We have heard it all of our lives. We have read it, we have sung it, we have nodded our heads and shouted, “Amen!” at this truth: the Christian life is one of obedience at all costs. You’ve heard that, right? But have we lived it? I came face to face with this truth in the past year and half, and what I found was shocking.
The theme of my life as of late can be summed up in these words of Christ, "If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me" (Matthew 16:24). We have all spouted these words as the desire of God for all who believe. But I have recently discovered this: we have no idea what those words mean. We have no conception of what it truly costs to follow Christ. I am reading Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship, and it has completely shattered my thinking and even my entire existence, and rightly so. I have heard all of my life that to follow Christ I must deny myself. What does that mean? We say it means surrender, it’s a state of our hearts, we don’t really have to give anything, right? We assume Christ is speaking figuratively of giving up earthly pleasures and sin. That’s not what it means at all! Bonhoeffer says this, "To deny oneself is to be aware only of Christ and no more of self, to see only Him who goes before and no more the road which is too hard for us." For those of you unfamiliar with Dietrich Bonhoeffer, he was hung in 1945 for opposing the Nazi regime. Not only was his death marked by following at all costs, so was his life. He knew what so few believers know and what I am just now realizing: there is a cost to follow Christ, and it is not just a state of heart and mind. However, that cost will give you your true life.
I am figuring out that when God requires everything to follow Him, He does not mean just my fears or my dreams or my physical person, He literally means everything. Think about that. Pick up your cross, are you kidding me? In doing so we will suffer, we will reject and be rejected. I discovered the other night, as God worked on me about this, that I am not there and I certainly cannot get there on my own! I want so much to truly deny myself and follow with my own cross upon my back, for I know that this is the only way to real life and the only way to Him, but I admit I love myself, and I do not wish to suffer. Yet here is the key: the road is too hard as we look at it, but as we look at Him, we will find He is WORTH all pain and all joy. As we seek Him to know Him, He becomes our very desire and treasure, and suffering, though still painful, becomes a joy. This is difficult to grasp, but He pursues me relentlessly, and so I have made headway—I have begun this process of dying. But in the difficulty, I have also begun to truly live.
I have come to realize that what I have always thought as the “good Christian life” is really the way of the world. Look around you. There is little difference between believer and pagan. As Andrew Peterson said, "I’ve carried my cross through the dens of the wicked, you know I blended in just fine." I blend in just fine, and I no longer want to. If He is better than life and if the cost is really nothing compared to what we gain, namely Him, shouldn’t my life look different from those of the world? Shouldn’t I live in a manner that intrigues the world so they ask of the hope which is in me? I know the answer. You know the answer. For me, the cost has induced the time for change. The time has come for me to take a good look at myself and a good look at Him and choose—it’s either Him or me. I cannot have both. You cannot have both. His grace is irresistible to me; He wants me, and I will choose Him. So through His grace, I must choose death to have life, just as Christ did when He willingly bore the cross. Just as Paul did when he said “to live is Christ and to die is gain.” I want to bear my cross with passion and joy as He did—yes, in sorrow but also in hope. If Christ has called you, He has called you to die in order that you may truly live. He has called you to follow Him wherever He may go, no matter the cost. Moreover, He has called you to see Him in all His beauty and for that to be sufficient.
Following means loving Christ, not just obeying. Christ said, “If you love Me, you will keep My commandments” (John 14:15). John Piper said that obedience is the effect of love, not the essence of love. As I begin to follow—really follow, not just live my little pseudo-Christian life with ease and comfort—I know I will find that the cost will take everything, and it will give everything. Sometimes I will follow in sorrow, sometimes in joy, and it is certain that I will fall down and skin my knees, even break bones. But He will stop, turn around and pick me up. And as I look in His eyes—eyes of kindness and knowledge and passion and unfathomable love—I will know that all the tears, all the pain, all the blood, all the dying has been worth it. I will realize, with Bonhoeffer, that following Him is "nothing else than bondage to Jesus Christ alone, completely breaking through every program, every ideal, every set of laws. No other significance is possible, since Jesus is the only significance. Besides Jesus, nothing has any significance. He alone matters."