“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”
Not too many years ago I regularly passed a billboard on I-35 advertising a soft drink that urged me to “Obey your thirst! It is a symbol of the age we live in. We are not only encouraged to obey any and all of our desires, we are enticingly told what those desires ought to be.
If Jesus had a billboard his message might be this: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” (Matthew 16:24, NRSV). The call to self-denial is not a theme of modern advertising, but it is central to the message of the gospel.
John Wesley addressed self-denial in a sermon by that name, describing it as “denying or refusing to follow our own will, from a conviction that the will of God is the only rule of action to us.” (par.2). Thus self-denial is not simply giving up something but a way of life, and not just for a portion of each year but life-long. It is necessary if we wish to follow Jesus.
“The will of God,” Wesley says, “is a path leading straight to God.” Our will, “which once ran parallel with it is now another path, not only different from it, but in our present state contrary to it. It leads from God; if therefore we walk in the one, we must necessarily quit the other. We cannot walk in both.” (par.4).
While following our own will may be pleasing, indulging it “increases the corruption of our nature” (par.5) by reinforcing those desires and motivations that lead us away from God. To follow God’s will is to open our lives to the work of the Holy Spirit, which enables us to have those desires and motivations which lead us to God.
Jesus also says to take up our cross. “A cross is anything contrary to our will, anything displeasing to our nature,” says Wesley. “So that taking up our cross goes a little farther than denying ourselves….” (par.7). It involves active sacrifice on our part in order to serve God and others.
Wesley distinguishes “taking up our cross” from “bearing a cross.” When we “endure what is laid upon us” we “bear a cross.” But to “take up our cross” is “to voluntarily suffer what it is our power to avoid; when we willingly embrace the will of God” to follow Jesus. (par.11).
How can we actually deny ourselves and take up our cross? The power to do so is not fully our own. It is only when we encounter the love of God in Jesus Christ and open our lives to the Holy Spirit that we find we can, over time, practice self-denial. But when we do, we also find that the “self” we deny is being transformed into a new creation, for which loving as Christ loves becomes our deepest desire, and following him becomes our greatest joy.