Some guys and I do a Bible study at my house every week. We call it: Beer, Bible, & Brats. It’s what’s up.
Last week we strolled into a conversation about “dying to yourself”. Our Bible studies are always like that, we start in one place and slalom slowly through dark, heavy forests, into wide open ranges of snow & sunlight. I am not sure exactly how our path found us talking about dying to ourselves but we got there nonetheless.
"And He was saying to them all, 'If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross daily and follow Me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake, he is the one who will save it.'” - Luke 9:23-24
Fundamental to the Christian faith is this notion of dying. Here in Luke’s account, Jesus tells his disciples that if anyone wishes to come after him, follow him, be his disciple, be saved, be a believer, be in his inner circle, be his friend, they must deny themselves & lose their life.
They must deny themselves.
They must take up their cross daily
They must follow him.
This isn’t something only radical Christians do. This is the bare minimum of getting in. To be a disciple of Jesus one must do these things. There is no exception.
But I have to be honest - these things are not that easy to do, and most of the time simply the command itself is complicated. What does it actually mean to deny ourselves & follow Jesus?
First these terms are very similar in nature. You cannot follow Jesus without denying yourself. And Jesus is certainly not asking us to deny ourselves as an end in itself. We deny ourselves so to be truly able to follow Jesus.
If we don’t deny ourself we cannot truly follow Jesus. We can’t follow our own heart and follow Jesus because often those two are not aligned. That is just basic logic. If someone asks us to follow them and we begin to follow them, in the very essence of the action we are denying ourselves. We have stopped following ourselves and followed them to wherever they are leading us.
So first - we deny ourselves.
This is the act of taking every aspect, every desire, every action, every gift, talent, and laying it on the “altar” at God’s feet and saying, “Not my will, but yours.” And then doing it everyday after that. It is the bare minimum of being a believer but that doesn’t mean you do it once and that’s it. It is a lifestyle and as sinners being sanctified we grow in our ability through the Spirit to more fully realize this death. We don’t die once, we die everyday. And it is one hell of a struggle.
It makes me think of the story of Abraham and Isaac. Abraham is promised a son in Isaac and he gets that after many years of waiting. And then sometime in the future God says, “Abraham I want you to offer up Isaac as a sacrifice.”
Wait. Whoa. Why?
Wait, God, you gave me Isaac. You promised him and now you want him back?
Abraham packed up his son, his supplies, and his servants and travelled to offer up a sacrifice. He places his son on the alter. He literally tied down his own son and raised the knife to kill him. This literally happened. I can’t even imagine what sort of screams were coming out of Isaac’s mouth, what sort of pleading & yelling!
In this moment, God cries out - “Don’t kill your son. I have provided a sacrifice. A ram stuck in the bushes.” There is a ton of significance and foreshadowing here but that isn’t what I plan on getting into. This story is an illustration of dying to self.
See, people will say, “God was doing that to test Abraham…”
As if God wasn’t sure what Abraham would do. No. No. Definitely not.
God did this so to “kill” off the idol that Abraham had formed Isaac into in his heart. See, Abraham had overvalued Isaac, though a good thing, a good gift from God, Abraham had given him a place in his life that was too big. He had put Isaac in the place that only God should have been. He valued Isaac in and of himself, not because of the gift he was from God.
Abraham valued Isaac in such a way that the value he saw, enjoyed, derived from Isaac started and ended in Isaac. Abraham was not valuing Isaac as a thing from God, or through God, or because of God. He was valuing him simply as Isaac. This makes Isaac out to be an idol. Only God can be enjoyed completely and utterly in and of himself.
Therefore, God called him to task. Kill your son. I will have no rivals.
The goal wasn’t to kill Isaac physically, but to spiritually kill the role he had taken in Abraham’s life.
This is what needs to happen to us so we can truly follow Jesus. We have rivals, idols that live in our heart in the place that God should live and where he should be the only thing that lives. God and only God can be the driving force, the “why" behind everything we do. If we don’t kill them, they will pull us off the path behind Jesus.
Again simple logic, if someone asks us to follow them and we begin to and then every few steps or so we have hundreds of other people calling us to follow them and then WE DO, then we aren’t following that first person. We are being tossed around like a ragdoll following whoever looks more enticing, whichever we want more.
Dying to self is dying to each and every idol, and lastly and most importantly ourselves. Each and every last voice that calls for our attention.
We take our family and we lay it on the altar.
Our fitness plan.
Our clothes and how we dress.
The time we get up in the morning.
The time we go to bed.
The things we watch on TV.
The ways we spend our money.
The ways we spend our time.
The things we are good at.
The things we like.
The things we don’t like.
The people we like.
The people we don’t like.
Where we live.
Who we live with.
We take it all and we lay it on the altar. We don’t just assume because it is good, or bad, or something we like, or something we don’t like that we do or don’t lay it on the altar. Every voice, every thing, regardless of whether it is “good” or “bad” we lay it on the altar.
We kill it's hold over our motives, and passions.
We are held sway by only one voice: the voice of Jesus.
We don’t assume just because we are good at it that God wants us to do it.
We don’t assume just because we like it that God must want us to have it.
We don’t assume just because we aren’t good at it that God doesn’t want us to do it.
We don’t assume just because we don’t like that God must not want us to have it.
We stop assuming all together. We give everything without reservation.
And we put it on the altar.
“Not what I want. Not what I don’t want. Just you.”
“Not my will but yours.”
Will you struggle? Yes.
Will you hold onto things too tightly? Yes.
Will you wish that God didn’t want you to die to that thing? Yes.
But that is the struggle. That is the daily dying.
I can’t even imagine what sort of prayers Abraham prayed the night before he was supposed to sacrifice his son, or the language he used to yell at God.
But the next day he woke up and laid his son on the altar.
Practically, I know we don’t have a physical altar to take our money or our job or our passions to but still we do it. I actually envision laying those things on the ground in front of me. Like I will close my eyes, in prayer and I will imagine taking it out of the seat of my heart and laying it down, then I turn my eyes upward. “Lord shift my focus. Don’t let this thing consume me. I want to be consumed by you.” Again, think of the voices calling for our attention as we are following another. It as you, me, us, closing our eyes and direct our attention to the back of Jesus. These voices are not all bad, but in themselves without Jesus they are.
For example: Your spouse.
My wife calling for my attention in and of herself, or my heart clamoring for her in and of herself is death. It is only another shackle. But does that mean Jesus doesn’t want me to love and enjoy my wife? No, he most certainly does. But how?
I am to enjoy, listen to her voice, only as a thing that has come to me through the leadership, voice, heart of Jesus. My wife’s value and deserved love finds its value in the fact that Jesus tells me to value & love & enjoy my wife.
I love my wife because of Jesus, not because of her. Otherwise it will become toxic for her, for me, for my kids.
When we hear “deny yourself” we usually think of it as this negative. But our God isn’t out to make us miserable. He is out to give us abundant life. That is his goal. Abraham laid his son on the altar and he truly prepared himself to kill his son and then God gave him back. Think of the tears Abraham and Isaac shared.
But because of that - Abraham was dead to Isaac and alive to God. Abraham now enjoyed Isaac as a gift from God that he didn’t deserve. Not as an idol that held sway over his heart. Not as a competing voice.
As Christians, as a follower we must do this action every day. Every minute. Every second.
Everything we have we place on this “altar”. We are willing to lose it all if only we get Christ. There might be things that we really hope that Jesus doesn’t take. But lay it down. We lay it down. It might not be easy but we lay it down.
God might give it back like he gave back Issac.
He might not.
But we don’t hold on. We want Jesus. We want him, we don’t want something he doesn’t want us to have. What could cause us to want something God doesn't want us to have?
We die to it all. Every day. Every hour. Every minute.
It is easy to assume, “Well I don’t have to die to _______. God gave me that.” Or “This is a good thing. I don’t have to die to that.” But we can never assume that something, no matter how much we love it, no matter how much we want it to be our job, our future, our thing, can we assume that we aren’t supposed to die to it. We die to everything, trusting that our Savior knows what is best. God may give us something only to take it away.
See, Jesus says, “You must die to yourself.” And I said that is the bare minimum of being a believer. This doesn’t mean that the one time you hold on too tightly that Jesus kicks you out of his grace. No! Never! Instead, it is the posture of your heart.
Does your heart cry out, “Not my will but yours.”
Does your heart cry out, “Silence every other voice, desire, passion, thing in my life. I want none of it except through you.”
If this is not the posture of your heart, then cry out to Jesus that he may give you a new heart.
But if this is the posture of your heart, even though you struggle, and you hold on, and far too many times you don’t want to die, I encourage you, Jesus implores you, you must kill Isaac.