“If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow Me.” Luke 9:23
What did Jesus mean when He said we need to pick up our cross and what does it actually look like to pick it up daily? Examining the words of Jesus we see that there are four parts to the equation. I’ve summarized them with four ‘D’ words: desire, denial, deed, and devotion.
In order to effectively follow Christ, Jesus wants us to know that there is a progression. Discipleship (the actual following-of-Christ part), comes when the first three elements are actualized. Reject or skimp on desire, denial, and deed, and devotion suffers. It’s kind of like a student showing up to school without his pencils, paper, and books — he might be able to get some of his assignments accomplished, but the lack of preparation will be revealed in his work for that day. It’s plain to see that this pattern can not lead to improvement.
If Anyone Desire…
For the love of Christ compels us…if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new.” 2 Corinthians 5:14a & 17
Before we were born of the Spirit, we were born of the flesh. Accordingly, before we were born of the Spirit, our desires were focused on fleshly things. Some of those things may not have even been sinful unto themselves, but our desire for them, steeped in pure selfishness, was sinful. Once we were born again, our desire was redirected towards those things that were pleasing to God, rather than ourselves. We understand by faith that we had no hand in placing this new desire within us; this precious desire is the byproduct of the grace Jesus freely gives His disciples. If this desire is not present, we must question why, perhaps even pondering if we are truly born again believers.
Don’t fret — repent!
Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent and do the first works, or else I will come to you quickly and remove your lampstand from its place–unless you repent. Revelation 2: 5
Deny: “let him deny himself”
If desire is present, then denial is the next preparatory step forward, with the realty being that self-denial is the fruit of Godly desire. In other words, if you have died with Christ (that is, died to your flesh) you will desire to walk in the Spirit and not work to satisfy the desires of the flesh. The bonds of flesh have been broken and we have willingly yoked ourselves to Jesus; we are bond servants of Christ. At this point we can begin to see that while there is a progression and order to desire, denial, deed, and devotion, they are also divinely intertwined.
“Our old man was crucified with Him, that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves of sin. For he who has died has been freed from sin. Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with Him, knowing that Christ, having been raised from the dead, dies no more. Death no longer has dominion over Him.” Romans 6:6-9
Deed: “take up his cross daily”
We might wonder why desire and denial is not sufficient; why are we additionally instructed to pick up the cross of crucifixion each day? The answer is simple: the directive from Jesus is a reminder for us. Human beings have a tendency to forget and rather than scold His children daily, Jesus provides for us a way to daily remember our baptism, our first symbolic gesture publicly proclaiming the death of our flesh and our newness of eternal life in Christ.
In the same way that Jesus wants us to remember what He accomplished on the cross (when we break the loaf and partake of the cup), He wants us to remember (daily) that we hoisted our old man up there as well. If the Christian does not consistently start each day with this holy recognition, his or her desire will fade, and he or she will be susceptible to appeasing their flesh rather than denying it. At this juncture, devotion to Jesus might not even come to mind!
What does picking up the cross look like?
It minimally starts with prayer. Personally, it’s my preference to pray before my feet hit the floor in the morning. This prayer is characterized by thanksgiving and an affirmation of God’s godliness, followed by my desire to follow Him and to deny my flesh, and then, His help in the deed of dying to myself (picking up my cross), so effective devotion can occur that day. I ask for (and allow) God to search my heart in order to root out any evil that’s lurking therein, and then ask for a fresh refilling of His Holy Spirit for power and direction. This initial morning prayer is less than a minute long, but it sets the pace for the rest of the day; my cross has been raised and my baptism has been remembered. Having done this, I’m best equipped to follow Him. If I forget to do this, there stands the likelihood I will soon stumble. Neglect these things (and I have), devotion, the act of submission to Jesus, suffers. Effectual discipleship requires preparation — the preparation Jesus outlines in Luke 9:23.
Devotion: “follow Me”
I’m reminded that these deeds are not works unto salvation. Our salvation is a done deal; a work that Jesus finished on the cross. Nor are these deeds compensation to Jesus for the gifts He bestows; everyone knows that when you receive a present you don’t try to thank a person by paying for it. If we’re fooled into believing that our efforts in Christ are restitution to Christ, we’ve fallen back into fleshly ritual. Suddenly it’s no longer the love of Christ that compels us, but an obligation to a false image of Christ we’ve created; the components of our Christian faith (prayer, communion, fellowship, etc) are no longer things we are free or desire to do, but rather things we must do.
But in the design Jesus lays out, we’re daily reminded that these sinful bonds have been broken. He provides and empowers as we present ourselves to Him as empty and submitted vessels. In this manner, each day in Christ can be a continuation of His will from the previous day, or if we didn’t fare so well, a divine do-over. Regardless, through Christ’s blood, death, and resurrection, sin has lost its power. In every single sinful opportunity we encounter, God will provide a way to circumvent evil one hundred percent of the time. Of course the decision to receive His remedy hinges on how we started our day, and whether or not we picked up our cross. This is where the disciple demonstrates that he came to class prepared.
“No temptation has overtaken you except such as is common to man; but God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will also make the way of escape, that you may be able to bear it.” 1 Corinthians 10:13
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