“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it” (Luke 9:23–24).
Familiarity with these verses can often cloud their obvious meaning: to follow Jesus is to die. And though we may plaster them on our Facebook walls or quote them in our email signatures, our experience is rarely aligned with the daily dying prescribed in Jesus’ words.
The cross Jesus speaks of is not a piece of jewelry or home décor; it is an instrument of brutal death. And we are asked to take up this lethal tool daily. Every single day. To follow Jesus is to die daily.
An Unexpected Death
I had been following Jesus for many years when I married Jimmy. But my aversion to dying to self would have convinced you I had just begun. Jimmy’s budding career as a Christian recording artist held a knife to the throat of my own self-importance. As his fame grew, mine faded into his shadow. No longer recognized for my own spirituality or accomplishments, I was simply the lucky wife of a very gifted and spiritually mature man. His sidekick. His tagalong.
For the first time, I felt the sting of death closing in . . . and I wasn’t ready for it. I thought I knew how to lose my life for Jesus, but clearly any dying I had done hadn’t been that painful. And now I was surrounded by the inevitable death of my reputation and self-sufficient habits, and there was no way out. The significance I found in being a good Christian girl, the delight I had in being looked up to, and all the perks of my old life of ministry as a single person were being put to death. And it felt like it.
Getting married was the first of many seasons of death, losing my life for the sake of Christ. Though confused and angry in the moment, I now realize that God was giving me the best gift I would ever receive: freedom from myself. Because the subtleties of my sinful flesh usually manifested in “good Christian behavior,” pride and self-love had been impossible for me to detect. Since I was unaware of this growing stronghold in my life, God took the initiative to set me free. I’ve never been so grateful.
Most of us are surprised when taking up our cross actually hurts. We mistakenly assume that our fleshly desires will die easily and quickly. After all, we are new creations with the Spirit of God residing in us. But old loves and old habits still writhe in their last breaths. Physical death is messy, grievous, and terrifying. And in my experience, the losing of my life for the sake of Christ has often felt the same.
Death Is Messy
I didn’t see it coming. Since our relationship, through dating and engagement, had been like a dream, I assumed being married would be nothing less. That initial trip to Nashville, two weeks after I walked the aisle, ushered me into the most confusing year of my life. I had been hit by a wave bigger than I could handle and flailed around underwater, unsure which way was up or down.
The crucifying of my flesh in those initial moments was messy, raw, and confusing. I was convinced that what God sought to destroy was a good thing, a help and asset to my life. But the flesh, however noble it may seem to us, cannot please God nor bring about anything good. Unable to see that clearly at the time, I was left wondering and confused.
It took a couple of years and some counseling, but I was eventually able to communicate with some accuracy the good work God had been doing in my life. But until then, it was just messy.
Death Is Grievous
Dying is painful because something dearly loved is being lost forever. In the case of the Christ-follower, we are losing the self-sufficient and self-important ways that we have grown accustomed to, the pet sins we keep to comfort us on rainy days, and the worldly habits we enjoy that help us fit in on this earth. These things, though harmful to our relationship with God, don’t die without a fight. I can still feel the painful writhing in my soul as old ways and old loves take their last breath. Sorrow accompanies my internal pain as old, familiar paths are forever destroyed.
Death Is Terrifying
Death throws us into an unknown territory with no way back. What will life be like on the other side? There’s no test driving, no thirty-day return policy. Something dies and a completely new life begins. Yes, the new life promised is good, but what is a life dependent on God like? we wonder. How will we survive without our well-worn path of self-sufficiency? How treacherous is this new path? How painful? How will God’s help manifest? The challenge is that we won’t really know until self-sufficiency is six feet under and we have both feet on the rock of Christ.
Death Is a Good Thing
Yes, death is messy. Yes, death is grievous. Yes, death is terrifying. But death, for the Christ-follower, is a good thing. It ensures the demise of all that keeps us from God. It promises that sin and the flesh can be conquered with the finality of a grave.
Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.
For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin (Rom. 6:3–7, emphasis mine).
The invitation to die—to take up our cross and lose our lives for Jesus—is truly an invitation to newness of life, to union with Christ, and to ultimate freedom from sin. For the one who has died has been set free from sin!
May we choose daily to die to self that we might be united with Jesus, knowing that He alone has the power to save our lives as we entrust ourselves to Him!