Wineskins Archive

December 9, 2013

My Self-Centered Attempt At Following Christ (Apr 2012)

Filed under: — @ 10:15 pm and

By Mark Edward Wylie

When I was younger I saw this passage as Christ’s Three-Step Program prescribed to those who aspire to be good followers. There was a natural orderliness about them, a heavenly three-step program to becoming the best Christian you could be. Lord knows I certainly wanted to be the best, or at least the best I could be. And the steps were so simple: They lent themselves to millions of “three-point-and-a-scripture” sermons everywhere:

Step One: Deny Yourself

Step Two: Take Up Your Cross

Step Three: Follow Me

The only problem with this view was that it cleverly masked the fact that the steps were incredibly difficult to follow. I could never get past Step 1(!) As a younger adult, I likened denial to a fad diet: To deny myself was to have my chicken-fried steak sans gravy; to drink only 3 Dr. Peppers a day instead of 6; to not ‘super-size’ my value meal for once; in other words, to participate in a shallow ongoing Lent of the soul in order to feel optimistic about my personal spiritual identity. Yet no matter what I denied myself, I quickly rushed back to indulgence once the fast was over.

Due to my lack of success, I would conveniently skip the first step in favor of Step Two: This way I was able to spend countless moments discerning exactly what “MY Cross” was and what kind of work ‘taking it up’ would involve. What burden(s) did I bravely and boldly carry as I hesitantly and humbly walked this dark world a noble-yet-weary follower of Christ? The more I focused on MY cross, the bigger MY burden became in MY mind, and the less I focused on the Cross of Christ. Needless to say moving on to Step Three became impossible: I assumed I was following Christ’s way when all I was doing was trekking down a well-manicured, paved over path of my own construction. I choose my own road and then asked God to bless it and call it His.

When God graciously revealed my error to me, I repented and immediately realized that I was reading the passage the wrong way (failing to stop and listen to what God was gently trying to show me). Through much thought and self-reflection, I determined that Christ was obviously suggesting a “formula of follower-ship,” using simple math to connect the three:

Deny Yourself + Take Up Your Cross = Follow Me.
At first glance this looks correct: Following Christ boiled down to the sum of self-denial and cross-carrying. This formula allowed me to work on both spiritual areas simultaneously, defining both as I went along. And because “following Christ” was simply the sum of these two parts (of which I was ‘set free’ to follow according to my own scriptural interpretation and liking), life became much more easy and much less legalistic. As long as I made a concerted effort to “deny MY self” and “take up MY cross” as the opportunity conveniently arose, I was a true Follower of Christ, as far as I was concerned.

Yet once again both MY self and MY cross proved unsatisfactory. And once again I fell into the habit of spending years of my young adult life continuously gazing upon my own spiritual navel sorting out just who I was, what MY purpose was, what God had in store for ME, what MY talents were, what MY strengths were, what MY weaknesses were, what MY cross was (the super-special ultra-specific cross that God had assigned ME to bear), and how best I should lose MY life in order that I might save MY life. This “ME”-centric following of Christ led nowhere save a suffocating state of self-loathing ….

Then one day, after much prayer and years of spiritual frustration, God graciously showed me the following, and I was finally (for once) just meek enough and barely humble enough to listen. Through study of His Scripture and the guidance of His Spirit, I was shown just how these three were truly connected:

Deny yourself = Take up your cross = Follow Me.

Following Jesus was not the culmination of a series of steps, nor was it the sum of smaller parts. Following Jesus was the equivalent to absolutely and completely denying MY very egocentric self. And this was exactly what it meant to take up my cross. To follow Jesus was to willingly be led to the place where my overbearing “<i>ME</i>” was to be killed in order that the new “Christ-in-me” was to take it’s place(!)

To deny yourself means just that, to wholly and fully deny that part of you that insists that YOU are the center of a universe in which YOU are in complete control of the pace and content of your own spiritual life. That ego that demands YOU focus on YOUR beliefs and YOUR doctrine and YOUR church all to the supposed glory of Christ—it has to go! Until we learn to drop that self-centered spiritual intellect that insists God works in accordance with our understanding of the Scriptures and our own concept of reason and logic, we will never fully experience what it is to follow Christ.

To take up your cross is to throw down the 2-ton burden of personal, self-centered Spiritual ego. The Cross of Christ is actually much lighter than what we attempt to lug around in its place daily. All YOU have to do is have enough courage to abandon YOUR own personal ‘take’ of YOUR self and YOUR purpose and just start moving, start serving, and start loving others.

To follow Jesus is both simple and incredibly difficult: Simple because it’s such an obvious benefit to follow the one who “gives you rest,” whose “yoke is easy and burden is light.” It’s rendered difficult only because we choose outright not to deny ourselves as master and commander of our own lives. Or put a different way, following Jesus requires one to take the co-pilot’s seat of ones’ own life, allowing Christ to steer you where He desires you to go.

Thus to this day MY cross to bear is to continually cast off this sticky and incessant personal ego that wants to assume control of every aspect of my life, even the terms and conditions of my “following.” It stifles and strangles, it leaves me exhausted, hung-over and just plain weary. In my better moments, I have learned to overcome the fear of giving up MY life, MY purpose and MY legacy in order that I may find the true life I was meant to receive in and through Christ! As long as I remember to just simply start moving, start serving, and start loving others …

I identified myself completely with him. Indeed, I have been crucified with Christ. My ego is no longer central. It is no longer important that I appear righteous before you or have your good opinion, and I am no longer driven to impress God. Christ lives in me. The life you see me living is not “mine,” but it is lived by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I am not going to go back on that. ~ Galatians 2:20 (The Message)

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