Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Take Up Your Cross

(Revised 12-13-2014, 8:20 pm)

I am six decades upon this earth as I ponder the response of Jacob when Pharaoh asked of him "How many years have you lived?"

Jacob declared:
The years of my sojourning are one hundred and thirty; few and unpleasant have been the years of my life ... (Genesis 47:8-9). 
I think, too, I have been deprived. By measure of this world, at least, I have never known success. I have never been married nor enjoyed career achievement. I have lived an impoverished life personally, professionally and financially. And my flesh has been afflicted with chronic ailments since my youth. I have prayed a thousand prayers for healing and the Lord has chosen not to heal me. People will say that I am not healed because of a lack of faith, or because of some unconfessed sin. Job's friends said the same thing, but out of ignorance. God's grace and mercy are far greater than our lack of understanding.

Walking with the Lord ... what does that look like? If you listen to the motivational speakers -- disguised as pastors -- you might get the impression that the Christian walk is one of health and prosperity. At least, that's the "Gospel" message delivered weekly to the 43,500 attendees at a mega- church in Houston, Texas.

I somewhat believed that message when I first came to Christ, but when nothing changed in my life I soon fell away. The feel-good sermons preached in Houston fill the arena seats, tickle the ears of the unwary and enrich the pastor, but they are a deception of the Word of Faith church.

Just name it and claim it is an enticing message, but is that what Scripture teaches?
Therefore I say to you, all things for which you pray and ask, believe that you have received them, and they will be granted you (Mark 11:24).
So, if I ask for healing ... God will heal me? The Apostle Paul begged the Lord for physical healing, and the Lord would not (2 Corinthians 12:7-9).

(Faith healers do not teach of God's sufficient grace.)

When I was not healed of my physical ailments I fell away ... descending even further into the depths of spiritual darkness. This is the greatest danger of the Word of Faith movement. When promises are not realized people turn from God.

For years I wallowed in the pit of my own disobedience. The amazing thing is that there flickered within my soul an ember of hope -- the Holy Spirit -- which would not be extinguished. And so God reached down and lifted me up from the depths of my suffering. I was like the lost sheep that was sought after and returned to the fold.

Was life better after restoration? My afflictions were not healed. In fact, more ailments were heaped upon me. I was still living in poverty, estranged from my family, struggling to make ends meet, alone and lonely -- but the difference was that God was helping me to carry these burdens (1 Peter 5:7).

That is the distinction.

Christians suffer more than any; but we don't need alcohol, drugs or meaningless relationships to cope with our pain and suffering. We need simply to call upon the name of the Lord to receive an uncommon strength to endure.

I have been contemplating life as I near a retirement which I cannot afford. Out of frustration (and a generous measure of aggravation) I started a new blog. After all the struggles and hardships of 60+ years I am ending my "career" working at a gas station. My financial situation is such that I will probably have to work until the Lord calls me home.

Here is an excerpt from the new blog:

[What has sustained me all these years is a deep and abiding faith in God. Well, I have not always faithfully abided in Him, but He has preserved my life through all these many years of testing and trials.

Many pastors teach a false message of prosperity and good times because it fills the pews with parishioners who like having their ears tickled with motivational mantra disguised as the Gospel (2 Timothy 4:3).

Jesus taught that we would struggle, and peace in the world is an illusion -- or we might say a deception.
Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid (John 14:7). 
I have told you all this so that you may have peace in me. Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows. But take heart, because I have overcome the world (John 16:33).
I didn't hustle my way through life as so many do -- those who exaggerate their achievements for professional or financial gain -- nor did I turn to alcohol and drugs to deaden my sense of failure and inadequacy.

My trust has always been in the LORD.]

 -- Read more here --

What does it mean to take up your cross? People will cavalierly exclaim (regarding their daily grind), "Oh, the crosses I bear!" To a degree we can partially infer that meaning, but the Greek lexicon implies an even deeper commitment of self-denial.

In the context of Scripture, Jesus had just foretold of His impending death to which Peter responded with contemptuous indignation, God forbid it, Lord! (Matthew 16:22)

(The inner circle were looking for an earthly kingdom ruled over by Christ -- even as some today preach of a thousand-year reign despite the charge of Christ that His kingdom is not of this world (John 18:36).

After Jesus rebuked Peter (Matthew 16:23), He said to the disciples (and the multitude):
If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul? (Matthew 16:24-26)
Giving up that bedtime shot of whiskey during Lent is not to deny one's self ... nor is having to take the bus to work and mope that you don't have a car ... nor is abstaining from committing fornication with your girlfriend one night a month ... nor is going to church when you'd rather go on a weekend camping trip.

Living a celibate life, as I have done, is a measure of self-denial -- and closer to what is expected of us as disciples of Christ. Pursuing worldly gain, career success, financial increase or the desires of life and flesh are at odds with what Christ expects from those He calls. That is why the young, rich ruler walked away grieving when the Lord told him to sell all that he had. This was a man who had gained the world, but at the cost of his soul (Matthew 19:21-22).

Many Christians want, as one pastor wrote, "a no-cost discipleship". You may have to give up career, friends -- even family.

John MacArthur explains:
Christ does not call disciples to Himself to make their lives easy and prosperous, but to make them holy and productive. To come to Jesus Christ for salvation is not to raise a hand or sign a card ... To come to Jesus Christ is to come to the end of self and sin and to become so desirous of Christ and His righteousness that one will make any sacrifice for Him. [1]
And that is the distinction between Scripture and tickling words. You won't find 43,500 people flocking to a church that preaches such truth.

We will suffer trials and hardships ... agony and grief. The Christian walk is not easy. As Peter would deny Christ we must deny ourselves.

Charles Ellicott wrote:
Our common thoughts of “self-denial,” i.e., the denial to ourselves of some pleasure or profit, fall far short of the meaning of the Greek. The man is to deny his whole self, all his natural motives and impulses, so far as they come into conflict with the claims of Christ. If he does not so deny himself, he is in danger, as Peter was (it is significant that the same word is used in both instances), of denying his Lord. The self-denial here commanded has, accordingly, its highest type and pattern in the act by which the Son of God, in becoming man, emptied Himself of all that constituted, if we may so speak, the “self” of His divine nature. The words “take up his cross,” which the disciples had heard before, were now clothed with a new and more distinct meaning, by the words that spoke so clearly of the death of which the cross was to be the instrument. [2]
I have lived a lifetime of deprivation. It still is not clear to me why I am in this condition (or position). Is it because of free-will choices, disobedience or the intervening hand of God?

Do I face old age alone, afflicted and in poverty because of my sin? Or is this simply God's will for my life? 

Many people wear a cross as decorative jewelry without understanding the meaning of taking up one's cross. The followers of Jesus Christ understood that the cross meant death, and that is why many walked away.

Bible expositor John Gill wrote:
... (we) must deny ourselves the pleasures and profits of the world even unto death ... and patiently bear every affliction and evil peculiar to the cross ... with an entire resignation to the will of God, in imitation of Christ our Lord. [3]
John Calvin adds:
(Christ) lays down a brief rule for our imitation, in order to resemble Him ... self-denial and a voluntary bearing of the cross. This self-denial is very extensive, and implies that we ought to give up our natural inclinations, and part with all the affections of the flesh, and thus give our consent to be reduced to nothing, provided that God lives and reigns in us. [4]
God is reducing me to nothing. Only then can His power be made manifest in the glorious nature of His eternal Son. Though I deny the world's passions I am not lacking -- for the Lord anoints His own with a comforting peace and joy that the world will never know, and Word of Faith will not teach.

Come to Jesus and be blessed.

Notes:

1. How to Take Up Your Cross, John MacArthur, gty.org.

2. Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers, Charles Ellicott, 1878.

3. Gill's Exposition of the Bible, John Gill, An Exposition of the New Testament (3 vols., 1746-8).

4. Calvin's New Testament Commentary, John Calvin, 1555.

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