Pastoral Perspectives

Impossible To Carry Both

We are more than half way into the season of Lent. Have we lived our lives any differently or is it the same old? This 40-day period is a time when we intentionally remember, proclaim and respond to the atoning death of Jesus. It’s not that we don’t think about the death of Jesus in other parts of the year. Rather, it is during this season that we deliberately yearn to have a heightened awareness of what Jesus has done for us on the cross.

We remember, proclaim and respond to the atoning death of Jesus when we gather for corporate worship – the songs we sing surrounding the cross, the sermons we preach that are Gospel-centred and of course the communion meal we share where we remember the body broken for us and the blood shed for us. Do you also recall those familiar words: “Whenever we eat this bread and drink this cup, we proclaim the Lord’s death again, until He comes”?

There is much more we can do to respond to the atoning death of Jesus. Lent is a period for self-examination, and we sincerely pray to God that his Holy Spirit through his Holy Word will convict us of our sins. Instead of being defensive or apathetic, we humbly come before our merciful God in confession and repentance. We know he will readily forgive us on account of his Son.

Repentance has to do with turning around. We turn around from loving self to loving Jesus. We repent of our selfishness, self-centredness, self-absorption, self-worship. Jesus told his disciples: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23). In order to say “yes” to Jesus, we have to say “no” to self. As we consistently engage in this turnaround instructed by God’s Word and empowered by God’s Spirit, surely we will grow into the likeness of our Saviour and Lord!

Jesus has set for us the example of what it means to deny oneself when he did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped but emptied himself – confining himself in the body of a human being so that he could walk the dusty streets of Palestine and interact with us to show us the way back to God; he literally carried the cruel cross upon which he was nailed, thereby not just showing us the way but being the way himself, the only way through which we can be reconciled to God.

When Jesus commanded us to deny ourselves and take up our crosses, we are following in his footsteps because he has been there, done that. This is the basic requirement of every disciple of Jesus. We may call ourselves a Christian but if we don’t follow him, then we are not really his disciples and it will be hypocritical of us to call ourselves a Christian.

To deny ourselves means to strongly reject the egoistic self, the false self, the fallen self, the self that is stained by sin, the self that loves sin; in other words, it is to turn away from the idolatrous self.

We may think that denying self is a really painful thing to do but it actually leads to joy. “Self-denial destroys the very root and foundation of sorrow.” (Jonathan Edwards) All the world’s sorrow, grief and trouble find their beginning in our first parents’ choice of self over God. Many of our own sorrows also grow from our choice of self over God. If we are going to destroy our sorrow down to the bottom and experience true joy, the self that loves sin must be destroyed.

To deny self has to do with putting to death the old self. Paul would express it as being crucified with Christ. When we are told to take up our crosses, it is not just about carrying the cross – the destination is death. The one who carries the cross is eventually crucified on it.

Let us therefore put to death the desires of the flesh. Some Christians observe a period of fasting during Lent where they deny themselves of food, caffeine, Facebook, Netflix, online games, shopping spree, etc. These may not be bad per se but learning to deprive ourselves, especially if we are spending an excessive amount of time and resources on them, can be a healthy spiritual discipline. Divert the time spent on these activities to prayer instead.

We can also say “no” to self in the areas of thought, word and deed.

Our minds can be a fertile ground for breeding impure thoughts of all kinds – lust, anger, prejudice, self-pity, pride, greed, jealousy. “You cannot keep birds from flying over your head but you can keep them from building a nest in your hair.” (Martin Luther) When unwholesome thoughts appear in our minds, we can say “no” to self. One practical way is to say the Jesus’ Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” By repeating this prayer aloud or in our hearts, calling on the powerful name of Jesus, we resist the temptation to dwell further in those thoughts.

Let our speech be always gracious and whenever we are tempted to gossip, malign, slander, lie, swear, use foul language, hurl abusive words, engage in obscene conversations, pass unkind remarks or anything that has the danger of tearing someone down, we say “no” to self. We ask the Holy Spirit to empower us to exercise self-control and to set a guard over our mouths and keep watch over the door of our lips so that we speak only what is edifying.  

The selfish self is very big on protecting its own rights. Let us be willing to give up our rights for the sake of those who are weaker in the faith. Let us learn to put the interests of others above self. This may mean dressing in a modest manner so that we become less of a distraction to others when we come to church, flowing with another person’s way of doing things rather than insisting on our own ways as we serve alongside each other, saying “no” to our egoistic self so that we don’t need to have the last word in every conversation.

We also deny self when we are willing to sacrifice our time, energy, reputation, comforts and privileges to serve others – the saints as well as those outside the family of God. We may not receive any reward or recognition. There may not even be any word of thanks or worse still, those whom we serve may turn around and bite us, but it is all part of carrying the cross of Christ.

For most of us, it is not about taking up our crosses once and for all. This can happen when we are required to be martyred for our faith. Instead, every day and every hour, in every action, every conversation and every decision, for our entire lives, we must choose whether we will deny self or deny the cross.

It is impossible to carry both the cross and self at the same time. We have to carry one and reject the other. Are we therefore denying self and carrying the cross or are we taking up the self and rejecting the cross? We cannot serve two masters. In light of the atoning death of Christ, how would we choose? How should we respond?

Rev Lee Kien Seng

March 14, 2021