Then he said to them all, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.” Luke 9:23-24
If there were a “Bottom 10” list of the least popular things Jesus said, Luke 9:23-24 would have to be on it. Had Jesus had a public relations firm back in the day, they certainly would have suggested he massage this message significantly before going public with it. It is bad enough to tell people to deny themselves, but to take up a cross daily? As if that were not unappealing enough, he goes on to say that those who wish to save their life will lose it. His words sound more like a call to misery than a path to a new, richer life. Surely, the message is no better received in today’s narcissistic, consumer-driven culture than in Jesus’ day.
Much is made in this season of Lent of fasting. One of the common practices of fasting is to deny oneself of some routine or cherished part of one’s day. As one misses what has been denied, one remembers the sacrifice Jesus made for us. This helps us discover that we can live, and often live much better, without some of the unhealthy habits and superfluous possessions that weigh down our daily existence. Another purpose of the “denying oneself” type of fasting is to rid ourselves of something in order to make room for Christ to take hold in our lives. A full cup cannot receive more, and a full life stands as a fortress against any newness breaking in, good or bad.
Another type of fasting, perhaps more a matter of semantics than substance, is to add something positive to one’s day instead of removing something else. This can be understood as a fasting by blessing instead of fasting by suffering. Of course, the reality is that for most of us to add anything, the removal of something else must occur first. Either way, one purpose is to try to allow a new and positive habit to be born into and take hold within us.
It is interesting and instructive that Jesus follows the command to deny oneself with the command to take up one’s cross daily. What is our cross? One way to look at it is that our cross consists of our daily tasks – the things we do for our jobs or to keep our home running or to fulfil our obligations as parents, children, co-workers, and friends. This is our work, and our world depends on us fulfilling these tasks. Sometimes our work threatens to overwhelm us, although not always because it is overwhelming in and of itself. More often, for me, work becomes a cross to bear because I fill my life with meaningless distractions that compress the time available to complete my work. With this understanding, denying oneself becomes a way to refocus upon and reframe the context for one’s work – for the cross one bears. As new habits of conscious intention take hold, we see our work in an entirely new light, even when our responsibilities have not changed, and even though there are not more hours in a day. It does not matter if we are a doctor, a home-maker, an accountant, a church committee member, or a volunteer in the local Library, our work is important to the world.
Fasting, as a way to grow closer to God, can help us do our work in a more joyous and grateful manner. If the benefit and blessing of fasting accrues to us, where then is the deprivation? The key is in consciously and willingly turning one’s life in a new direction. To the extent there is discomfort, it is because change can feel like suffering as we let go of the old and reach for the new. There is a transition period required, but it is only that – a transition. Like everything in life, this too shall pass.
Denying ourselves of something that contributes little to life – ours and others’ – is a practice from which we can all benefit. Trying to preserve, or save, the unprofitable aspects of our lives will certainly and eventually fail.
This is the 8th in a series of Life Notes entitled “What Did Jesus Say?”
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