Korean culture has always considered it good and right for parents to make great sacrifices and undergo superhuman suffering so that their children can have a better life. For example, parents may work dangerously long hours and even lose their health in order to send their children to a “good school” in order to guarantee them a “good future.”
It is easy for us to think of Jesus in this way, dying on the cross in amazing suffering and pain so that those who believe in him may have not only eternal life but also a better and more successful one. We want to think that Jesus died on the cross so that we would not have to.
But Jesus’ words in Luke 9:23 remind us that Jesus does not think like a Korean parent. Jesus says, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.”
In other words, Jesus did not die on the cross so that we would not have to. Jesus died on the cross so that we would choose to do so also.
Jesus does not call us to take up our cross temporarily. He calls us to take it up daily. In Luke 9:23, he is not giving us a strategy for enduring difficult times while we wait for God to resurrect us to greater blessings in this lifetime. He is calling us to lose our lives permanently for his sake and the sake of the gospel. In the words of contemporary theologian John Behr, “The life of the baptized [Christian]…is one of ‘learning to die.’”
So, in our final message today, we will be learning how to deny ourselves and take up the Cross of Christ.
There is a saying that the best way for a preacher to grow spiritually is to listen to his own preaching and then follow his own advice. That is certainly true with this message. I am far more qualified to preach on how to deny the cross and take up my self daily than I am to preach on how to deny myself and take up the cross.
Yet this message of denying self and taking up the cross must be preached because Jesus says that denying self and taking up the cross are the basic daily requirements for all disciples. For most of us, there is no one big moment presented to us where we must take up the cross once and for all. Instead, every day and every hour, in every action and every conversation for our entire lives, we must choose whether we will deny ourselves or deny the cross. The decisions we make in each moment add up to a whole life direction—one that either leads toward the cross or away from it. Even when we fail to deny ourselves and take up the cross in one moment, we are immediately faced with the same decision again in the next moment.
So, I am not only the preacher of this message but also the most eager listener and student—the person who most needs to hear it and learn from it, so that in the next moment, in the next conversation, I will choose as Jesus commands and not as my self demands.
An important starting point for us in living out this command of Jesus is to recognize that there are actually two commands here, not one: deny yourself, and take up your cross. The order of these commands is important. First, we must empty ourselves of something: Our self. Then, once we have emptied ourselves, we must put on something: The cross. We cannot carry both the cross and the self. As Jesus says in Matthew 6:24, no man can have two masters; he will hate the one and love the other. And as long as we are carrying the self, we will hate the cross.
The cross is life-giving. It should not be feared. It has only ever brought us eternal life. It is itself the tree of life. On the contrary, it is our own fallen self and will and heart that we should always fear, since these are the things that perpetually put us in danger of the fires of hell. Jeremiah 17:9 says that the human heart is deceitful above all things. But the cross has never deceived us. In Matthew 5:30, Jesus says, “If your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to depart into hell.” If that is true, should we not cut off our will and cleave only to the cross as the tree of life?
That is what Jesus has in mind when he commands us to deny ourselves. But how do we cut off our self and throw it away?
As I mentioned earlier, it is not one thing but many things, not just a one-time decision but a decision in each moment. So let us consider now the many ways we must deny self and create the space to carry the cross in our lives and hearts. We will start with perhaps the easier ways, if there be such a thing, though what may be easier for one person may be harder for another. But it may be easier to start with external forms of self-denial and work inward, especially so that we may “fence our heart in” and limit its ability to deceive us.
First, we can deny ourselves by dying to the delights and pleasures of this life. Please note that we are not called to die to all delights and pleasures, but instead to the delights and pleasures of this life. As the great church father Clement of Alexandria said, “Dying to ourselves means being content with the necessities of life. When we want more than these necessities it is easy to sin.” We must learn to take delight and pleasure in simple daily bread. Or as Paul says in 1 Timothy 6:8-9:
If we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. Those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction.
Dying to the delights and pleasures of life is a necessary part of denying self, but it is of course not sufficient. Even if we remove every delight and pleasure of this life that surrounds us, sin can still reign in our bodies. As Jesus says in Matthew 15:11, it is not what goes into us that is our main problem; it is what comes out of us from the inside.
And so that leads to a second step we can take in denying ourselves: We can learn to ignore ourselves. The great church father Theophylact wrote, “We can learn what it means to deny oneself if we understand what it means to deny another.” Last weekend Dr. Foley and I were in Yoido to see the cherry blossoms. The sidewalks were of course completely filled with people. But there was an old and haggard man lying on a wheeled cart, pulling himself forward by his hands, his stereo blaring out old-time music very loudly, while he hoped to receive donations. All of us are of course accustomed to seeing men like this in every large crowd, and we all did what we always do: We ignored the man. We stepped around him.
And yet, even in the middle of the night, I listen carefully to every thought in my own head. At every moment I am paying attention to what I think, what I feel, and what I want. I need to think of my self like I thought of that beggar. Like that beggar, my thoughts and feelings and needs never leave me alone. They are always there, playing their music loudly in order to get my attention and my sympathy. I need to think of them as being like a beggar on a cart pulling itself through my mind. Over time I can learn to ignore them.
Part of learning to ignore ourselves is to learn to ignore what others think of us. That is a third way we can deny self: By dying to the desires of others and being alive only to the desires of Christ. The contemporary theologian Thomas Hopko tells a story about this from the desert fathers of the early church:
One man asks an old man, “What is this Christian perfection we are seeking for?” The old man replied, “Come, I will show you” and took him to a fresh grave in a cemetery and said to the dead man, “Brother, you are the worst pig that ever lived. No one is as rotten as you”. Then the old man asked the young one, “What did he do?” The young man said, “Nothing, he is dead”. The old man looked again at the same grave and said, “You are the greatest person who ever was. No one is like you. You are the most wonderful, perfect person”. He then looked at the young man and asked, “What did he do”. The young man again replied, “Nothing, he is dead”. The old man then said, “Perfect”. He lives only before the face of God. He is not living for what people say whether they flatter, curse or bless him; he lives before the face of God. Therefore, he is free and he already reigns.
We think (wrongly) that denying self means denying our own needs so we can be attentive to the needs of others. But Jesus himself is not attentive to the needs of others. He is solely attentive to the Father. He says in John 5:19 that he only does what he sees the Father doing. And watching the Father does not mean that Jesus is in the church building all day. The Father sees every hair that falls from our head. But in Mark 1, after Jesus spends the day healing people, the next day Peter lines up a whole new group of people waiting to be healed. But Jesus says to Peter, “Let’s head in the other direction so that I can preach there too. That’s why I’ve come.” The needs of others can blind us to God just as much as our own needs. To deny self means even to deny self the right to meet the needs of others. We serve God alone, and when we serve others, we do so because he directs, and we do so as he directs.
This is a fourth form of denying our self: Dying to our self-trust. The Bible consistently teaches us that our self-will is fallen. It deceives us precisely at the moments when we are convinced we see clearly. Proverbs 14:12 says, “There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way of death.” We (wrongly) think that being saved somehow heals our judgment and makes it good.
But we should note that Christ’s self-will was never fallen—it has always been perfect—and yet he is still dead to self-trust. He simply disregards his will for the will of the Father. In Luke 22:42, in the Garden of Gesthemane, Jesus prays, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.”
The Apostle Paul says in 1 Corinthians 6:7, that even in extreme situations like being sued in court by a fellow Christian, “Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be cheated?” In Romans 14:4, he is writing about conflicts between believers about Christian practice. He says, “Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To their own master, servants stand or fall. And they will stand, for the Lord is able to make them stand.”
Contemporary theologian Michael Reagan says it like this: “Self-will is the source of all human conflict in the world, and certainly in the church as well.” God does not heal our self-will and then re-deploy it so that we can bless the world with our improved judgment. God heals the world by crucifying our self-will. As Reagan says, “Only when I am firmly nailed to my own cross will the world know peace.”
Or as the great Russian Orthodox church father Ignatius once said:
Whatever you do, on no account condemn anyone; do not even try to judge whether a person is good or bad, but keep your eyes on that one evil person for whom you must give an account before God: yourself.
Where we are given opportunity to practice this most is in marriage. Lynn Roush, a contemporary spiritual writer, says, “God specifically uses the marital relationship to reveal the sin of self-righteousness.” Certainly, no one is exposed to my self-righteousness more often or more fully than my wife. My selfishness certainly creates problems for my wife, but it is my self-trust—my confidence that I am right and that my wife needs to know that—that creates more problems and bigger problems for the two of us. Roush says that in marriage, “we will always rise to our own defense and succumb to blaming [our spouse] and believing the best about ourselves.” Biblically, of course, that is ridiculous. As Roush says, “The Bible continually warns us of our own self-deception and requires us to accept that we do not see ourselves the way God sees us.” That’s why Roush says, no matter what it may look like or feel like in any given conflict with our spouse, no matter how certain we are that we are right and our spouse is wrong, “our greatest marital problem is ourselves.”
But this is what makes marriage a great teacher of self-denial: Either you die to self, or your marriage dies. Roush says:
Two people pursuing their own kingdoms throughout a marriage will eventually end in bloody battle. But what if both people decide to submit to God’s kingdom, where Christ reigns supreme and where joy, meaning, and life are found? A heart reorientation of this magnitude is where real change begins, and the conflict of a marriage becomes an “opportunity to exit the small space of the kingdom of self and to begin to enjoy the beauty and benefits of the kingdom of God.”
I’ve written two books on the Sexual Revolution and the challenge it creates for the church. There are many aspects of the Sexual Revolution, but the one that Christians are usually interested to talk about is gay marriage. What most Christians see as the main problem with gay marriage is the gender of those marrying. And certainly that is a problem, since as we shared in our first message, Eve being drawn from the side of Adam—the first marriage—is intended as a type, or foreshadowing, of the one true marriage, which is the church being drawn from the side of Christ on the cross. In Christianity, each marriage is intended to point to that one true marriage, and so Christian marriage has always been the union of one man and one woman.
But that is not the only problem with gay marriage from a Christian perspective, and it is not the deepest problem. The deepest problem with gay marriage from a Christian perspective is that marriage is understood and undertaken as a means of self-fulfillment: I marry a man because it is in marrying a man that I am most fulfilled. But in the one true marriage, the marriage of Christ and the church, marriage is not a means of self-fulfillment, but of martyrdom. Christ does not need the church for his fulfillment. In fact, Christ needs nothing for his fulfillment. As Paul says in his speech on the Areopagus in Acts 17:25, “He is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else.”
Unlike Christ, we human beings do have needs. But Christianity has always insisted that Christian marriage (as different from other forms of marriage) does not exist for the purpose of meeting our needs. Instead, it exists to embody and display Christ’s selfless love for the church. This is why it has its foundation in self-denial and martyrdom. My spouse is not my partner in having my needs met; in fact, my spouse may be my enemy in that regard. Instead, spouses in Christian marriage are living sacraments of Christ and the church, and they are commanded in Ephesians 5 to receive each other accordingly. In the Eastern churches this is even signified in the wedding service by the husband and wife receiving martyrs’ crowns.
But it is not only gay couples that have distorted Christian marriage into a means of self-fulfillment these days; it is Christian husbands and wives in general that have distorted Christian marriage in the same way. But it is not only Christian husbands and wives in general that have distorted Christian marriage in the same way; it is I myself that do so in my own marriage. So as Father Ignatius says, the one evil person I really need to keep my eye on with regard to the distortion of Christian marriage is myself.
These are easy things to say in a sermon, these five ways of self-denial, but the real test comes for me—and for each of us—in the next encounter we have with our spouse…and in the next encounter we have with the needs of others…and in the next encounter we have with our own needs and desires…and in the next encounter we have with other’s opinions of us…and in the next encounter we have with the delights and pleasures of this life. In each of those encounters we will face the challenge of denying ourselves or denying the cross. In each moment our hearts will demand that we assert ourselves. Our hearts will insist that those we are encountering will be impoverished without the full expression of our good judgment.
In such times we should recall that Christ does not save the world by subjecting the world to his judgment. He saves the world by subjecting himself to the world’s judgment, by dying on the cross.
And even that is not quite correct. Christ does not actually save the world by dying on the cross. He saves the world by placing his trust not in himself but in his Father. That includes the Father’s instruction to Jesus to take up the cross.
In the same way for us, self-denial means death to our exercising any form of control or judgment or self-will and instead our exercising absolute trust in God. It means us accepting everything that comes to us as coming to us from the Lord’s hand—not because he causes it, but because he permits it, for his purpose and for our learning perfect obedience and trust in him. This is where self-denial begins to become the taking up of the cross.
The church father Nicholas of Žiča defined taking up your cross like this:
What does it mean to take up your cross? It means the willing acceptance, at the hand of Providence, of every means of healing, bitter though it may be, that is offered. Do great catastrophes fall on you? Be obedient to God’s will, as Noah was. Is sacrifice demanded of you? Give yourself into God’s hands with the same faith as Abram had when he went to sacrifice his son. Is your property ruined? Do your children die suddenly? Suffer it all with patience, cleaving to God in your heart, as Job did. Do your friends forsake you, and you find yourself surrounded by enemies? Bear it all without grumbling, and with faith that God’s help is at hand, as the apostles did.
Jesus does not say, “Search for your cross.” He will bring it to you daily. You need only take it up in whatever form he brings it, with full trust in God.
 J. Behr. 2013. Becoming Human. Yonkers, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, p. 64-66.
 “Selected Quotes of the Fathers on the Holy Cross.” Full of Grace and Truth. http://full-of-grace-and-truth.blogspot.kr/2010/03/selected-quotes-of-fathers-on-holy.html.
 Theophylact. “On the Veneration of the Holy Cross.” Mystagogy Resource Center. http://www.johnsanidopoulos.com/2013/04/let-him-deny-himself-take-up-his-cross.html.
 T. Hopko. 1999. “Life after death… Mysteries beyond the grave.” Orthodox Christian Info. http://www.orthodoxchristian.info/pages/afterdeath.htm.
 M. Reagan. 2011. “Take Up Your Cross.” The Abandoned Mind. http://theabandonedmind.blogspot.kr/2011/09/take-up-your-cross.html.
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 Ignatius Brianchaninov. n.d. “St. Ignatius Brianchaninov: Speak will of those who speak evil of you. . . .” Orthodox Church Quotes. https://orthodoxchurchquotes.wordpress.com/2015/09/30/st-ignatius-brianchaninov-speak-will-of-those-who-speak-evil-of-you/.
 L. Roush. 2010. “Marriage: A Dying to the Self.” Christianity Today. http://www.christianitytoday.com/women/2010/may/marriage-dying-to-self.html.
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 J. Meyendorff. 1975. Marriage: An Orthodox Perspective. Crestwood, N.Y.: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press.
 N. Velimirovich. n.d. “Selected Quotes of the Fathers on the Holy Cross.” Full of Grace and Truth. http://full-of-grace-and-truth.blogspot.kr/2010/03/selected-quotes-of-fathers-on-holy.html.