As we go through the year, a thousand distractions take us away from God. Early Christians recognized this and began to take time before the most important season of the Christian year to fast and pray. We call it lent from an old English word for spring. Others call it the Quadragesima, forty days of prayer, fasting and alms-giving.
In Mark 8:29 Jesus asked his students, “Who do you-all say I am?” Peter correctly answered: Christ or Messiah (the anointed one) but what does that mean? For Jesus, it meant suffering and death on the cross. Peter did not want to hear it and rebuked Jesus for predicting it. But that is what being the anointed one meant. It also means that anyone who follows Christ must likewise be willing to give of themselves in order to serve human kind. There is a form of Christianity which claims to be spirit-filled, but is in reality self-centered and materialistic. It focuses on personal spiritual experiences instead of serving others and accumulating wealth for self instead of giving it away for others. The example of Christ is centered upon totally giving up the self in order that others may live.
Lent began in the early church to prepare for Resurrection Sunday. Christians focus on prayer, fasting and alms-giving. As people thought over Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness and Israel’s forty years of wandering in the wilderness it made sense to take forty days before Easter to reset our minds on divine things (Mark 8:33). Some observe Lent legalistically by fasting only on certain days like Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, but that misses the point. The tradition is not just another legalistic man-made rule, but a multitude of counsel from generations of departed saints who left us a legacy, an annual opportunity to draw close to God. It is a season for spending some time alone, a time for extra prayer, for taking a day to fast, giving to the less fortunate and hitting the spiritual reset button.
Some Bible passages which are hard to understand are called difficult scriptures. In Mark 8:34 Jesus said, “Whosoever will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.” What cross? For a thousand years overlapping the life of Christ, crucifixion was a method of capital punishment among several ancient peoples including the Romans. Convicted criminals were sometimes required to carry either the cross beam or the entire cross to the place of execution. For Christians to take up their crosses it means that we must deny our selfish, natural desires and devote ourselves to the service of Jesus and others. This is one of the most uncomfortable sayings of Jesus. It is not hard to understand. It is difficult to do. Often it is the easiest to understand which are the hardest passages.
Christians are not called to do the easy thing. We are called to do the difficult thing that seems to be against all hope (Mark 8:34). Following Jesus is to lay aside the easy way and choose what appears to be the more difficult path. Just as Jesus gave up his life on the cross, so too do we carry our cross and take the difficult path to self-sacrifice. Few of us are called to do like Abraham and make a supreme personal sacrifice by leaving our country to follow God, yet we are called to selflessness. Against all hope, Abraham hoped in God’s promises (Romans 4:13-25) and became the father of many nations (Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16). Like his promise to Abraham, God’s promise to us is a better life beyond the temporary sacrifices of the present.
How does taking up our cross (Mark 8:34) look in practice? I once knew a young mechanic who took every factory training course offered by his company. The other mechanics could not be bothered. They wanted the easy path. In his mid 20’s he became the boss over his much older co-workers, because he took the hard road. In all of life’s endeavors, there are those who choose short-term pain for long-term gain. Athletes cannot go home and relax between games, they must train hard. At college there are the party people who lose and the hard workers who succeed. Anything worthwhile involves short-term pain for long-term gain. There are two paths to take in life. The easy path starts out smooth, but ends up rough. The hard road often starts out difficult, but end up smoother.
The devil deceives us by offering a wide variety of lifestyles with one ingredient in common, self. They all build altars of self-worship filled with idols of self-gratification. We may not all be able to build our own Trump Towers, or have a hundred million dollar trust fund for our children, but the idolatry of self expresses itself in thousands of other ways. It is a delusion that guarantees misery and loneliness. There is a lifestyle which guarantees happiness forever. Jesus described it in words which are the opposite of our culture of self (Mark 8:34). He defined a better way of life. It includes words like deny self, take up our cross and lose our self-indulgent lifestyle for the Gospel. This is shocking to a narcissistic, self-centered culture, but it is the way to our best life ever.
Some churches are growing while mainstream churches are dying. Yet, where are we more likely to hear the Gospel? The simple fact is that mainstream churches are far more likely to read a Gospel text each week. In large popular churches we are more likely to hear a materialistic motivational speech about health and wealth that actually contradicts the Gospel. The good news is that living a selfless life is a life of abundant blessings, but it is not popular. People do not want to hear about emulating someone who lived a life of poverty and sacrificed himself for others. They want to hear about making money and having things. Mainstream churches are tempted to change from the Gospel to empty-headed fluffy topical sermons that deny denying self (Mark 8:34). That is church growth at the expense of truth.
A popular message is that Jesus can help you get your life back, but that’s not exactly how Jesus said it. In Mark 8:35 Jesus said whoever will save his life shall lose it; but whoever shall lose his life for my sake and the gospel’s, the same shall save it. We don’t want to lose our lives. Our natural desire is to preserve our way of life. Yet such a selfish life is a dead life. The only work worth doing is that of giving to others. When we we give, we gain the whole world. It is a message that is so contrary to our natural thinking that we believe it is a lie. Certainly, giving up our lives is not a popular message, but according to Jesus, it is the way to save our lives.
We live in a world obsessed with wealth and success. Yet true wealth is not found in gaining the whole world. Even Christians are deluded by monetary wealth and material success, even believing that God promises money. Yet a man with millions and billions who lives a selfish life does not have wealth but abject poverty of spirit. Someone who achieves worldly status by destroying the lives of others is an abysmal failure not a success. In Mark 8:35 Jesus defined true wealth and success as the way of the cross. True riches are the wealth of people that we have sacrificed to serve. True success is also found in rejecting selfish living in this world for a better life in eternity. True celebrity is not in this life, but in joining Jesus in his glory at his coming.
The selfish life is appealing. Walking a red carpet to the cheers of worshiping fans drives some of us. Living away from the troubles of the world in a monastic penthouse atop a beautiful mountain appeals to others. Living in the lap of luxury with gold accouterments, marble floors and servants to prepare gourmet meals every day also sounds appealing. Let’s face it. We don’t really believe in denying ourselves anything. We don’t really believe in burdening ourselves with a personal cross. We really believe in gaining the whole world for our country and ourselves. We give lip service to Jesus while in reality we are ashamed of emulating his life of self-sacrifice. We live selfish lives. Why did Jesus have to go and say that our way of life would lead to us losing our lives (Mark 8:35)?
Real heroes would have to include any who make a great sacrifice for others. That would include soldiers, firefighters, those police officers who truly do protect and serve, missionaries and volunteers who serve the needy. A one-time sacrifice is to be praised, but also a lifetime of sacrifice. In Mark 8:36-37 Jesus defined some ingredients of what it takes to be a true hero. Denying self, taking up our cross and losing our life for the gospel. On one university campus a theology professor asked his students to look out the window at the school of medicine and the school of law. He then said that those graduating from those schools would make many times more than a pastor, but serving Christ is where the true riches are. We are all called to be part of that heroic mission.
“My job, my flag, my team, my lifestyle, my inheritance, my church, my salvation, my world not yours.” Does any of this sound familiar? It ought to. We all tend to be selfish and our way of life is more about getting than giving. Jesus challenges us to think about another way of life (Mark 8:37). To our habitual way of thinking it seems to be the most miserable and unhappy way of life. That is because we have spent a lifetime steeped in the propaganda of the devil. His propaganda even enters the church as a counterfeit gospel of self-interest rather than self-sacrifice and of gaining our lives only to lose them. This counterfeit Christianity is ashamed of Jesus and his words because it seeks to have us run away from our cross rather than take it up.
Narcissism is extreme selfishness. Narcissistic Christianity is therefore not true Christianity, but it is a very popular counterfeit. Rather than sacrificing for others and enduring injustice, it falsely advertises “your best life now,” but teaches a selfish life of setting our minds on the materialistic things of earth not the things of heaven. It lies by saying that our best days are ahead of us, while Christians in some countries await persecution. Narcissistic Christianity substitutes cheap materialism for spiritual wealth, selfishness instead of love of neighbor and promotes unrealistic expectations from this life. Narcissism is being ashamed of Jesus (Mark 8:38). Jesus defined true Christianity as the exact opposite of materialistic narcissism. It involves turning from our selfish ways, taking up our cross and following him. Following Jesus’ example of self-sacrifice is the only way to finding true life.
Let us take time before the most important feast of the Christian year to fast, pray and give to the needy.