Are You Really a Follower of Jesus?
On Monday I sat in waiting rooms for over six hours as my son, Nate, prepared for and then underwent surgery. I observed that 95% of the people in the waiting rooms were overweight, including me. Obviously, most people had, over time, ingested more calories than they had expended. I felt like I was at the typical church where every week people take in more than they practice leaving them spiritually unhealthy.
In talking with Nate in pre-op he said the nurse asked him, among many questions, if he was diabetic. He said no. She said he was the first patent she’d seen that day who was not diabetic. Some diseases are genetic yet can be battled. Others are brought on by unhealthy lifestyles. All of us need to know what is seeking to defeat us and how to combat it. This is true for our own negative passions.
The God-man knows all about our inner life. For example, Jesus gets right to our inner core when he challenges us to follow him.
How do Christians actually follow Jesus? Is it a commitment only? Are we to imitate him? Are we to be like him in manner, character, and virtue?
We often see on Twitter people who describe themselves as “Christ-followers.” Is this just another term for “Christian?”
What does it look like to be a follower of Jesus?
After feeding over 5000 people with five loaves of bread and two fish, we find Jesus with his disciples having an amazing conversation. To Jesus’ inquiry, “Who do the crowds say I am?” multiple answers are given. Peter got it right, “The Christ of God.” Yet Jesus charged and commanded that they tell this to no one. (Not much of an evangelist is he?) He continues to tell them what lies ahead for him – suffering, rejection, death, and resurrection. In light of this, to everyone present he explains what it means to be his follower – deny yourself, take up your own cross (of death), and be what I am (follow me). For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it. For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole word and loses or forfeits himself? (Luke 9.18-25)
Jesus invites us into a life of suffering, rejection, denial, death, losing and then resurrection.
This is the life the Apostle Paul longed to live: that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead (Philippians 3.10-11).
This is the life you and I, who claim to be followers of Jesus, are to live. So, how we doin’? Poorly I’d guess
It will take more than reading Jesus’ and Paul’s words to live this kind of life. It will take faithful and focused effort, enabled by the grace of God working effectively in us, to experience denial, death, loss, and life. Transformational participation in Christ is a call to putting self to death so that the real self can start living.
I know very little of what Jesus and Paul are talking about. I fill my life with ease, comfort, convenience, and self-indulgence. That’s the American way, right? Denying myself anything, let alone sharing in Christ’s sufferings, is foreign to my existence. And yet, I claim to be a follower of Christ while, in reality, being a follower of Keith.
Denying Your Self
Tito Colliander, a Russian lay-author who lived in Finland, unpacks the kind of life Jesus invites us into. Below is a reproduction of a chapter entitled On the Denial of Self and the Cleansing of the Heart from his book, Way of the Ascetics. He writes:
Naked, small and helpless, you now pass on to the most difficult of all human tasks: to conquer your own selfish desires. Ultimately it is just this “self-persecution” on which your warfare depends, for as long as your selfish will rules, you cannot pray to the Lord with a pure heart: Thy will be done. If you cannot get rid of your own greatness, neither can you lay yourself open for real greatness. If you cling to your own freedom, you cannot share in true freedom, where only one will reigns.
The saints’ deep secret is this: do not seek freedom, and freedom will be given you.
The earth brings forth thorns and thistles, it is said. By the sweat of his brow, with anguish shall man till it; it is he himself, his own substance. The holy Fathers’ counsel is to begin with small things, for, says Ephraem the Syrian, how can you put out a great fire before you have learned to quench a small one? If you wish to set yourself free from a great suffering, crush the small desires, say the holy Fathers. Do not suppose that the one can be separated from the others: they all hang together like a long chain or a net.
Thus it does not pay to come to grips with the hard-to-master great vices and bad habits you have acquired without at the same time overcoming your small “innocent” weaknesses: your taste for sweets, your urge to talk, your curiosity, your meddling. For, finally, all our desires, great and small, are built on the same foundation, our unchecked habit of satisfying only our own will.
It is the life of our will that is destroyed. Since the Fall, the will has been running errands exclusively for its own ego. For this reason our warfare is directed against the life of self-will as such. And it should be undertaken without delay or wearying. If you have the urge to ask something, don’t ask! If you have the urge to drink two cups of coffee, drink only one! If you have the urge to look at the clock, don’t look! If you wish to smoke a cigarette, refrain! If you want to go visiting, stay at home!
This is self-persecution; in this way does one silence, with God’s help, one’s loud-voiced will.
You are perhaps wondering, is this really necessary? The holy Fathers reply with another question: Do you really think that you can fill a jar with clean water before the old, dirty water has been emptied out? Or do you wish to receive a beloved guest in a room crammed with old trash and junk? No; he who hopes to see the Lord as he is, purifies himself, says the apostle John (I John 3:3).
Thus let us purify our heart! Let us throw out all the dusty trash that is stored there; let us scrub the dirty floor, wash the windows and open them, in order that light and air may come into the room we are preparing as a sanctuary for the Lord. Then let us put on clean garments, so that the old musty smell may not cling to us and we find ourselves thrust out (Luke 13:28).
May all this be our daily and hourly travail.
In this way we are only doing what the Lord Himself commanded us through His holy apostle James, who says: Purify your hearts (4:8). And the apostle Paul instructs us to cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit (II Corinthians 7:1). For from within, says Christ, out of the heart of men, proceed evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders, thefts, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, lasciviousness, an evil eye, blasphemy, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and defile the man (Mark 7:21-3). Therefore He also exhorts the Pharisees: Cleanse first that which is within the cup and platter, that the outside of them may be clean also (Matthew 23:26).
As we now follow instructions to begin with the inside, we must keep in mind that we are not in the least cleansing our heart for our own sake. It is not for our own enjoyment that we furbish and tidy the guest chamber, but in order that the guest may enjoy it. Will he find it pleasant? we ask ourself. Will he stay? Our every thought is for him.
Then we withdraw and keep in the background and expect no recompense.
There are three kinds of nature in man, as Nicetas Stethatos further explains: the carnal man, who wants to live for his own pleasure, even if it harms others; the natural man, who wants to please both himself and others; and the spiritual man who wants to please only God, even if it harms himself.
The first is lower than human nature, the second is normal, the third is above nature; it is life in Christ.
Spiritual man thinks spiritually; his hope is sometime to hear the angels’ joy over one sinner that repenteth (Luke 15:10), and that sinner is himself. Such should be your feeling, and in this hope you should labour, for the Lord has bidden us be perfect even as your Father which is in Heaven is perfect (Matthew 5:48), and to seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness (6:33).
Therefore give yourself no rest, allow yourself no peace until you have slain that part within you that belongs to your carnal nature. Make it your purpose to track down every sign of the bestial within you and persecute it relentlessly. For the flesh lusteth against the Spirit and the Spirit against the flesh (Galatians 5:17).
But if you are fearful of becoming self-righteous from working [on your sanctification], or afraid of being overcome by spiritual pride, examine yourself and observe that the person who is afraid of becoming self-righteous suffers from blindness. For he does not see how self-righteous he is.
There is so much to take in from this reading. Read it again and see what the Spirit points out to you.
No doubt, my “will has been running errands exclusively for its own ego.” And I’m sick and tired of it. I have a renewed commitment to battle what is seeking to defeat me and train myself to godliness. Integrating all aspects of my life – physical, emotional, intellectual, intuitional, spiritual, and relational – around and in Jesus Christ is the goal.
Hang in here with me as I continue to explore a WOW (Way of the Warrior) approach to the Christian life.
In his book, The Warrior Ethos, Steven Pressfield, former Marine and current war writer, highlights characteristics of the Spartan warrior. Having fought and studied war culture for decades, he claims:
“All warrior cultures start with a great man.”
For the Spartans, that man was Lycurgus who took ancient Sparta from a normal society to a warrior culture.
For Christians, that man is Jesus Christ who wants to take the church conventional and transform it into the church triumphant. He wants us to follow him to our death and back. He wants us to be as he is. That requires a lifetime of training and battling.
It’s time to follow our Leader with renewed resolve and perspective. Are you willing to move forward with Jesus Christ?