As we continue in the season of Lent and focus on the atoning death of Christ, may we be drawn to make a response. I was having family devotion earlier in the week and we sang the hymn “The Old Rugged Cross” followed by the contemporary song “Take Me Deeper”. It makes a lot of sense that if we truly know the depth of God’s love for us as demonstrated on that old rugged cross we will yearn to be in a deeper and more intimate relationship with Him. We will want to walk with God like what Enoch did (Gen 5.22, 24). But how do we walk with God? Jesus has given us the answer – deny self!
The trinitarian self – my feelings, my wants, my desires – has been worshipped for far too long and when we turn our allegiance to God, there will always be conflict when our old self acts up. Therefore, there is a need to constantly put to death the old self by denying it of its desires, ambitions, interests, ego, etc. In a postmodern world, the thinking is always along this line: As long as I feel good about it, it has to be right! No one has the right to stop me from doing whatever I want. All my desires must be fulfilled. To choose not to satisfy my desires is to warp my sense of self: I wouldn’t be me. But Jesus has clearly told His disciples – deny self!
I have always wondered what it really means to lay up for ourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal for where our treasure is, there our hearts will be also (Matt 6.20, 21). We can lay up treasures in heaven by first treasuring God – earnestly seeking Him (like you would a priceless treasure), His Kingdom and His righteousness (Matt 6.33); taking in God’s living water (Jn 4.10, 14), and then letting rivers of living water flow from the center of our lives to a thirsty world (Jn 7.38); investing in our relationship with God, and we will find ourselves investing our lives in what God is doing and devoting ourselves to the good of other people. It is all about God and His preoccupations, nothing about us and our indulgences. We cannot serve two masters – we cannot serve God and self. If we choose to serve God, we have to deny self!
One way we can deny self is by living a simple life. We can begin to live simply by cutting the excesses in our lives. Let me suggest excesses in three areas – possessions, schedules, speech.
Possessions – Is there a compulsion for us to have the latest gadget, the newest model, the hottest fashion? Think about it, all these serve to elevate the self and feeds the ego, causing us to look good in the eyes of others whom we subtly see as competitors. Say ‘no’ even when we have the money to buy and if we cannot afford it, why laden ourselves with more debt when those possessions count for nothing except to boost our vain ego. Someone shared this testimony: “I didn’t ordinarily observe Lent but for this year, I decided to simplify my life by giving up shopping for forty days. Whenever I thought about something I wanted to purchase, I said to God, ‘I’ll let it wait. You are enough.’ By the end of the forty days, I’d forgotten about most of the things I wanted. Surprisingly, I had more time for people because life was less hectic. Being in stores messes with your mind. It convinces you that you need things you don’t need at all.”
Schedules – Packed schedules serve to elevate the self because the busier one is, the more important one feels. Busyness is a sign of power and significance. It is an indication that we are very much needed and therefore we are very important. After Jesus came back from His early morning time alone with God, He met His disciples who were searching for Him and they told Him, “Everyone is looking for you.” Wouldn’t we feel a sense of importance if this is said to us? But Jesus responded, “Let us go on to the next towns, that I may preach there also, for that is why I came out.” (Mk 1.35-38) Jesus wasn’t about to allow the demands of the people to dictate His schedules. His time alone with God must have helped him clarify his priorities. Every appointment and activity that we are committed to has an opportunity cost. It doesn’t help if we are so busy that we don’t have time for our loved ones and we don’t have time for God. It is ironic that we may be so busy serving the King that we don’t have time for Him. If we do some deep reflection, we may be serving self under the guise of serving the King – if so, let us repent. In this season of Lent, let us make a conscious effort to slow down, to attend less meetings, to appear in less functions so that we have time to take a walk in the park and marvel at God’s creation, to have dinner with our loved ones and be thankful to God for them, or even time to have a personal retreat where we can wait on God and be found in the wonder and amazement of His presence as we sit at the foot of the cross.
Speech – A posture of silence is good because when words are many, sin is not absent. (Prov 10.19) We can hold our tongues even when we are dying to boast of some achievements, voice our complaints about some trivial matters, rebut and refute so we can win an argument, pass along some juicy bits of news about our colleague, criticise some music in church just because it is not according to our taste, lie so we can avoid facing the music, or even crack vulgar jokes thinking that it will attract attention to ourselves because humour can be sexy. In this season of Lent, shall we speak less and listen more.
Simplicity is a way of being. It is letting go of things others consider as normal. It is getting rid of the excesses in life so that we can be freer in attending to God and people. Making an intentional effort to do this in the season of Lent is a good start even though it is for a limited period of time. When we practise these restraints temporarily, just for today, just for this period, they can train us not to grab what we want now. In the midst of our discomfort during these times of abstinence, something beautiful happens within us because ‘the enormous river barge of our life that’s flowing toward self-indulgence is turned around and begins to move upstream toward self-giving Christlikeness’. (Jan Johnson)
Take baby steps. God in His enormous grace empowers us in this effort. When we say ‘no’ to self at a particular moment, we are giving it another stab. Each stab will go a long way to ensure its eventual death. Let us be encouraged to live simply in a bid to deny self and may this Lent motivate us even as we have a heightened awareness of the amazing love that God has shown us in not just redeeming us but also transforming us into Christlikeness in preparation for His glorious return as we look forward to the holy city, our final destination, towards which, by faith, we are journeying.
Pastor Kien Seng
March 18, 2012