Deny Yourself to Make Room for God
31 Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. 32 He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33 But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
34 He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. 36 For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 37 Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? 38 Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels
This passage follows immediately from Jesus’s question to the disciples: “Who do people say that I am?” After a couple of misses, Jesus changes the question to: “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answers: “You are the Messiah.” But when Jesus ‘quite openly’ starts to teach them about what he meant by “Messiah”—someone who suffers, who is rejected, is killed and who rises again, Peter tries to stop Jesus from talking.
Jesus is introducing a concept that is completely contrary to our experience. We are hard wired for survival. Self interest is what has allowed our species to survive. Vulnerability is dangerous to survival and should be avoided. It is no wonder that Peter and the disciples had a hard time grasping it. Who in their right minds would ever want to follow Jesus’ example? More specifically, religiously, a messiah is supposed to save; a messiah is supposed to make things better; a messiah is supposed to relieve suffering. Jesus was not going to win friends and influence people with this kind of talk. It was literally inconceivable that a helpless man could be the redeemer. Yet, Jesus says: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it…..”
I want to go two different directions from here—first to look at how we are likely to create dichotomous solutions rather than deal with the paradox of actual living. And second, to see how that plays out in the ordinary task of learning to listen to and respect one another.
SELF-CENTEREDNESS VS SELF SACRIFICE
As important as self interest is to the survival of the species, watching out for number one has the predictable consequence of encouraging ranking people on the basis of power, position and wealth. We all too easily equate having more as being more valuable. Privilege becomes a sign of favor. Conversely, the less a person has the more likely they will be seen as ‘less than.’ This works great if you’re a top dog but not so much if you’re an underdog. But over history, nobody stays a top dog. It may take a few centuries but top dogs are inevitably toppled. Our place in society becomes a cyclical series of adversarial relationships where those in power are seeking to maintain it and those out of power are seeking to gain it. Within these values, a good life is a safe life and whatever it takes to be safe is fair game.
Jesus turned that cycle upside down. He sought to save us from ourselves. He challenged the human belief that the life well lived is measured by our comfort. Instead, Jesus said that the life that matters is how we add to life. ”In as much as you do it to the least of these, you do it unto me” suggests the poorest of the poor, the most disenfranchised are as worthy as the Son of God. We are all cherished and loved by God. He separated the differences that make each of us an individual from a value judgment about each person’s worth. Our differences define us individually. We all have age, race, education, gender preferences etc. but none of those alter how God sees people. That is how Jesus treated people.
The vulnerable were as valuable as the strong. In order for that to be a new way of life, Jesus had to demonstrate that what we fear and avoid—our own vulnerability and mortality—did not define him. The life he spoke of was in direct contrast to human assumptions. For Jesus, life is not measured by wealth, power, longevity or good health. Life is a function of our ability to love and value. We belong to something far greater than our individual self interest. No longer can we only devote our lives to ourselves. We choose to devote our lives to kindness, regard and love. Jesus is explicit: “ For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?” Human things end in dust. Divine things make us part of God’s life giving purpose.
But real life can turn such faith claims into a new legalism. I was raised with the maxim, God first, other people second, me third. It was a guide to inspire devotion to God and to remind us we are not the center of the universe. Unfortunately anything that can be used can be misused. The guideline easily becomes a rule in which good Christians always defer. (I had a seminary professor tell us Christians were in trouble when there were two Christians and only one chair to give up.) Always deferring makes no more sense than always claiming priority. Real life is lived in between the two and there is no ‘right’ answer. Individuals and families routinely have to struggle with how much help to offer and at what cost. In such cases the cross each of us have to take up is the requirement that we seek to discern in the midst of uncertainty. Our faith means we choose to struggle with the dilemma. There is no right answer when we confront human need—either in our families or on the street. All of us will make mistakes but it is the process of prayerfully balancing needs that is expected. One size does not fit all.
LEARNING TO LISTEN
Peter completely misunderstands Jesus. Peter’s preconceptions and assumptions prevented him from taking in what Jesus was trying to teach. And to make matters worse, Peter’s understanding of messiah-ship was the majority view—which made it even harder to actually listen to Jesus. Our experiences bind and blind us. Peter’s ‘knowledge’ interfered with his ability to listen. This happens all the time in real life. Someone says something we don’t understand or disagree with and we respond by correcting and/or arguing with them. I see couples all the time where one of the two takes exception to something that was said and the partner starts arguing. Especially when we hear something we take personally or as a criticism, a whole raft of defenses emerge to challenge or dismiss what the other is saying. Whether it be inter-personally, religiously or politically, it is difficult to suspend our own thinking long enough to actually listen.
Jesus is described by Paul as self emptying. I believe that is one application of the phrase: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” In order to notice the marginalized, we have to give up human standards of who matters. In order to listen to political views different than our own, we must give up our need to insist on the correctness of our own point of view. In order to respond to someone criticizing us, we must accept that we can do harm—even if it is not our intention. Only when we can suspend our own ego needs can we actually be curious. When we insist on our way, there is no room for God or other people. When we need agreement, it is nearly impossible to show curiosity, much less regard and respect.
The more our personal sense of safety is threatened, the harder it is to listen. It’s harder to talk about racism in America because all of us are personally involved. It is much easier to discuss the caste system in India. We can be detached when discussing India or South Africa but when the issue gets closer to home, indignation and guilt regularly interfere with our ability to listen. Inter-personally, we are quick to say, “That’s not what I meant” without learning how we were experienced. Or worse, we will say: “You have it wrong. You’re being too sensitive.”
We make all kinds of things litmus tests. Politically we say ‘love it or leave’. We define patriotism through our own lens—and those who don’t agree, don’t belong. Religiously, people are regularly included or excluded by how they answer the question: ‘Are you born again?’ Congregations and denominations divide over gender identity questions or how marriage is defined. If we pay attention to the times we begin a response with ‘Yes, but…’ we will begin to discover how sensitive and fragile our egos are. Such defensiveness exposes how difficult it is to self empty (deny ourselves) long enough to show care for another. We need to use our reactions to recognize what we are defending.
Jesus says to put all of that down. Be vulnerable and follow him. It is the way to life. Jesus lived his life reliant upon God—not upon how he was received. We routinely fear we will be harmed and/or that relationships will be broken. And in real life that may well happen. It is hard to trust God enough to surrender what we think is important to what God tells us is important. We will fail and we will fail often. Surrendering our way to God’s way does not come easily. But following means bringing our defensive stubborn egocentric selves to God. That is where we will find life. That is where we will learn how to love one another.
Create space to listen to God and to each other. Let it be so.
Vernon Gramling is a Parrish Associate at DPC. He has been providing pastoral care and counseling for over 45 years. You can find more about Vernon, the Faith in Real Life gatherings and Blog at our staff page or FIRL.