As the Lord first taught, so it is to this day, that life in the Kingdom of God often contrasts the ways of the world. For all the talk of leadership in our day we might overlook that the primary emphasis in the Kingdom is actually on followership. While leadership serves as a spiritual gift to the Church, which not everyone enacts, followership is a practice expected from all of us and will be so for eternity.
Jesus says, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what they have done. (Matt. 16:24-27)
A portion of The Book of Common Prayer appoints specific days in which we ask God to “mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace” (BCP, p. 99). A hasty resistance to Jesus’ way of self-denial is often a struggle to set aside the ambitions to lead ourselves and grasp the life of following.
Thousands wanted something from Jesus – in so far as it suited their interests; few wanted his Kingdom according to his interests. To these John says that Jesus would not entrust himself to them for he knew the hearts of men.
Biblical self-denial is less about withholding pleasure or causing discomfort and more about daily placing the interests of God before the interests of self. Of course, this requires us to face the question: Do we trust God to know what is in our best interests even better than we do?
By faith a person receives Christ into their innermost being. And Christ, as a transforming presence reverses the course of that life from self-assertion to self-denial; from self-trust to trust in God.
Paul commends his co-worker Timothy for living such a life, saying, “I have no one else like him, who will show genuine concern for your welfare. For everyone looks out for their own interests, not those of Jesus Christ. But you know that Timothy has proved himself… (Phil. 2:20–22).
Perhaps Paul was contrasting him to those referred to earlier in his letter; those who preached Christ out of selfish ambition (Phil. 1:17); once again, following in so far as it suited their own interests. These are surely like the seed Jesus taught falls among thorns; “They hear but as they go on their way they are choked by life’s worries, riches and pleasures and they do not mature. But the seed on good soil stands for those with a noble and good heart, who hear the word, retain it, and by persevering produce a crop (Luke 8:14–15).
The good and noble heart will learn to deny the worries of life, the allure of riches, and the distraction of pleasures for the sake of following Christ. He is no fool who gives up these to preserve his soul. Walking in the way of cross, may we also learn to say “For me, to live is Christ. And to die is gain.” (Phil. 1:21)