As Christians we are told repeatedly of the need to give up our own lives for the sake of others. How can we do that? How can we become servants?
IN HIS BOOK The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck describes the lot of an unfortunate group of people who have suffered great poverty, oppression, and a seemingly endless stream of adverse circumstances. “And when they died,” he wrote, “it was as though they never lived.”
You and I live in an age when only a rare minority of individuals desire to spend their lives in pursuit of objectives which are bigger than they are. Precious few are those who have goals and purposes which they esteem worthy enough to willingly sacrifice themselves, to suffer, and, if need be, to die for them. Our mindset normally is so superficial that our inner preoccupation as we encounter life is, “How will this benefit me?” or “What can I get out of this?” Rare are the times when we ask ourselves, “What can I give or do to try to make sure this is a success?” In our age, for most people, when they die it will be as though they never lived.
WHAT GOVERNS YOUR LIFE?
What ideals for our lifestyles do Jesus Christ and the Bible give? What perspective and purpose ought a follower of Christ to have to help him or her live out a life that is pleasing to God? These are the most important questions for us, and once we have answered them, we will be able to see if we are on the right track.
Most Christians, when thinking about the message of Jesus Christ and why they are following Him, probably have thoughts which tend to follow the ideas in Matt. 11:28-30: “Come to Me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.”
We easily identify with being “weary and burdened” and we yearn to “find rest for our souls.” This is often largely why many of us have come to Jesus by faith. Our drawing near to Him can be the foundation of a relationship both satisfying and productive.
A problem can develop when we continue only looking for more rest and tranquility and fail to begin to take His yoke upon us. The idea implied by Jesus when He speaks to us of shouldering the yoke is that He actually wants us to team up with Him, side by side, in accomplishing His work. He wants us to co-labor with Him in serving and suffering for the advance of His kingdom in the lives of individuals.
In another place, Jesus gives us more insight and motivation into how we can become yoked together with Him in the work of the kingdom: “If anyone would come after Me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow Me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for Me will save it. What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit his very self? If anyone is ashamed of Me and My words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when He comes in His glory and in the glory of the Father and the holy angels” (Lk. 9:23-26).
STEPS TO SERVICE
Jesus gives three simple yet profound steps here which tell us how to take up the yoke of service with Jesus Christ. When you first look at this passage it may seem that the steps are all different ways of saying the same thing, or that the order seems reversed, but a closer look should help us to distinguish between the different actions and to see the logic of their order.
Step One: Self Denial
Implied in all three actions Jesus prescribes is the embracing of a new authority for my life: Jesus Christ.
Self denial is the decision that, from this day forward, with God’s help, I am no longer going to operate on the principle of self-centeredness. No longer will I do whatever I feel like doing whenever I feel like doing it. It is the commitment to make Jesus Christ, not myself, the Lord of my life. It is the disposal of an old authority: selfish interest.
Two words of caution regarding self denial: First, self denial does not mean the suppression or radical alteration of your personality. I used to think that denying myself meant trying to be just like the “spiritual giants” God was using to stimulate my growth. Rather than imitating their faith and love, I tried to become a carbon copy of even their personality traits: sense of humor, style of interaction, temperament, etc. I thought this was part of denying myself, but as I suppressed my personality I became increasingly frustrated and unhappy. Self denial does not mean suppressing the uniqueness of your God-given personality.
Second, self denial does not mean that every idea that I want to pursue is automatically wrong, and that the will of God is everything that I don’t want to do. As our minds are enlightened by the Holy Spirit through our interaction with God in His Word, our desires should begin to reflect those of God. Some of what we want to do may be of God, and some of it may still originate from the old self.
Step Two: Taking Up Our Cross
I have heard many good sermons over the years which try to define just exactly what the cross is. It should be sufficient to say that in Jesus’ day, the cross was a cruel instrument used for carrying out capital punishment. Those who were crucified suffered greatly, dying a slow and agonizing death.
With this concept in the background, Jesus says that we are to take up our cross daily. The initial decision to deny myself must be lived out on a day to day basis. It is not enough to have made a lordship decision three years ago, or even last night. Day by day, decision by decision, we must continue saying “no” to the idea that we are lords of our own lives.
Jesus chose to pour out His life for us. Isn’t it reasonable that we should do the same for Him?
Step Three: Following Jesus
Steps one and two are the removal of the old authority. Step three is putting myself under the new one, Jesus Christ. The Word and the Spirit of God reveal to us what is involved in following Jesus. Some things are clearly spelled out, others will require the use of biblical principles and discernment, along with growing maturity. It is important to realize that 90% of our difficulties in taking up the yoke in service with and to Christ are related to acts of the will (self denial and cross bearing). When we are truly willing to do His will, knowing what He wants us to do is the easy part.
I remember a vivid example that may help illustrate this process. Mike had come to know Christ just after his graduation and was growing by leaps and bounds. As a vibrant young Christian, he had already made a commitment that Jesus was his Lord.
One evening, after we finished work, we had an appointment to go out on campus to talk with some people about Christ. When the time rolled around for us to go, Mike said he was tired and would like to stay home and relax. Later he realized that although he had put His faith in Christ and expressed his desire to follow Him as Lord, something was still lacking that was essential for him in serving with Christ. He realized that he needed to take up his cross and deny himself on this specific decision.
There are times when a relaxing night is very much a part of God’s plan for us, but for Mike, on this night, this was not the case. And so, that evening he decided to take up his cross and put the evangelism ahead of his desire for a night. Once he had done this, God empowered him, and we shared a great evening together on campus.
Years ago an Italian, Garibaldi, set out to liberate his country from the clutches of bad government. While enlisting men to join forces with him, he was often asked, “What’s going to be in this for me?” His answer usually went something like this: “No pay, no rank, no residences. I will offer you hunger, thirst, forced marches, and even death.” And then he would make this appeal: “Let him who loves his country with his heart, and not only with his lips, follow me.” History reveals that Garibaldi recruited an army that placed the worthiness of its cause above its temporal comforts, and though many shed their blood and gave their lives, they also freed their land.
We, too, are citizens of a kingdom: the kingdom of God. We, too, are fighting a battle to liberate the enslaved, those held in darkness from the Word of God. Our battle, however, is a spiritual battle, and our weapons are spiritual weapons. Our kingdom is an eternal one, and our aim is the entire world. Jesus desires to recruit us to take up the yoke with Him as effective soldiers in His army.
From time to time in our walk with God we have a sense that something is not quite right, but we are not quite sure what it is or how to resolve it. Recently in my struggle to leave the self-oriented life behind and be a true servant of Jesus, it helped me to take a ninety-minute “time out” with God to reflect on my life. As I used paper, pen, and Lk. 9:23, God helped me to pinpoint some areas that I needed to surrender afresh to Christ. I can recommend using some questions like the following to help in your “yokeservice” with Him:
- Have I decided to take the yoke of service that Jesus Christ offers me?
- Have I ever decided that, by God’s grace, I will deny myself, and submit to Christ’s lordship over my life?
- Am I taking up my cross daily, saying no to self and yes to Him?
- Is His Word directing my life as I seek to follow Him?
- In each of the above, what is standing in my way? What do I need to change?
Isaiah 53 contains a beautiful description of the Lord Jesus and His sufferings for us. Though amazingly written at least 600 years before Christ’s birth, Isaiah pinpoints one of the most important characteristics in Jesus for us to learn: “Therefore I will give him a portion among the great, and he will divide the spoils with the strong, because he poured out his life unto death, and was numbered with the transgressors” (Isa. 53:12).
When thinking of reaching out to the lost and ministering to people, we can boil down our actions into one of two lifestyles. We can pour ourselves out as Christ did, or we can hold ourselves back and try to save our lives. To pour our lives out is not easy. It is contrary to our basic nature because it demands sacrifice, self denial, and even pain. But if we who have come to know Christ are not willing to pour ourselves out, who will take the Word of God to those who are waiting to hear it?
Discipleship Journal, Issue 26, 1985, pp. 43, 44.