own life. But His losing His life is to save ours. This is qualitatively different. But Jesus has provided a model. This is an undeniable model. The ultimate model. Because Jesus did not have to do this, yet He wants to do it. All because He loves us. Now, the implication is then for us who call ourselves the followers of Christ, are we following in His footsteps? Jesus doesn’t stay in heaven, staying away from trouble, and wishing that all those He loves would be saved just like that. As humans we want the easy way. We want to enjoy the worldly life to the fullest and still following Jesus. Meaning we want to follow Jesus without denying our true self. We want to indulge in sin, and at the same time following Jesus, in the confidence that we will receive heaven. If we analyze it we can quickly find that we actually are manipulating Jesus so that we may gain both the world and heaven. The two can’t co-exist. The “both-and” philosophy doesn’t work here. This is the “either-or” path. In the path that Jesus set, we may only follow Jesus by denying our self. There is no negotiation.
As sinful humans, we tend to want to negotiate with God. We want to negotiate our way out with the least trouble. Not that God wants to trouble us. But that the path necessarily collides with our sinful nature, and it is by nature troubling. It is inevitable. But our sinfulness wants to avoid it. We want to avoid the trouble as much as possible. We want an easy Christianity. We want an easy Christian life. Jesus said it is impossible. John 15:18-25 points out this truth:
18 “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. 19 If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. 20 Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. If they kept my word, they will also keep yours. 21 But all these things they will do to you on account of my name, because they do not know him who sent me. 22 If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not have been guilty of sin, but now they have no excuse for their sin. 23 Whoever hates me hates my Father also. 24 If I had not done among them the works that no one else did, they would not be guilty of sin, but now they have seen and hated both me and my Father. 25 But the word that is written in their Law must be fulfilled: ‘They hated me without a cause.’
This means that following Jesus naturally makes us hated by the world. The fact that we are living in the world doesn’t help us. We can’t avoid trouble and remain faithful to the Lord. We can only avoid trouble in this world by denying the Lord. We can only avoid trouble in this world by becoming like the world. But if we become like Jesus, the world will attack us without mercy. Peter experienced it that night. He broke down.
At one point or another in our life, we would be face to face with the reality that is very disturbing to us. Many times the disturbance forces us to choose between denying self or denying Jesus. It is not always denying verbally. Sometimes it is. Like many cases of people who are threatened at gun point to apostate for example. But many times the disturbance is not that extreme. Like the struggle with greed for example. Or struggle with adultery. Or struggle with addiction. Or struggle with pornography. Or drugs. Or power. Or fame. I will use one most common example here, which is greed. When the true self drives a person, and that true self demands money and more money, then for a Christian the challenge is whether to embrace the self who demands money and more money and at the same time denying Jesus or embracing Jesus and denying self who demands money and more money. For many people in the world, this sin of greed is considered tolerable. It is because this sin of greed yields much more than just the power to purchase. But money and more money yields with it power and control and fame and all possible indulgence humans may think of and the chance to get away with murder even. It is tolerable because it catapults one’s status to the top of the pyramid. It is tolerable because it has success written all over it. It is tolerable because our world is dominated by materialism in which most people in the world somehow desire to gain money and more money. Many people in this world are blind so that they ignore the process of getting money and more money and focus only on how rich someone is. There are many very wealthy people who are greatly honored but yet they got their wealth through some wicked tricks. In this case, they sort of “got away with murder.” Finally, it is tolerable because the desire to get money and more money is somehow the desire of the true self of most people in the world. Therefore, admiration to the very wealthy is voluntarily given regardless of how they got there.
Now, the wealthier someone is, the harder the challenge is. The Scripture records a heartbreaking event of a rich young man encountering Jesus. Matthew 19:16-21 records:
16 And behold, a man came up to him, saying, “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” 17 And he said to him, “Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. If you would enter life, keep the commandments.” 18 He said to him, “Which ones?” And Jesus said, “You shall not murder, You shall not commit adultery, You shall not steal, You shall not bear false witness, 19 Honor your father and mother, and, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 20 The young man said to him, “All these I have kept. What do I still lack?” 21 Jesus said to him, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” 22 When the young man heard this he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.
The young man wanted to attain heaven. Jesus was the Guru of the Kingdom of heaven. So the young man would not miss meeting Jesus for the world. He had to ask the Guru of eternal life. He needed to know. Confident of his goodness he proceeded to ask Jesus of things to do in order to possess eternal life. As a wealthy young man he was accustomed to possessing things. So eternal life too was considered a possession. Something one may bargain to keep. Like a business deal. So Jesus quoted the second half of the Ten Commandments for him. To Jesus’ quote of the Ten Commandments, the young man proudly boasted about his perfect achievement. He said that he had kept them. Perfect score he thought. So he added: “What do I still lack?” Deep down he knew that what he already did was not enough. He wanted to do more. He wanted to be perfect. Without perfection he knew that eternal life was but a dream. He too had been a perfectionist. His wealth was not gained by being sloppy. He had to be diligent, vigilant, professional, and perfect in order to be so wealthy as he was. So he had to ask. If Jesus told him that all was good, that he had done everything he could, he would go home fully satisfied that he had gained heaven perfectly. To his surprise Jesus gave him a simple answer to his last question. The answer was so simple that he did not see it coming. Jesus told him that if he wanted to be perfect, he had to sell everything he had and gave them to the poor, then he would be rich in heaven, then and only then he could follow Jesus into eternal life. Boom! The simple answer shook his ground. It’s a massive earthquake for him. The business deal from the King of heaven was for the rich man to exchange his earthly possession for the heavenly one. He had to let go of his wealth and he had to give them to the poor, all for gaining wealth in heaven. That’s the first step. A simple one. Much simpler than honoring father and mother. Much simpler than not murdering people. Much simpler than not committing adultery. Much simpler than not stealing. Much simpler than not bearing false witness. Much simpler than not coveting other’s people’s possessions. And much simpler than loving his neighbors as himself. Yet he could not bring himself to it. The question is: “WHY?” The Scripture provided the answer that he could not part with his possessions. He was very wealthy. Perhaps also because whatever good he did could only be done through the help of his wealth. His wealth was his fortress. So he had his peace of mind having his possessions. Honoring his parents was easier because he was wealthy. His parents would be satisfied with his gifts and considered him a good son. He had no reason of murdering people, he was rich, and he could appease any conflict with his wealth. In his wealth, living 2000 years ago, he could get so many wives and concubines as he pleased, so why bother with adultery? Nothing he desired he couldn’t buy, so stealing was not even in his vocabulary. He had no business in slandering others, for he was content with his riches. And he wouldn’t covet anything others had, for he had everything others had. He could easily “love” his neighbors by showering them with gifts. If he gave away everything he had, he would not be able to keep the commandments. So he could not do it. And that’s his true self. His identity was determined by his possessions. Jesus said one time about this. Luke 12:15 records it:
15 And he said to them, “Take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.”
Poor that rich young man. He valued his life by his possessions. Our world today behaves in the same way. The world honors those who are worth millions of dollars, and the world worships those who are worth billions of dollars. How about those who are poor? They are just fillers. That’s how the world behaves. 2000 years ago, now, all the same. So as soon as he heard Jesus’ answer, the rich young man “went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.” Here he chose to deny Jesus instead of denying his true self.
This is one of the toughest cases. It is tough because seldom people consider this desire to be rich and be richer as something sinful. The most powerful argument for being rich is when people draw from the Bible itself by referring to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, David, and Solomon. They were undeniably very wealthy. Solomon in particular was extremely wealthy. So they argue that it is okay to be wealthy. I too would not contest the argument that it is okay to be wealthy. But the Scripture also warns people of the danger of loving money. Consider Paul’s advice to Timothy in 1 Timothy 6:9-10:
9 But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. 10 For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs.
It is not the having of money that posts the root of the problem. It is the love of money that is. The problem with the rich young man was his love of money. Not his having it. Since he loved his money so much, he couldn’t part with it. Parting with it was like parting with who he was. He couldn’t reconcile with that imagination. The imagination of being identified as a poor man. In a way, the rich young man had become slave to money. His love of money drove him to work, to be excellent, to be perfect. But the more he gained money, the harder for him to let them go. In other words, we may say, that money had mastery over him. And for this Jesus pointed out:
24 “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money. (Matthew 6:24)
Eternal life belongs to God, not money. One must choose between God and money. If one chooses God, he is bestowed eternal life. But for this, he must let go of money. If one chooses money, he is bestowed worldly honor, riches, fame, glamor, and so on. But for this, he must let go of God. And consequently, he lost eternal life. This “either-or” truth does not sit well with this postmodern age which always promotes “both-and.” Postmodern people always want “both-and,” and therefore they want both God and money. They want to serve both God and money. In their philosophical paradigm, it is very possible. But Jesus said differently. He said it is not possible. He was not talking about having the money. He was talking about submission. To which Master we submit? God or money? Sadly, the rich young man chose money. So he did not put into practice Jesus’ words. He loved his money more than Jesus.
Denying self is hard. At the bottom of such action is the love of God. Without it one can’t deny self. Sin prevents us from loving God. Sin disorients us to the core. And the only solution to sin is the cross. And that particular cross that deals with the sin of the world can only be taken up by Jesus Christ. All we can do is believe. The people who followed Jesus asked: “What must we do, to be doing the works of God?” (John 6:28). And He answered them: “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” (John 6:29). In John 17:3 Jesus revealed through his High priestly prayer: “3 And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” Believing in Christ is the key. Thereafter the process of realizing Jesus’ redemption will take place. And one very important realization is when Christians realize that as the redeemed we are done away with sin. In Paul’s words: “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? 2 By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it?” (Romans 6:1-2). We are dead to sin. This realization is a process. The life that we adopt in Christ is the life that is dead to sin. Therefore we can’t reconcile sin and God. We can’t serve both God and mammon. God does not give up on us. He did not give up on Peter. He sought him out. And Jesus reinstated Peter. Jesus’ threefold question centered on loving Jesus. Loving Jesus is the basis for denying self. From then, Peter rose up. He overcame his fear. He preached boldly to the crowd on the Pentecost. And some 3000 people repented that day. Peter finally was able to deny his self. He no longer hid himself and denied his Lord in front of one servant girl. Peter stood up in front of the Jerusalem crowd who just crucified his Lord fifty days ago, and admitted that he was His disciple. He now proclaimed the very Jesus that he denied fifty three days ago. Fearless was the new Peter. Every day ever since, he denied his self for the sake of his Lord Jesus Christ. Such is the path of all followers of Christ. And the first step is to deny self.