Why Self-Preservation is Death

In corporate and personal life, we all tend to want to preserve the past. Yet, that is the opposite of what Jesus taught.
Jesus taught that self-preservation is self-destructive but self-sacrifice is real life.
We will examine the passage where Jesus predicts his death in John 12:20-33 and his example for us.
The Paradox of Glory through Shame
Jesus introduced us to the paradox of glory through shame. It was through the shame of the cross that he now lives in glory (John 12:23). In dying alone he gave life to many. In giving up his life in this world he gained eternal life in glory for all. In the disrepute of the cross the greatest reputation in the world was built. In the greatest dishonor the greatest honor to any man in history was given. How does that affect us? Our natural desire is for glory and honor, but Jesus’ paradox teaches us that our means of getting it is all wrong. We seek it by means of self-promotion rather than self-sacrifice. The paradox of glory through shame teaches us that it is precisely at moments when we give it all up, that victory is ours. Self-sacrifice is real life. A seed dies and life begins.
Son of Humanity
As Christians we are members of a global community. I have lived in four countries and heard the jingoism and xenophobia that exists everywhere. People tend to think that their country is the best. Each criticizes and puts down the others for various reasons. Yet God hates pride. Self-importance and arrogance are not on any list of holy attitudes. In John 12:23, Jesus introduced his ultimate sacrifice not as a son of David, a loyal son of Israel, but as the Son of Man. In today’s language, we would call him the son of humanity. Jesus did not die for God and country, although that is a worthy thing. As the son of Man, or son of Humankind, Jesus died for God and all human beings. Christianity is not a narrow, nationalistic religion, but a faith for all humanity. Self-sacrifice is real life. A seed dies and life begins.
A Grain of Wheat
Self-preservation is a natural desire. We don’t want to die. We don’t want our way of life destroyed. However, do we know Jesus well enough to know that he would challenge our way of thinking? One such place is in John 12:24. Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it abides alone; but if it dies, it brings forth much fruit. Jesus confirmed this teaching in different words at different times. If we try to make our lives secure we will lose them, but if we lose our lives we will save them. A kernel of wheat preserved is unfruitful, but a kernel of wheat planted can produce an unlimited amount more. A grain of wheat must die if it is to produce. So too, only the life that dies to self is truly productive. Self-sacrifice is real life. A seed dies and life begins.
Why Self-Preservation is Death
When I was a young man I worked in a factory that produced typewriter ribbons. In our department we had about a dozen people and a man who inked all the ribbons. My job was to clean up. I was bottom of the rung. The inker was unwilling to train anyone else lest he lose his position. He was afraid and wanted to preserve his job. The big boss took me into his office and told me that the inker could not be promoted, because he would train nobody to do his job. But, the boss liked my attitude and promoted me to be the boss of the department. Naturally, the inker was angry, but he created his own dilemma. As Jesus said in John 12:24, unless a grain of wheat dies it has no future. Self-preservation is death. Self-sacrifice is real life. A seed dies and life begins.
Change or Die
Unless a grain of wheat dies it has no future (John 12:24). Unless the church buries out-of-date practices it too has no future. Change we must or become irrelevant to everybody. The message of the Gospel will never change, but the package must. Vacuum tubes, transistor radios and printed circuits have all competed in the electronic world. Two of them died and most companies that made them are gone too. What is the difference? Companies that refused to change and keep up with the new waves of technology have died. Technology remains, but doing it the old-fashioned way has not. Companies willing to let old ideas and departments die survive while those that try to preserve old ways die. Churches must be willing to let old traditions die and change to make the unchanging Gospel relevant to new generations. Self-sacrifice is real life. A seed dies and life begins.
Spiritual Capitalism
Material capitalism says that those who die with the most toys wins. It is a lie, because those who die having hoarded the most, will possibly not even have eternal life. They are in danger of becoming the ultimate losers. Spiritual capitalism says that those who die to self give life to many others (John 12:24). Material capitalists are deceived that they love their souls, but in reality they have lost their souls to the devil for temporary material gain. Those who love their lives (or souls) will lose it. Spiritual capitalists give their souls away to enrich the lives of others and so keep their souls forever. Anyone who hates their lives (or souls) in this world will keep them for eternal life. Our Savior calls us to be creators of spiritual capital, enriching the lives of others. Self-sacrifice is real life. A seed dies and life begins.
What is Life?
A queen preserves her wealth. Mother Teresa gave up her life of material wealth to find true life and true wealth. Jesus said that anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life (John 12:24). What is life? Righteous living is life, but wicked living is sin and death. Right living is true life and immortality. When our minds are ruled by the things of the flesh we are not truly living but dead. Having our minds focused on the things of the Spirit is the way to true life and peace. (Proverbs 10:16; 12:28; Romans 8:6) Selfish kings and queens of this world are in spiritual poverty. Mother Teresa found true life and true riches. We can find true life too. Self-sacrifice is real life. A seed dies and life begins.
True Life
Materialism is death not life. We may have things but let us not be deceived. Things do not define life. Over a lifetime we collect a lot of things, a favorite set of cutlery, dishes, a favorite car or dolls perhaps, a gun collection or a set of fine china. We get really emotional about the potential loss of these things, yet if we end up in a nursing home at the end of our lives, we can’t take them with us and our children may sell them for junk. We think that these things define our lives but they do not. If we give up what we think is life but is not and lose these fake lives, then we can find true life (John 12:24). True life is defined by what we give, not what we get. Self-sacrifice is real life. A seed dies and life begins.
Qualification for Leadership
As we look at potential candidates for a leader what do we look for? What makes a leader worthy of any honor? Is it success in the greedy business world, making millions off of people for overpriced goods and services? Is it success in lying and flip-flopping and slinging mud? Is it the ability to win debates? None of that was at the center of what glorified Jesus as King of Kings. In John 12:25, we see Jesus’ glory and honor defined by personal sacrifice. While most leaders are self-defensive and self-promoting, Jesus set us all an example of true leadership by self-sacrifice. That is why when Jesus returns he will take the kingdoms of this world from its leaders and give the leadership roles to those who have proven themselves worthy of honor by lives of selfless service. Self-sacrifice is real life. A seed dies and life begins.
Humanity’s Self-Destructive Behavior
Easter Island is famous as a microcosm of what all humanity could potentially do to our planet. Destruction of the island’s natural resources almost totally destroyed everyone living there. Greedy materialism is like that. We destroy our entire civilization in the lust for more and in the end we also destroy ourselves. The saying in John 12:25 that he who loves his life loses it, has a far more profound meaning in the original Greek. It says that he who loves his life "destroys it utterly." Mental health professionals recognize the need for people to get outside of themselves and give to others. In helping others, mental health improves. That is why greed is the ultimate insanity, because it only ends up destroying the greedy. The remedy is selflessness. Giving life to others is the ultimate act of sanity. Self-sacrifice is real life. A seed dies and life begins.
The Weakness of the Sinner’s Prayer
The “sinner’s prayer” is a gimmick not found in the Bible. It is a manipulative, cheap substitute for repentance and baptism (Acts 2:38-39). Quality evangelism is best done by evangelists in local churches, not by transitory evangelists who have no stake in our community. The Holy Spirit leads people to repentance, uses local pastors to baptize and local Christians to mentor new converts. A seed being transformed into a new plant is not instantaneous gratification. The struggle with the old person and sins of the past are not solved by a quickie prayer that is not found anywhere in the Bible. Learning to allow Christ to reign in our hearts, to follow him and serve him (John 12:26) takes time. Like a seed metaphorically dying and giving life, it takes time for new life to germinate and grow.
Tourists or Pilgrims at Church
Do we go to church as tourists or as pilgrims? Tourists go out of curiosity, to see Jesus but not to change. Pilgrims go to change their lives. The after-church experience of tourists is not to die to self, but to preserve their way of life. The after-church experience of pilgrims is much different, they go away inspired by a new life in Christ and to deepen their repentance. The tourist leaves church still loving their life in this world and its sins. The pilgrim leaves church loving this world even less and loving Christ all the more. The tourist leaves still following their favorite political party, or the advice of their favorite TV host, or the counterfeit wisdom of a false Gospel. The pilgrim realizes that all these are cheap substitutes for following Christ (John 12:26).
Jesus taught that self-preservation is self-destructive, but self-sacrifice is real life. A seed dies and life begins.

Those who Believe in Him are Not Condemned

What hope is there for those who are not perfect and never will be in this life?
I want us to understand the significance of faith in Christ.
We will examine the discussion of condemnation and salvation in John 3.
The Exalted Cross
Our natural inclination is to think of suffering as one of life’s low moments. John 3:14 seems to suggest just the opposite. Just as Moses lifted up a snake on a pole, so was Jesus to be lifted up on a cross. The words “lifted up” are elsewhere translated as exalted. We think of the cross as ignominy not exaltation. We think of money, power and fame as exaltation. Jesus views his suffering with his creation as an exalted privilege. We don’t want to suffer. That’s why preachers who emphasize material prosperity are popular. It’s not fashionable to teach that to be truly exalted, we must follow Christ, and if so, are we also willing to be truly exalted by suffering? Do we come to the light of the cross, or the dark and deceptive world of materialism?
Problem, Cause, Solution
Ancient Israel was often critical of God. One one occasion, God punished them by sending poisonous snakes into their midst (Numbers 21:4-9). The people regretted their whining and Moses prayed and following God’s instructions made a bronze snake on a pole. When the people were bitten and looked on the bronze snake, they lived. The immediate problem was snakes. The cause was their lack of faith in God. The solution was to stimulate them to repentance and faith. In similar fashion humanity is in trouble and we are mostly to blame (John 3:14-15). Just as the solution to a snake problem came via a snake, so has the solution to our human dilemma come through the man Jesus Christ. He too was lifted up on a pole and those who keep their eyes on him will also live.
How God Loved the World
“God so loved the world” means what? It means he loved the world "in this way," or "like this." So our famous saying from John 3:16 could be translated “God loved the world in this way.” What way? He lifted up Jesus in the same manner that Moses lifted up the snake for the healing of Israel. The snake on the pole was meant to remind Israel to trust God for healing but it later became an idol and had to be destroyed. Church traditions can be like that. Invented to point us to God, traditions degenerate into idols which need to go. We too need to constantly lift up Jesus, ahead of our traditions and denominational pride. Does Jesus take second place to our cheap human politics? Do we show love to the world by lifting up Jesus?
Ri Hyon-Ok
Ri Hyon-Ok (ree hyon-ow, Ri is the family name Lee in South Korea) was a 33 year old mother of three in North Korea, probably the worst place in the world for a Christian. In 2009 she was executed for a crime against the state. What made her a criminal? She was caught giving away a Bible. She died for her love of God in a place where loving God is a crime. Her husband and three children were sent to a slave labor camp after her execution. Why do 30,000 North Koreans love God so much that they are willing to risk the death penalty? Why does God love you and me so much that he allowed his one and only son to die (John 3:16) so that you and I who believe in him may live?
Jim Elliot
Jim Elliot graduated from Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois. He developed an interest in translating the Bible into native languages and later joined a group of missionaries to reach the Woadani Indians in Ecuador with the gospel. Discovering a sandbar on the Curarai River barely long enough for their plane to land, they gave the natives gifts. On their return, they were attacked and killed. Jim’s famous quote tells his story best, "He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose." Why do missionaries all over the world love God so much that they are willing to risk death? Why does God love you and me so much that he allowed his one and only son to die (John 3:16) so that you and I who believe in him may live?
Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German pastor who opposed the Nazis. His was one of few voices with the courage to speak out against them. After a time in Britain and the USA, he decided to return to Germany, before all civilian transport was closed, to be with his German people during this difficult time in their history. At home he worked tirelessly in the underground resistance movements. He was imprisoned and discovered to have connections with the plot to kill Hitler. He was hanged just two weeks before Americans liberated the area. Why do people like this love God so much that they are willing to die? Why does God love you and me so much that he allowed his one and only son to die (John 3:16) so that you and I who believe in him may live?
Ignatius of Antioch
Highly honored in the Eastern Orthodox Church, Ignatius may have been one of the children that Jesus took in his arms and blessed. A disciple of John he later became pastor of the church in Antioch. During a period of persecution under Roman emperor Trajan, he was arrested and condemned to death because he professed Jesus. He was thrown to the lions. Ignatius replied to his condemners, “I am the wheat of Christ: I am going to be ground with the teeth of wild beasts, that I may be found pure bread.” Why do people like this love God so much that they are willing to die? Why does God love you and me so much that he allowed his one and only son to die (John 3:16) so that you and I who believe in him may live?
Loving the Hateful
Think of a group of people who absolutely hate us. Maybe it is a country that hates ours. Maybe it is a group of hate-filled and demented terrorists whose only plans are our destruction. Maybe it is another class of individuals who despise us. Imagine then that we decide to die for that group out of love. That is what it means when the Bible says that God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son, that whoever believes in him will not perish but have eternal life (John 3:16-17). Amazing! The word world just about everywhere else in the Bible refers to those who hate God, yet "God with us," Jesus Christ died to save that same God-despising world. While many use faith to divide, God teaches us one simple rule, love that unites.
Condemnation or Grace
Can condemnation and grace coexist? Do we treat sin with grace or judgmentalism? We all sin. Grace does not mean that we approve of sin. It means that we know that we have no right to condemn. Jesus did not come to condemn the world (John 3:16-17), but to save the world. Of course, there are things in this world that are wrong, even in the church. But, does that mean that we Christians ought to play Satan, the accuser. Conservative and liberal wings of churches love to criticize, condemn and cause division. God hates division. Are our disagreements so bad that we who have faith in Jesus can no longer have communion together? I don’t think so. Perhaps Instead of a graceless approach of condemnation we should all realign ourselves with the mission of Jesus Christ, to save.
What would Jesus say?
We are creatures of extremes, either condemning adultery, homosexuality, divorce and fornication or approving them all. Jesus did neither. On one sexual sin, he said that in the beginning it was not so, but due to hardheartedness Moses allowed it. Jesus did not condemn a woman caught in a sexual sin, but told her to sin no more. He did not come to condemn the world (John 3:17). It does not mean that Jesus could not condemn the world, or that he will not at the judgment, but that he does not now. We also know that it is also not our business now to judge. So, what would Jesus say to any sexual relationship that is different than it was in the beginning? Are we here to condemn the world or join Jesus in saving the world?
Running away from God
Humanity runs away from God. Do we hate him? Are we ashamed and think that he will want to condemn us for all of the bad things we have done to each other? Is John 3:17 saying just the opposite of that? Rather than wanting to condemn the world, God sent Jesus into the world to save it. An example is Jesus’ encounter with a woman caught in the act of adultery (John 8). Those caught up in Pharisaic religion condemned her. Jesus told them that if any of them was without sin, they ought to cast the first stone. None dared and Jesus said he did not condemn her. Instead of running from God, it is condemning religion which we should run from. God and the true religion of Jesus do not exist to condemn but to save.
The Evangelical Sin
Is the Evangelical sin that of self-righteous judgmentalism? Has Evangelical Christianity become unfriendly, condemning and uninviting? Whatever happened to the welcoming Jesus? Whatever happened to the words from John 3:17, that God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him? How can Evangelical Christians return to being the inviting Church? Perhaps we ought to leave judging to the Judgment Day. Perhaps we ought to focus more on healing and salvation than on the sins which necessitated both. Rather than criticize those who are hurting, perhaps we ought to invite them to be healed. Rather than condemn those in a prison created by the sins of the world, perhaps we ought to invite them to freedom. Perhaps we need to invite them to come and see Jesus (John 1:29-42).
Non-judgmental yet discerning
Are Christians judgmental if they disagree with sinful behavior or heretical doctrines? Some may be, but that does not mean that everyone is. Can a Christian be non-judgmental yet discerning? In John 3:17 Jesus said that he did not come to condemn the world. Unfortunately some Christians do just the opposite, condemn. Does that mean that we may not disagree or discern that a particular sin is wrong? Of course not. In the same chapter where Jesus taught us not to judge (Matthew 7:1, 15) he also said to watch out for false prophets. There is a big difference between a condemning, hypercritical attitude and having an opinion that something is wrong. Jesus Christ is the final judge, not us. Our judgment now is to be righteous — not a damnation, but a discernment of right from wrong.
Agapé is not Divine Love
The Greek word agapé does not mean divine love. This is an urban legend perpetuated by poorly educated preachers and televangelists with bad research. Ask any Greek scholar and you will find out that agapé just means love or affection. In the Bible it sometimes even refers to a negative love. Men “loved” darkness (John 3:19), some “loved” the praise of men more than God (John 12:43), and one “loved” this world more than Paul (2 Timothy 4:10). The context clearly shows in three cases that word agapé was not a divine love. And that is the clue. Just like the words love or affection in English, the meaning depends on the context. A preacher's volume and enthusiasm are not always a sign of divine inspiration and quiet preaching may not indicate that truth is absent. Separating truth from hogwash sometimes involves digging a little deeper like the Bereans.
Universal Atonement
A heretical doctrine is that of universal salvation. It contradicts biblical passages that show how some will choose hell over heaven. However, the concept of universal atonement is quite orthodox. It suggests exactly what John 3:14-21 writes when he includes words like “everyone,” “whoever” and “the world.” We understand by this that salvation is available to all, but that not everyone will take God up on the opportunity. God’s attitude in the Bible is clear. He wants everyone to choose life, but gives us the freedom of choice. Does what we choose in this life have any bearing on our eternity? The words “stands condemned already” indicate that our eternity is determined by what we choose now. Can that change? Can stubborn hearts still repent? Judgment Day is not today. We still hope that our loved ones will repent.
God wants everyone to desire salvation. However, he will not make us into robots. He grants us free will. The choice for salvation is ours alone and the way to salvation is found in looking to Christ.

A Money- or Prayer-focused Church

Throughout history the church has had a battle between being focused on prayer or money. Some people are suspicious or selfish and give little or nothing and others give generously to the world’s most important enterprise. What is the right use of money for the church?
I want us to understand that money will always be a cause for good and evil in the Church.
We will examine the money changers in the temple and prayer.
Częstochowa in Poland
We arrived at the church of the Black Madonna like most tourists, by bus. To enter we walked through droves of trinket and souvenir sellers. Inside people were praying. It reminded us of the money changers in the temple that Christ drove out (John 2:13-25). Surely we don't have such things in today’s world do we? It was years later that I entered a church to hear a famous evangelist speak. In the back were tables with copies of his books on it and a portable credit card machine. I have seen more money-making ministries since. One church even had a permanent store built in the entryway of the sanctuary where they sold audio and video copies of their sermons and books. By contrast, I have visited many churches where prayer is the genuine focus. There is a difference.
Money Changers at Church
Others also write books but refuse to sell them in church because it is too similar to the money changers in the temple (John 2:13-25). We are offended by moneymaking in the time and place where we should be praying. Perhaps the money changers had good motives. Churches need money to operate the most important enterprise on earth. People needed to buy sacrifices to offer. But, it took the focus away from the purpose of church. Why is it that too many see church as a money-making opportunity. There is always someone trying to make money off of us, usually for good causes in far away places. $400,000 to chair Samaritan’s Purse is excessive. Too many ministries are overly focused on money and not prayer. Would Jesus likewise upturn our efforts and have us focus more on prayer?
Financial Abuse
What do the money changers in the temple (John 2:13-25) teach us about the church and money? As a group once toured Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome someone in the crowd asked their priest tour guide how much it cost. His reply was that it cost much of northern Europe. He referred of course to the selling of indulgences under Tetzel as a fundraiser for reconstruction and a cause of the Protestant Reformation. Financial abuse has occurred throughout history and the church has not been immune. When denominational officials take more from local churches than the tithe of the tithe taken by Moses, then one wonders why the New Testament church is more burdensome than the Old. When bishops and televangelists live in palaces while others starve at their doorsteps, one wonders what happened to the religion of Jesus.
The story of money in the Church (John 2:13-25) has a good side, giving for the Gospel and the needy. The Church is a global enterprise, building hospitals, homeless shelters, orphanages, soup kitchens, educational institutions, working for justice and reconciliation, and teaching people how to improve their lives. The United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) is rated A+ by CharityWatch. Salaries are not paid from charitable donations, but by our Conferences. Hence all of donations go to alleviating human suffering in more than 80 countries, including the United States. Donors choose where their contributions go. UMCOR provides humanitarian relief when calamity disrupts communities and the most vulnerable need help. We provide successful solutions to emergencies. UMCOR provides survivors temporary relief and long-term education, training, and support. We spend 100 percent of designated donations on disaster relief and international development.
Jesus not Literally
Ought not Christians take the Bible literally? Some teach so. Yet in John 2:13-25 Jesus taught the Pharisees a lesson that was not meant to be taken literally. They took him literally, when they should have understood that he was teaching figuratively. They asked for a sign of his authority. He replied, destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up. Of course they thought that he meant the literal temple that had taken forty six years to construct. However, he was speaking of his body, which was raised three days after his crucifixion. Even his disciples did not grasp the full significance of this saying until after his death. In fact a large part of what Jesus taught was not literal, but metaphor, parable and hyperbole. We understand Jesus by his intent not literal interpretations.
Legitimate Anger
Ought Christians ever get angry? John 2:13-25 reveals that Jesus got angry. He turned over the tables of the money changers in the temple. The Old Testament mentions God’s anger a lot, mainly referring to his indignation at evils caused by humanity. Proverbs also recommends strongly against a quick temper and avoiding friendships with people who are impatiently angry by nature. Jesus also condemned unjust anger in the Sermon on the Mount and when it is justified Paul recommended not allowing it to last beyond sunset. Even modern psychology recognizes the wisdom of that advice. A quick temper can disqualify a person from church leadership. Jesus’ anger in the temple showed his passion for the one place where prayer ought not to be overshadowed. Church ought to be a place of refuge from the questionable practices of the market.
The 3 Pillars of Lent
Matthew 6 mentions the importance and right practice of almsgiving, prayer and fasting. These are the three pillars of Lent. Though we specially focus on them before Easter, they also apply as basic Christian principles all year long. This is why Jesus was so angry with the money changers in the Temple (John 2:13-25). The Temple was a marketplace, focusing more on money than prayer. Lent is a time when we can reexamine our lives to focus away from the marketplace of our businesses to prayer. It is a time to renew our private prayer, that time between us and God that nobody else sees. It is a time to give not as some celebrities do to be seen of others, but in secret. It is a time to fast, not to be seen of others, but in secret.
The Tithe
The church is a house of prayer but cannot operate without money. Pastors ought to live off the Gospel rather than be so busy making an income that they have no time for the church. Do we tithe 10% under the New Covenant? Ought Christians do less than old law required? The challenge to Christians is the widow’s mite, which was all her livelihood. Generosity does not stop at a legalistic 10%. For some of us those are hard words. For our family, my wife calculates a tithe to be divided between three churches and we believe in giving generously by donating in other ways like not always charging for expenses like meals, postage, printing and cell phone costs. Our churches give about a tithe to the Conference and some churches budget an extra tenth for the poor or missionaries.
Principles of Money Management
Giving is a great blessing. Living from hand to mouth, unable to pay our bills, it is difficult to be in a position to give. Working hard and using money management are the honest ways to wealth (Proverbs 6:6-8; 13:4; 12:24; 2 Thessalonians 3:10-12). Instead of lusting for what they do not need, diligent people live way below their means and do without so that they can save and have something left to give. The tithing principle teaches us to budget and a good place to start is saving a tenth each paycheck. Rather than be slaves to credit, we should get our financial lives in shape and save so we can pay cash for most things that we need and also be in a position where we can give to the Gospel and the needy.
Where our money is reveals where our hearts are. The Church uses money for the Gospel and the needy. We all ought to be good stewards of God’s money, but our focus ought to be on prayer.

Annual Spiritual Reset

As we go through the year, a thousand distractions take us away from God. Early Christians recognized this and began to take time before the most important season of the Christian year to fast and pray. We call it lent from an old English word for spring. Others call it the Quadragesima, forty days of prayer, fasting and alms-giving.
I want us to value times apart for meditation, prayer and fasting.
We will look at Mark 8:31-38 and our opportunity for a spiritual reset.
Anointed for What
In Mark 8:29 Jesus asked his students, “Who do you-all say I am?” Peter correctly answered: Christ or Messiah (the anointed one) but what does that mean? For Jesus, it meant suffering and death on the cross. Peter did not want to hear it and rebuked Jesus for predicting it. But that is what being the anointed one meant. It also means that anyone who follows Christ must likewise be willing to give of themselves in order to serve human kind. There is a form of Christianity which claims to be spirit-filled, but is in reality self-centered and materialistic. It focuses on personal spiritual experiences instead of serving others and accumulating wealth for self instead of giving it away for others. The example of Christ is centered upon totally giving up the self in order that others may live.
Lent — Setting our Minds on Divine Things
Lent began in the early church to prepare for Resurrection Sunday. Christians focus on prayer, fasting and alms-giving. As people thought over Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness and Israel’s forty years of wandering in the wilderness it made sense to take forty days before Easter to reset our minds on divine things (Mark 8:33). Some observe Lent legalistically by fasting only on certain days like Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, but that misses the point. The tradition is not just another legalistic man-made rule, but a multitude of counsel from generations of departed saints who left us a legacy, an annual opportunity to draw close to God. It is a season for spending some time alone, a time for extra prayer, for taking a day to fast, giving to the less fortunate and hitting the spiritual reset button.
Difficult Scriptures
Some Bible passages which are hard to understand are called difficult scriptures. In Mark 8:34 Jesus said, “Whosoever will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.” What cross? For a thousand years overlapping the life of Christ, crucifixion was a method of capital punishment among several ancient peoples including the Romans. Convicted criminals were sometimes required to carry either the cross beam or the entire cross to the place of execution. For Christians to take up their crosses it means that we must deny our selfish, natural desires and devote ourselves to the service of Jesus and others. This is one of the most uncomfortable sayings of Jesus. It is not hard to understand. It is difficult to do. Often it is the easiest to understand which are the hardest passages.
Against all Hope
Christians are not called to do the easy thing. We are called to do the difficult thing that seems to be against all hope (Mark 8:34). Following Jesus is to lay aside the easy way and choose what appears to be the more difficult path. Just as Jesus gave up his life on the cross, so too do we carry our cross and take the difficult path to self-sacrifice. Few of us are called to do like Abraham and make a supreme personal sacrifice by leaving our country to follow God, yet we are called to selflessness. Against all hope, Abraham hoped in God’s promises (Romans 4:13-25) and became the father of many nations (Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16). Like his promise to Abraham, God’s promise to us is a better life beyond the temporary sacrifices of the present.
The Hard Road
How does taking up our cross (Mark 8:34) look in practice? I once knew a young mechanic who took every factory training course offered by his company. The other mechanics could not be bothered. They wanted the easy path. In his mid 20's he became the boss over his much older co-workers, because he took the hard road. In all of life's endeavors, there are those who choose short-term pain for long-term gain. Athletes cannot go home and relax between games, they must train hard. At college there are the party people who lose and the hard workers who succeed. Anything worthwhile involves short-term pain for long-term gain. There are two paths to take in life. The easy path starts out smooth, but ends up rough. The hard road often starts out difficult, but end up smoother.
Our Best Life Ever
The devil deceives us by offering a wide variety of lifestyles with one ingredient in common, self. They all build altars of self-worship filled with idols of self-gratification. We may not all be able to build our own Trump Towers, or have a hundred million dollar trust fund for our children, but the idolatry of self expresses itself in thousands of other ways. It is a delusion that guarantees misery and loneliness. There is a lifestyle which guarantees happiness forever. Jesus described it in words which are the opposite of our culture of self (Mark 8:34). He defined a better way of life. It includes words like deny self, take up our cross and lose our self-indulgent lifestyle for the Gospel. This is shocking to a narcissistic, self-centered culture, but it is the way to our best life ever.
Church Growth at the Expense of Truth
Some churches are growing while mainstream churches are dying. Yet, where are we more likely to hear the Gospel? The simple fact is that mainstream churches are far more likely to read a Gospel text each week. In large popular churches we are more likely to hear a materialistic motivational speech about health and wealth that actually contradicts the Gospel. The good news is that living a selfless life is a life of abundant blessings, but it is not popular. People do not want to hear about emulating someone who lived a life of poverty and sacrificed himself for others. They want to hear about making money and having things. Mainstream churches are tempted to change from the Gospel to empty-headed fluffy topical sermons that deny denying self (Mark 8:34). That is church growth at the expense of truth.
Unpopular Jesus
A popular message is that Jesus can help you get your life back, but that’s not exactly how Jesus said it. In Mark 8:35 Jesus said whoever will save his life shall lose it; but whoever shall lose his life for my sake and the gospel's, the same shall save it. We don’t want to lose our lives. Our natural desire is to preserve our way of life. Yet such a selfish life is a dead life. The only work worth doing is that of giving to others. When we we give, we gain the whole world. It is a message that is so contrary to our natural thinking that we believe it is a lie. Certainly, giving up our lives is not a popular message, but according to Jesus, it is the way to save our lives.
True Wealth and Success
We live in a world obsessed with wealth and success. Yet true wealth is not found in gaining the whole world. Even Christians are deluded by monetary wealth and material success, even believing that God promises money. Yet a man with millions and billions who lives a selfish life does not have wealth but abject poverty of spirit. Someone who achieves worldly status by destroying the lives of others is an abysmal failure not a success. In Mark 8:35 Jesus defined true wealth and success as the way of the cross. True riches are the wealth of people that we have sacrificed to serve. True success is also found in rejecting selfish living in this world for a better life in eternity. True celebrity is not in this life, but in joining Jesus in his glory at his coming.
The Selfish Life
The selfish life is appealing. Walking a red carpet to the cheers of worshiping fans drives some of us. Living away from the troubles of the world in a monastic penthouse atop a beautiful mountain appeals to others. Living in the lap of luxury with gold accouterments, marble floors and servants to prepare gourmet meals every day also sounds appealing. Let’s face it. We don’t really believe in denying ourselves anything. We don’t really believe in burdening ourselves with a personal cross. We really believe in gaining the whole world for our country and ourselves. We give lip service to Jesus while in reality we are ashamed of emulating his life of self-sacrifice. We live selfish lives. Why did Jesus have to go and say that our way of life would lead to us losing our lives (Mark 8:35)?
Real Heroes
Real heroes would have to include any who make a great sacrifice for others. That would include soldiers, firefighters, those police officers who truly do protect and serve, missionaries and volunteers who serve the needy. A one-time sacrifice is to be praised, but also a lifetime of sacrifice. In Mark 8:36-37 Jesus defined some ingredients of what it takes to be a true hero. Denying self, taking up our cross and losing our life for the gospel. On one university campus a theology professor asked his students to look out the window at the school of medicine and the school of law. He then said that those graduating from those schools would make many times more than a pastor, but serving Christ is where the true riches are. We are all called to be part of that heroic mission.
My World not Yours
“My job, my flag, my team, my lifestyle, my inheritance, my church, my salvation, my world not yours.” Does any of this sound familiar? It ought to. We all tend to be selfish and our way of life is more about getting than giving. Jesus challenges us to think about another way of life (Mark 8:37). To our habitual way of thinking it seems to be the most miserable and unhappy way of life. That is because we have spent a lifetime steeped in the propaganda of the devil. His propaganda even enters the church as a counterfeit gospel of self-interest rather than self-sacrifice and of gaining our lives only to lose them. This counterfeit Christianity is ashamed of Jesus and his words because it seeks to have us run away from our cross rather than take it up.
Narcissistic Christianity
Narcissism is extreme selfishness. Narcissistic Christianity is therefore not true Christianity, but it is a very popular counterfeit. Rather than sacrificing for others and enduring injustice, it falsely advertises “your best life now,” but teaches a selfish life of setting our minds on the materialistic things of earth not the things of heaven. It lies by saying that our best days are ahead of us, while Christians in some countries await persecution. Narcissistic Christianity substitutes cheap materialism for spiritual wealth, selfishness instead of love of neighbor and promotes unrealistic expectations from this life. Narcissism is being ashamed of Jesus (Mark 8:38). Jesus defined true Christianity as the exact opposite of materialistic narcissism. It involves turning from our selfish ways, taking up our cross and following him. Following Jesus’ example of self-sacrifice is the only way to finding true life.

Let us take time before the most important feast of the Christian year to fast, pray and give to the needy.