Stephen Venable, one of my favorite teachers at IHOP, recently gave a brief sermon at the 2010 OneThing Conference that the International House of Prayer-KC puts on every year. His sermon was on a passage of Scripture that we all know of, found in Luke 9 (and Mark 8 and Mat 16). In this passage Jesus calls the one who would come after Him to deny Himself, take up his cross daily, and follow Him. It is followed by “for whoever would save his life will lose it but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it” (9:24).
Stephen’s message was a hammer blow. It was profoundly challenging and offensive to anyone with a heartbeat. He essentially asserted that western Christianity is fundamentally flawed in that it is built around what God can do for us instead of about what we can do for God. As Stephen put it, “We are concerned with how Jesus can die for us so that we can have what we want instead of how we can die for Him so that He can have what He wants. Jesus is not your butler! Jesus is not your vending machine! Jesus is the King of glory to be glorified!”
There is profound truth in Stephen’s assessment of this unbiblical atrocity that underlies much of Christianity today, and he is devastatingly accurate in his assertion that much of that church will fall into apostasy and burn in a lake of fire forever through it. As I said, it was an offensive message, one that I am sure many need to hear, myself included.
However, there was, at the least, a very important angle lacking in Stephen’s message. Part of Stephen’s sermon entailed the seeming condemnation of sermon’s that are about “how much God loves us”, that are about “who we are” or “how great we are” or “how great we can be.” Here, I feel that Stephen made an unbiblical detour, though I still applaud the spirit behind his sermon and the overarching punch of it. The Bible is full of verses that define the believer as great or in God’s love (Eph. 2:19, 1 Jn 3:1, Luke 15, Jn 3:16). Speaking the love of God over someone is not agreement with their self-obsession inherently and all the verses listed are in fact in line with Luke 9:23.
There are also verses that clearly call believers to seek rewards and greatness. “But to him who by patiently doing good seeks for glory, honor, and immortality, there will be eternal life”, which is then contrasted in the next verse with “but to those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury” (Rom 2:7-8). Whatever it is that is this disobedient self-seeking and unrighteousness it is not seeking for glory, honor, and immortality unto eternal life. Even Jesus Himself, our example, says that He laid down His life that He might take it up again, followed by the declaration that this makes the Father love Him (Jn 10:17). We are commanded to look to the founder of our faith who endured the cross for the joy set before Him (Heb. 12:2).
My point is that self-denial and taking up your cross cannot and does not mean biblically that you are to try and give your life to Jesus without an awareness of His love for you or without an awareness of the glory and joy set before you. In fact, I will go as far as to say that any time you choose to suffer without a knowledge of His love and what you gain by it, you are operating in self-abuse. My primary point in this blog, however, is not even this. It is to go even further.
I believe that one of the greatest forms of self-denial, of taking up your cross daily, of losing your life, is actually permitting God to love you, to speak worth over you. Oh, it slays the selfish. It slays the prideful. It consecrates the heart into meekness. There is, in my experience, nothing more humbling than the joyful reception of unconditional love. It’s so hard! There is nothing more slaying of sinful self than the permission of the entrance of great mercy, of free gifts of affection and blessing. Oh we hate it! We rail against it! It is against the natural man to permit unconditional love. Can you feel how much easier it is to simply beat yourself and do everything for Jesus without ever thinking about yourself? It feels better actually because it is in favor of the prideful self.
I find in my own life and in my experience with the paradigm Stephen preached on that we can be very prone to believe that righteousness is to try and “live only for God with no benefit to self”, never letting ourselves for a second sit and receive love from God, to let God say to us, “You are beautiful to me.” This phrase specifically is one that Stephen spoke of with a sardonic condemning tone, but I tell you truthfully, nothing will grant you poverty of spirit, so greatly glorifying to Christ, like letting Him tell you that you are beautiful. Oh, it will knock you off every false throne you’ve ever imagined.
Have you felt it? Can you feel the tension? Can you feel how self-preserving and self-advancing it is actually to try and “just glorify Christ by only doing everything for His sake and never doing anything for yourself?” Obviously, these quoted words could communicate truth, but I have found that in many individuals, myself included, they actually harbor pride and sinful self advancement, the antithesis of Luke 9:23. The religious self-denial actually promotes pride and is the opposite of self-denial. In contrast, permitting God to love you, permitting Him to be focused on you is a cross like no other. It will slay your sinful self in a second.