Well-meaning people have strived to find ways to please God for generations and generations. These efforts usually create some type of spiritual path or process to reach and please God. However, each of these efforts falls short of their goal because they start from the wrong point.
How does a person please God? In particular, how does a person live the Christian life? Doing good and not harming others ranks high among the many thoughts and ideas put forth.
Some see the need for a strict moral code and religious disciplines. Others may see it as more of a philosophy of being like Jesus, which can take on all sorts of approaches.
@@All humanity's efforts to reach and please God fall short of what He desires@@. The key is what Jesus tells us in the gospels. His way is much simpler and yet more challenging.
The path and the garden
Jesus' call to follow Him
In each of the three synoptic gospels, Jesus tells those who would follow Him what they need to do (Matt 16:24; Mark 8:34; Luke 9:23). Here it is from Luke's gospel—
And he said to all, "If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. (Luke 9:23 ESV)
People have varying thoughts about what it means to "deny" our self and to "take up" our cross. Even the simple call to "follow Me" is made complicated by various leaders and theologians.
How can we determine what Jesus meant? The simplest way I know is to look at His living example and how it fits with what He says. Life example is a basic essential to good leadership, whether to be a good leader or gain insight to what leadership involves.
3 prayers of Jesus in Gethsemane
Before Jesus went to the cross, He asked the Father if it could be avoided. This is also found in the first three gospels of the Bible (Matt 26:36-46; Mark 14:32-42; Luke 22:39-46). Matthew's gospel gives us the most detail and insight into these three prayers of Jesus (Matt 26:39, 42, 44).
Each of the three prayers is similar. Jesus asks His Father if the "cup" of suffering death on the cross can be avoided. Each ends with Jesus' willingness to do the Father's will over His own.
Reading through the details of this time of prayer in the garden of Gethsemane, on the Mount of Olives, reveals how difficult it was for Jesus.
He tells the disciples that His "soul was overwhelmed to the point of death" (Mark 14:34 NIV). In Luke, we're told His sweat was "like drops of blood falling to the ground" (Luke 22:44 NIV).
All of this shows us the great struggle Jesus had with accepting the Father's will. This is why following Jesus may be simple on one hand, but difficult and challenging, as well.
Luke reminds us the basic call to follow Jesus is a daily choice, not a one-and-done decision. @@Self-denial is a continuing choice to not go back to our embedded selfish way of life@@. It's an ongoing act of repentance—turning to God and away from our selfish nature.
Denying our self is to acknowledge the futility of living by our inherent selfish nature, which includes such things as—self-indulgence, self-justification, self-fulfillment, self-righteousness, and whatever else that places self at the center of attention in our life.
Most believers don't move beyond this first step of following Jesus. This leads to a performance-based relationship with God similar to trying to live by the Ten Commandants of the Mosaic Law (Exo 20:1-17). It's not the path Jesus calls us to walk (Gal 3:3, 10-14).
@@Following Jesus requires living by faith, only possible through God's grace at work in us@@.
For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people. It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age (Titus 2:12 NIV)
Moving forward in the next step of following Jesus also requires a daily choice. As it says in Luke, we are to "take up [our] cross daily." The apostle Paul gives us a picture of these first two steps—
Brothers and sisters, I can’t consider myself a winner yet. This is what I do: I don’t look back, I lengthen my stride, and I run straight toward the goal to win the prize that God’s heavenly call offers in Christ Jesus. (Phil 3:13-14 GW)
This is illustrated by a swimmer doing the freestyle stroke. As the swimmer reaches forward with one arm, she pushes down and back with the other arm. It's a continuous double-action stroke along with a flutter kick that propels the swimmer over the surface of the water.
The cross was an instrument of death and a symbol of shame (Gal 3:13). Unlike the liquid and smooth stroke of a swimmer, taking up our cross—dying to self—usually involves a lot of kicking and screaming on our part. @@The selfish nature does not die easily@@.
None of us embrace shame or death easily, let alone willingly. And yet, this is what the call to follow Jesus requires—embracing a death to our selfish nature and life.
If we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, who was brought back to life, will never die again. Death no longer has any power over him. When he died, he died once and for all to sin’s power. But now he lives, and he lives for God. So consider yourselves dead to sin’s power but living for God in the power Christ Jesus gives you. (Rom 6:8-11 GW)
@@Following Jesus requires us to embrace death to our selfish nature and life@@.
At first, most believers don't realize what's involved with following Jesus. I remember hearing it explained as signing a blank contract that Jesus fills in with details later, as we live out our faith in a daily way.
@@Denying our self and taking up our cross are prerequisite to following Jesus@@. As John the Baptizer said of himself in respect to Jesus, "He must increase, but I must decrease." (John 3:30) This is the point of the first two steps—the decrease of self—the selfish nature.
I remember enduring prerequisite courses in college to get into courses I really wanted to take. After diving into those major courses, I realized the need for those prerequisite classes. They provided a foundation and framework for what I would learn later.
@@A most obvious essential to discipleship is following the example of Jesus@@.
This includes His three prayers in the Garden of Gethsemane (Matt 26:36-46). In each of these prayers, Jesus struggles with surrendering His personal will to submit to the Father's will, which was dying on the cross for the redemption of all humanity.
If Jesus, the Son of God, struggled with submitting His will to the Father, why should we think it won't be a struggle for each of us as we follow Jesus? This is why self-denial and dying to our self precede and lead to actually following Jesus.
Each step requires us to submit our will to God, just as with the Lord's three prayers. Each step is a daily, sometimes moment-by-moment choice. Each choice is a conscious decision to submit and surrender ourselves to the Lord.
A final thought
This continuous, daily choice to follow Jesus will put us at odds with the world around us. Following Jesus in genuine discipleship is the culture of the God's kingdom, and it's counter to the culture of the world around us.
At times, @@what Jesus asks of us personally may seem different and at odds to how other Christian believers live and follow Jesus@@. I often hear what Jesus spoke to Peter after restoring him from Peter's three denials of Jesus—
"...what is that to you? You must follow me.” (John 21:18-22 NIV)
For me this means I need to keep looking ahead to Jesus, not at others or anything else that would distract me from faithfully following Jesus. I believe it's a personal call from Jesus to each of us.