Jesus calls his disciples to self-denial. “And he said to all, ‘If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me’”(Luke 9:23).
The issue is that we prefer self-indulgence to self-denial. Listen to advertising and you will be told how you deserve to be pampered, treated, and catered to. Almost no one is offering what is rigorous, uncomfortable, and painful.
The path of self-indulgence doesn’t lead to anywhere we want to go—not to discipline, skill, deep relationship, character, or insight. Everything good we want to pursue requires self-denial. So (naturally) Jesus puts it first. “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself.”
Among other things, self-denial means:
But the path of self-denial is not merely about saying no—it is about cutting off other avenues because we have a bigger, more important yes. “Let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” We are happy to ignore other paths because we are following Jesus.
What are you denying yourself—and what are you pursuing?
Jesus wants his disciples to know that some people are bad for us.
One of Jesus’ teachings upsets the Pharisees and his disciples rush to tell him about it. “He answered, ‘Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be rooted up. Let them alone; they are blind guides. And if the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit’”(Matt 15:13-14). Instead of worrying about their response, Jesus tells his followers to “let them alone.”
This thread is everywhere in Jesus’ teaching. “Do not give dogs what is holy, and do not throw your pearls before pigs, lest they trample them underfoot and turn and attack you”(Matt 7:6). He warns about people who are ravenous wolves in sheep’s clothing (Matt 7:15) and that disciples are “sheep in the midst of wolves”(Matt 10:16). When they encounter people who reject their message, they are to “shake off the dust from your feet when you leave that house or town”(Matt 10:14). He warns them of the “leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees”(Matt 16:6). Some people are bad for us.
But this is not about elitism—or even primarily about influence. There are people who are dangerous to us. They will try to hurt us and exploit us and pollute us. We may initially think that we can influence them toward God, but repeated exposure only confirms that they continue to hurt us. They abuse our trust, ridicule our faith, manipulate us, exploit us, and hurt our feelings. They take our “pearls”—the things we value—and trample them, then turn to attack us. Listen to Jesus. “Let them alone.”
There are a few categories of people who Jesus singles out for this kind of treatment. There are those who are unwilling to listen (Matt 10:14). There are those who want their own desires and are willing to harm us to get them (Matt 7:15). There are those who are insincere in dealing with us because they have their own agendas (Matt 16:1-4). While there might be other examples of this kind of behavior, the point is that Jesus is teaching his disciples to use judgment in deciding that there are some people who need to be left alone.
Are there toxic people like this in your life? Listen to Jesus. As much as is possible, leave them alone.
Want to have better relationships? Think Golden Rule thoughts.
“So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets”(Matt 7:12).
What if the roles were reversed? Most of our relationships are tarnished by selfishness. We are happy to think about “whatever you wish that others would do to you.” That’s easy! But Jesus teaches us to take what we want others to do us and “do also to them.” What would I want to happen if they were angry with me? If I were my wife, would I like being talked to this way? If others were gossiping about me, would I want my friend to join in?
What is fair and appropriate? Often we use others. They are just there for us to have an object for self-expression or to gain some benefit. Golden Rule thoughts force us to think about “whatever you wish that others would do to you,” considering our sense of what is fair and applying it to our own behavior. Is my treatment of others really warranted by the situation? Am I allowing my frustration, bitterness, jealousy, or insecurity to influence my behavior? Am I doing the right thing by them?
Am I treating others well? The beauty of the Golden Rule is that we instantly know whether we have violated it. “Whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them.” Would I complain about this treatment if it was directed at me? Am I considering the impact of my behavior? Am I attempting to do good? This question—“Am I treating others well?”—is the heart of God’s revelation ("the Law and the Prophets").
Want to have better relationships? Think Golden Rule thoughts.
Jesus wants his disciples to be comfortable with a certain level of mystery that accompanies God’s work. Consider this obscure comparison:
“The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground. He sleeps night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows; he knows not how. The earth produces by itself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. But when the grain is ripe, at once he puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come”(Mark 4:26-29).
In describing the work of a farmer, Jesus focuses on the man’s ignorance. He plants the seed, which sprouts and grows. “He knows not how.” This does not mean that we cannot learn some things by studying crop science, but that there is a mystery associated with the whole process of botanical growth. It does not rely on man’s ingenuity. Man scatters seed. Then he sleeps. And when the grain is ready, he reaps.
This is the nature of the kingdom of God. How God works out his reign, advances his kingdom, and reaches people with the message is often a mystery to us. While we are comfortable with the idea of God’s work being mysterious in realms where we have little role (such as the prenatal development of a child), it is harder when we have a front-row seat and responsibility. It is harder when we are the farmer.
“He knows not how” means that we won’t be able to perfectly engineer kingdom growth. It is not about methods and action plans. We prepare ourselves and plant seeds, then we let God do his work. And when the time is right, we put in the sickle and reap.
There is mystery surrounding evangelism and church growth. There is mystery about exactly how character is formed—whether in mature Christians, new converts, or children (Paul calls it the “fruit of the Spirit,” Gal 5:22). There is mystery in the idea of providence—how precisely God acts to care for his people in everyday life. God keeps working, but we “know not how.”
Our lack of explanation, though, doesn’t mean that we are unaware of our responsibility. The lesson is to follow Jesus in patient trust—and to have the humility to give God the glory for doing amazing things in ways that we “know not how.”