Sometimes We Turn Down Good Things
So Jesus says something I need to tell you about. It’s in Luke chapter 9, verse 23.
And he said to all, “If anyone would come after me, let them eat a triple scoop of cookies-and-cream in a waffle cone and take up their favorite hobby and follow me.”
No, he didn’t say that. Let me try again:
“If anyone would come after me, let them laugh until they cry with good friends and take up a fried chicken taco and follow me.”
Okay, so he didn’t say that either, although these are all good and decent things. These are good things — they are “Things of Earth,” which has been what this series is about. The central theme over the last few weeks is that God gives us good and decent things in this world and of this earth that are meant to help us know and enjoy him. God gives us good things that we’re to receive thankfully, and that direct our pleasure through the gift to him as the Giver — and these are things like a triple scoop of cookies-and-cream, or a game night with old friends, or ice-cold Sweet Tea. These are all gifts that God gives us to enjoy so that we would enjoy him. [Right?]
But when Jesus calls us to follow him, he doesn’t mention these things. Instead, Jesus says in Luke 9:23, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.”
And because Jesus says this it means we need to figure something out. We need to answer an important question that Pastor Joe asks in his book. He puts it like this:
How does the call to enjoy God’s gifts fit with Christ’s call to deny ourselves and follow him?
That’s Joe’s question from his book, and that’s the question for us today in this sermon. And it’s not an easy question. It’s feels heavy on me, and it’s been a struggle to bring this together this week, and it might help you to know why. So before we get into this more, let me give you a couple reasons why this whole topic of self-denial is difficult.
It is a complicated topic.
It’s complicated because there’s a handful of pieces to the definition of self-denial that we have to clarify and hold together; we can’t drop any of them. So let me give you a definition. Here’s how Joe says it:
Biblical self-denial is always the giving up of a lesser, legitimate joy for the sake of a greater one.
Self-denial starts with you (with us) giving something up that is good. And that means that self-denial is different from suffering and different from repentance.
In suffering, you don’t give something up, it’s taken away from you. We don’t cause the loss, we experience the loss. But in self-denial you are deliberately giving something up. We choose to give something up — and that something is good. It’s a legitimate joy . . .
And therefore, that’s why self-denial is different from repentance. Repentance is when we stop sinning. It’s when you stop unrighteous, toxic things for the sake of a truer, lasting joy. But self-denial is stoping lesser, legitimate joys for the sake of a greater, legitimate joy.
And it’s always for the sake of a greater joy. Self-denial ultimately has pleasure in its sights. It’s never an arbitrary, poor-poor-pitiful-me kind of letting go. It’s hopeful and full of faith.
And we have to hold this together. We’re not talking about suffering or repentance. “Biblical self-denial is always the giving up of a lesser, legitimate joy for the sake of a greater one.” [Tracking
And now, to complicate this a little more: the legitimate, greater joy that’s the goal of self-denial is ultimately God, but it’s not only God. Now, ultimately, what we want, what we desire, is more of God, delighting in him, the display of his glory — we want that. But, in many cases, the path of this desire has other goals in view — goals like my wife feeling loved, and my children being cared for, and unreached peoples believing the gospel.
So self-denial’s ultimate goal is deeper joy in God, but it’s hardly ever just a straight vertical lone. Most of the time, there are horizontal connections first on the way to going vertical. The effect is first on others, as it’s directed toward God.
The word we often use for this is “personal sacrifice” — I give up something good for someone else, ultimately to have a deeper joy in God. Here’s an easy example: for years I played slow-pitch softball in the summer, and I loved it. Our team was never great, and I was never super serious about it, but I really enjoyed playing softball. But then as our family has grown and our kids are older, for their sake I don’t play anymore. I stopped playing softball to give more support to Melissa and to give more time to the kids. Which means I sacrificed something I enjoyed for the sake of someone else. So now I coach T-Ball now instead, and trust me, it’s not the same. So this would be an example of personal sacrifice.
And we could call these two different things. There are two ways to talk about giving up a good thing. One is self-denial and the other is personal sacrifice.
Self-denial, we can say, is the more directly vertical. It is giving up good things for a deeper joy in God. An example here would be waking up early in the morning to meditate on the Bible and pray. We give up sleep, which is a good thing, for a direct experience of joy in God. Another example is fasting, when we intentionally give up food for a deeper experience with God. It’s vertical.
Then with personal sacrifice, we can say, it starts more horizontal. It is giving up good things for the good of others, which is ultimately for a deeper joy in God. An example here would be not playing softball.
Do you get the difference between self-denial and personal sacrifice? Okay, good, well, for the rest of the sermon, I’m going to collapse these back together and talk about both. Because both really are forms of self-denial. They both match up with our definition. Both self-denial proper and personal sacrifice means to give up of a lesser, legitimate joy for the sake of a greater one. So although there are little difference, I’m just going to mix them together. And I told you this was complicated. Okay, one more reason why this is a difficult topic.
This is a difficult topic because self-denial is almost incomprehensible to our society.
So far in the series what we’ve looked at has not been necessarily counter-intuitive. When we’ve talked about receiving God’s gifts thankfully and enjoying him through them, we are still affirming things that the world affirms — we’re just adding an important connection piece. For example — it looks like this . . .
The Bacon Blucy cheeseburger at Blue Door Pub is good and should be enjoyed.
Now a lot of the world — non-Christians and whoever — a lot of people affirm that. Christians and non-Christians both affirm that smoked cheddar cheese and thick-cut bacon play nice together on Angus beef. When Christians call that good, we’re not turning any heads. But see then we want to go step further though. We want to connect the dots: this Bacon Blucy cheeseburger is a gift from God so that we would delight more in God. So we want to connect the dots back to him. We want to make this important, life-changing connection, but there’s still some basic agreement: Yes, a bacon cheeseburger is good and should be enjoyed.
But then, self-denial comes in and says: A bacon cheeseburger is good and should be enjoyed, and it’s a gift from God so that we would enjoy God more, and sometimes we renounce the gift so that we would enjoy God more.
And that makes almost no sense. That’s hard for anyone to understand, but for our society, it’s basically incomprehensible. We’re talking about good and decent things that make us happy. To renounce those things for a spiritual, invisible, greater joy is almost crazy.
But I want to show you why it’s not. This is the rest of the sermon. I want to show you why self-denial is not crazy. So we’re going to look again at Luke 9:23, and I have three points. If you like outlines, this one goes:
- Following Jesus means there is more of him to know.
- The more of him you know, the more of you it will cost.
- One day the cost won’t feel like a cost at all.
Let’s start with the first.
1. Following Jesus means there is more of him to know.
Luke 9:23 again,
And he said to all, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. 24For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.”
The first thing to point out here is that Jesus says, “If anyone would come after me.” Which means he’s talking about trusting him, believing in him. This is another way to talk about faith in Jesus, and he says it’s to come after him and to follow him. And when Jesus says “Follow me” — those two words tell us something about the nature and object of faith.
First, and hear the emphasis here: Jesus says “Follow me.” Me, he says. As in, me a real person. Which means that to believe in him, or to follow him, can never be just checking a box. Jesus is not a list of questions that you either agree with or disagree with. Jesus doesn’t offer you six principles around which to build your life. Jesus doesn’t ask you to sign off on some mantra that you repeat several times a day. Jesus asks us if we want to follow him. Him. Do we want him? That’s what he’s asking. Do you want to come with me? Do you want to do your life in relationship with me? That’s his question.
Jesus, the real person, is the object of our faith. He is who we put our faith in — and if the object of our faith is a real person, then it must affect the nature of faith. Faith itself is not mainly about what we think, or what we do, but it’s about love. It’s a redirection of the heart. That’s what has to happen if we’re going to follow Jesus. We’re going somewhere with him. We’re leaving where we are, and we’re going somewhere with Jesus. So Christianity then is not just about the way to Jesus, but it’s about the way of Jesus. God cares about relationship.
The Bible is clear on this, and you can see it back in the exodus, early in the history of Israel. The people of Israel had been slaves in Egypt for four hundred years, and then God comes and rescues them. And the goal the whole time — and you can see this in the Book of Exodus — the goal is not just that Israel be no longer slaves; but the goal is that they be God’s people. That’s what God says, in Exodus 19, in Deuteronomy 7. God chose Israel to be his people — to be his treasured possession out of all the peoples on the earth. He cares about relationship.
Or I love the way Paul says it in 1 Corinthians. In 1 Corinthians 1:9 Paul writes, “God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.”
So this is relationship or fellowship. It’s not just about the way to Jesus, but the way of Jesus — following him, walking with him, doing your life in relationship with him. And once we understand that — that Jesus is a real person and that believing in him is following him — once we understand that then we’ll begin to understand the dynamism and depth that comes with it. Jesus is not an idea, he’s a person — so there’s more of him to know. We can get to know him better. Faith is not simply acknowledging him, it’s walking with him — so we can walk closer. We can go deeper. Following Jesus means there is more of him to know.
This gets at the heart of what Christianity is, and it’s why Christianity is different from every other religion. Every other religion in the world is about your performance. It’s about what you do — about how well you keep up, or how committed you are. It’s built around lists and expectations and principles. But Christianity, see, is centered on a person. It’s centered on Jesus, who by his absolute grace came and lived for us, and died for us, and was raised from the dead for us — so that we would be his.
Christianity is good news because it’s not about your performance, it’s about you being brought into fellowship with God by his grace, which is the whole reason you were created. And in your relationship with God, like any relationship, you can grow. We can know Jesus more. We can walk with more of his nearness. We can have more of him in front of us in everything we do. We can know Jesus more.
And a lot of you know that; this is probably not surprising to you. But maybe it’s good to hear it again. Maybe Jesus rescued you a while ago, and maybe you’ve been following him for some time, but perhaps you’ve stalled out a little. This happens to all of us sometimes. We can come to a place where maybe we’re just not interested in walking closer with Jesus. Sometimes other things can get in the way, or over time we can drift to a place where we don’t long for a deeper relationship with Jesus like we used to. We all get there sometimes, and if that’s you this morning, I want you to hear Jesus asking you again if you want to follow him. You can know him more. You can. There’s more of him.
And that brings us to the second point. Following Jesus means there is more of him to know…
2. The more of him you know, the more of you it will cost.
And this is where we really draw out self-denial. Jesus says, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” So there is a denying yourself that happens. You take up your cross, which means, there is a dying to yourself that happens. As little later in this same chapter, in Luke 9:57, Luke continues this theme of following Jesus. . . .
Jesus was walking along the road and someone said to him: “I will follow you wherever you go.” Jesus replied, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (Luke 9:58). Another person said: “Jesus, I’ll follow you, but let me first go and bury my father.” Jesus said: “Leave the dead to bury their own dead. But as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:60). Then someone else says, “I will follow you, Lord, but let me first say farewell to those at my home” (Luke 9:61). And Jesus says, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:62).
And this can be confusing. Come on, Jesus, it’s Father Day, what do you mean we can’t bury our dads? Or what do you mean we can’t say bye to our families, or that you don’t have a bed? What does Jesus mean here?
And here’s the message: following Jesus is not an accessory tacked onto your life as it currently is. If we want to follow him, to live our lives in relationship with him, that doesn’t mean we keep doing everything we’ve always done and we just add him on as extra. Jesus is not an appendix, he’s going for the heart, and that means spiritual surgery. That means following him and knowing more of him will involve change, which we could also call “cost.”
I think John the Baptist may have said it best. In John 3:30, after Jesus comes onto the scene, John the Baptist says, “He [Jesus] must increase, but I must decrease.” He says more of Jesus means less of him — and the context there is ministry but it’s true across the board. More of Jesus means less of me — and that means sometimes I give up lesser, legitimate joys for the sake of a greater one.
I know I’ve got to get practical here. What do I mean? What does that look like? So I want to get practical, but I don’t want to say too much. This is a relationship. So I’ll just give you some ideas, or categories. What might this decreasing, or this self-denial look like?
You give your time. (This goes vertical and horizontal)
You give your time. To say it another way: Self-denial means you deny your claim on your time. And here’s the thing with time: it is the main ingredient of life. Time is the currency of your living. We can put it two ways: You don’t give your life where you don’t give your time, and wherever you give your time is where you give your life.
It takes time to follow Jesus. Meditating on the Bible, praying, loving others — there are lots of specific applications but the one thing they all have in common is that they happen in time — not by your keeping time back, but by you letting it go. So this is a category: self-denial means you give your time.
You give your curliest fry. (This one starts more horizontal)
In high school I really liked curly fries. I still like them okay, but back in the day I loved them, and the more curls in the fry the better. In fact, when I ate the curly fries I’d always take the biggest, curliest fry, and I’d set it aside and save it for last. And I remember this one time — because this got singed in my memory — one time my younger brother and I were out having some curly fries and we ran into someone we knew, and the curly fries were sitting there, so I offered this friend a fry. And, of course, the curliest fry was set aside in a place of honor from the rest, and which one do you think she took? She took the champ. She took the best one. And I remember thinking, as she displaced the curliest fry — I thought “Oh no! My fry!” — and I remember thinking that to myself because I’ve spent most of my life thinking that. I’ve say that same thing all the time, just in different words. My knee-jerk, my default, my posture is “Oh no! My fry!” It’s “Oh no! My [fill in the blank]!” You do that, right? You know what I mean,. “Oh no! My … [comfort!] “Oh no! My plan!” “Oh no! My peace and quiet!]
This is how we typically think, and you can see it’s about more than french fries, but the french fries matter because we’re talking about the heart. We’re talking about a pattern of life that is not about keeping back and hogging all things for myself, but a pattern of life that’s about giving, decreasing, for the good of others which is ultimately for the glory of God and our joy in him. And I really mean that, even in those little moments.
A few days ago I got some scones with icing on them and I was cutting them up and dividing them with the kids. So I’m dividing them up and some portions are better than others. Some have more icing on them, or they’re a little softer, and when I give them out to the kids, I don’t keep the best one. I want to give that best one away, and I really love to give it to John Owen, because he is two-years-old and he doesn’t care about the icing, he’ll eat anything. So I want to give him the best one, and I’m saying that God is glorified in that and I enjoy God in that. Now how does that happen?
On the horizontal level, God is ultimately glorified, I pray, because my kids are loved by their daddy — and they’re so loved by their daddy that one day they’re going to be blown away when it clicks for them that God loves them even more than I do. My goal for them in knowing my love for them is that they know God’s love for them, even when I give them the better scone. It’s horizontal love, but it’s about God. It leads to God!
The other way the scone glorifies God and deepens my joy in him (and this is more vertical), is that me giving the better scone to my kids is me saying: Jesus, I don’t need that scone to satisfy my soul because I have you.
Because Jesus is the supreme satisfaction of our souls, that’s why we can give, and let go, and do all this horizontal stuff. Because we don’t need the scone, or the curly fries, or the triple-scoop of cookies and cream, or breakfast or lunch, or living close to family, or living in America. All these are good things, and we receive them with thankfully, and we enjoy God through them, and sometimes we enjoy God without them — because he’s the supreme satisfaction of our souls.
So there can be decreasing. There is a denying. There is a cost, but it’s because Jesus is who he is, and he’s worth it. And that’s the last point. It’s that . . .
3. One day the cost won’t feel like a cost at all.
The decreasing, the denying, the cost — it is real. We’re really giving up things. I’m really not playing softball. When you fast, you’re really not eating lunch. When you wake up early to pray, you are not sleeping. These are costs, they really are.
But then one day, when we look back, it won’t look like a cost, not when we see Jesus. And you have to use your imagination here. You have to go here in your mind. If you trust in Jesus, if you’re united to him by faith, one day you are going to see him. With your eyes you will look at the face of Jesus, and in that moment, standing before him, you are in the ocean of endless joy. He is the ocean of joy from which every other joy flows. You will be there. You will see him. And I don’t know for sure what you’re gonna think, but I know you will not think: Man, I wish I had not given so much of my self. You’re not going to think that. Nobody is going to look at the face of Jesus and wish they had kept back more of themselves. Nobody.
It will all be worth it, more than worth it. You can’t even compare it. Because there he is. Faith becomes sight, we become our truest selves, and we’re with him — no restraints, no distractions — we’re with him. That’s where this journey leads, and that’s what we get to experience more and more along the way.
And that’s what brings us to this Table. This table is about fellowship. And every week when we come to this table, Jesus is calling us again and again to himself. This table is Jesus saying to us “Follow me.” Me. And the best news is that Jesus calls us to himself by giving us himself. This is not about you. It’s not about your performance. This is Jesus saying to you: Here’s my body broken for you. Here’s my blood shed for you. Now come.
“Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat!” (Isa.55:1) — he gives himself for you. So come on.