I was really challenged by what my (our) friend CJ wrote about the cost of committing ourselves following God. I’ve found the greatest joys in doing so… and am guilty of downplaying the cost. I believe you’ll find yourself challenged by CJ thoughts, as he is really living out this challenge in this season of his life.
CJ is a professional photographer, check out his work @ www.dividedlinemedia.com
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what it really means to follow Christ. My life for the past 9 or 10 months has been pretty close to the hardest, most challenging period of my entire life, and to say I’m facing a trial falls short in explaining everything I’m finding myself up against. This trial seems insurmountable. And really, it’s completely out of my control. Welcome to Life.
I remember being 16 years old, mowing my dad’s lawn in a frantic pace so I could go skateboard with my friends. I had only a few chores to do once a week, but I was never smart enough to do them earlier in the week – I always left them to do on a Friday afternoon when the only thing I had in my mind was getting away from home. I remember this afternoon so clearly because the thoughts I had running through my mind that afternoon were confronted with the realities of God and the Christian life in the coming days at youth group. I remember where I was on the lawn, how much grass I had left to cut and everything. You see, in my mind, I had it all figured out. I was saved and didn’t need to worry about constantly being good anymore. I knew God loved me and I loved Him for it, but I didn’t need to be this super Christian person, right? I could go to church, go to youth group, and still hang out with my ‘other’ friends and do what I wanted to do. I could party when I wanted to, go surf when I wanted to, anything was fair game because God loved me, and after all, I still live in this world. I thought everything was perfect for me now. My transgressions were washed away and now I was free to live how I wanted with no guilt! Hallelujah!
I think I was struggling for a while to figure out how I would manage High School as a Christian and this was my conclusion. The next week at youth group we did the usual stuff; A random game that was unusually physically aggressive and borderline violent before coming together to worship and hear a message from the youth pastor. I remember the youth being sprinkled out in the chairs in the large sanctuary and the pastor gave everyone something to chew on for a bit. After a period of quiet reflection he walked back to the front and read from Revelations 3:14. He started talking about how I thought I had everything figured out. I thought to myself, “this is odd, I just figured everything out the other day.” Then the words, “you don’t realize you’re wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked,” came out. God shattered my thinking that night. I was intent on living my life on both sides of the fence and my ideas were slammed to the floor with the thought of God spitting me out of his mouth because I am only lukewarm. I realized how foolish my thinking was that night and how the call of a Christian life takes everything.
So in thinking about the challenges I’m facing here and now, and thinking more about what it means to follow Christ, I’m coming back to that conclusion that it takes EVERYTHING. All of me, all of you; there is no such thing as half way. There is no such thing as half-hearted Christianity and the story of Jesus sending out his 12 disciples in Matthew 10 spells it out pretty clearly,
“Anyone who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves his son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and anyone who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”
In other words, following Christ means loving Jesus above ourselves and our family and most cherished people in our lives. The life of Christ in us depends on it. In Luke 9:23 Jesus again talked about what it takes to follow him, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it.” What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit is very self?” This passage in Luke gives us another look at the costs of following Christ. In Matthew Jesus made it clear that we must love Him above all others. In Luke, Jesus emphasizes denying ourselves daily, and like Jesus had to suffer for our sins, so must we suffer as Christians. Being a Christian, then, as followers of Christ, we must be wiling to be thrown into the fire. Yes – we will face challenges as followers of Christ that we wouldn’t otherwise.
It’s time to think about what that really means for us. It means SUFFERING. I want to talk more about that word “fire” as a part of suffering. Fire in the scriptures refers to God’s spirit that refines, separates, and purifies us. In Matthew 3, John the Baptist tells us that when Jesus comes he will baptize us with “the Holy Spirit and with fire.” In Isaiah 4:4, God says that the washing away of our filth and the cleansing of our sin, is done so by a “spirit of judgment and a spirit of fire.” In Exodus 13:21 we get a picture of God guiding his people with a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night to give them light. The cloud and pillar of fire in exodus reveal to us how God guides and protects us, and the Holy Spirit which we’ve received does the same thing in our lives today. The spirit of judgment and fire guides us by judging our sin, cleansing us of our sin, and by doing so He allows us to see clearly in this dark and sinful world. The Holy Spirit, the spirit of judgment and fire, invites light into our lives and guides our footsteps to Him who created us. And as a sign of God’s redemption for us, our lives will “burst into bloom” and we will “rejoice greatly and shout for joy (Isaiah 35:2).
So let me try to package that up for you. Accepting Christ means accepting his Holy Spirit in our lives. The Holy Spirit is a spirit of fire and judgment. I also must suffer, as Christ did, by picking up my cross daily; and I must forfeit my life for the sake of Christ. And upon doing so we are given real life and so we rejoice and “shout for joy”. There it is in a nutshell, but I think too many of us pass over this gospel truth without giving it much thought. The truth we overlook is in our inevitable suffering. If it sounds like I’m trying to scare away those who would otherwise follow Christ, then I’m getting the story correct thus far. Because following Christ costs us everything! EVERYTHING!
When we invite the Holy Spirit into our lives the spirit will always be at work to refine and purify us. And lets be honest with ourselves, we sin A LOT. We are all sinners and we all have sin. Is that repetitive enough? God does not save us and then remove us from sin. Rather, He calls us to carry our own cross, take responsibility upon ourselves by dying to ourselves as He did for us. In Matthew 10:34, Jesus says,
“Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn “’a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in –law against her mother-in-law – a man’s enemies will be the member of his own household.’”
Our enemies are ourselves. As Paul says in Romans 7, “When I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members.” God hates our sin. God is not non-confrontational and he does not want us to be comfortable. Jesus did not come to bring peace, but a sword. God wants to wage war against satan and his army and his intent is to lead us in that war against sin. Enter stage ABOVE, God sends his spirit to help us. It’s a spirit of judgment and fire; fire burns and it’s hot and really uncomfortable. The Holy Spirit demands change in us.
So we are in a war and it’s a war that doesn’t end. In 2 Corinthians 10:4, Paul tells us “the weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world.” The weapons we fight with, he says, “have the divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.” Our minds are sitting on the front lines of this war and our ability to take our thoughts captive and make them obedient to Christ is an everyday calling that we must wake up to.
In Isaiah 2:4, we see a literal change of weapons, “He will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.” So who is “He”? “He” is God, our father in heaven, and he will settle disputes for many peoples. In other words, God will redeem his people by forgiving their sins. And he will “judge” them as well. Just like the Holy Spirit does for us, (the spirit of “judgment” and fire), will work in His people to cleanse them and purify them, thereby changing their literal weapons from swords to plowshares and spears to pruning forks. The Holy Spirit turns our tools for war into tools for construction in God’s kingdom. It reminds me of the way Jesus began his ministry when he called his first disciples. Peter and Andrew were casting their fishing net in the lake and then the bible says, “for they were fishermen,” just to drive the point home. “Come, follow me,” Jesus said, and I will make you fishers of men” (Matthew4:19). God has a plan to change us through his Holy Spirit that will transform every part of us to be more like him; so the battle wages on.
So Jesus died for us on the cross and our sins are wiped away. Yes. We have a clean slate. Yes. Jesus also said “it is finished.” So it’s finished, right? Right. It’s finished because God has already won. He’s conquered death. But our fight is not finished. In fact, unless your on your death bed and about to take your last breath, it is far from finished. It’s far from finished because we need to be forgiven multiple times a day every day of our lives and the battle is not won until your physical life on this earth is finished. Remember, the devil’s schemes are running wild trying to win over your mind so you will turn away from God. This process starts by convincing you that you don’t need to turn to God in the first place. This is war, and I think to better understand our need for God in our lives we need to be reminded of what His forgiveness is all about.
In Matthew 18, Peter comes to Jesus and asks, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times? Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.” In Jesus’ day rabbi’s often taught to forgive another up to three times, so Peter probably thought he was being generous by guessing the ‘perfect’ number 7. Then Jesus went on to tell the parable of the unmerciful servant to show that God will forgive us as we forgive others. If we look at ourselves honestly we should all come to the conclusion that we can’t afford not to forgive others as God forgives us, or at least how He desires to forgive us. There’s no partial forgiveness in the kingdom of God. There is no halfway; you can’t be lukewarm because the cost of following Christ is everything you have.
The great part about Jesus’ response to Peter was how he points us back to Old Testament scripture prophesying about God’s plan for redemption. In Daniel 9, The angel Gabriel appears to Daniel while in prayer to give him a vision and understanding. Starting from verse 24, “Seventy ‘sevens’ are decreed for your people and your holy city to finish transgression, to put an end to sin, to atone for wickedness, to bring in everlasting righteousness, to seal up vision and prophecy and to anoint the most holy.” So the decree of seventy-sevens lays out God’s brilliant plan of forgiveness for us.
I want to break this down a little bit: When God uses the term “Holy City”, he is referring to restoring and rebuilding Jerusalem. At the same time, however, He’s also using the term “Holy City” to refer to ourselves, our hearts, and our souls. Isaiah 1:26 says, “I will restore your judges as in days of old, your counselors as at the beginning. Afterward you will be called the City of Righteousness, the Faithful City.” These words are all tied together talking about the state of our hearts and our salvation. After He restores us (restores our judges), as in the revealing of His Holy Spirit to us (the spirit of judgment and of fire), only then will we be called righteous and faithful. Our atonement is only made perfect after the Holy Spirit cleanses us and this is the cleansing that needs to take place every day of our lives. And as a reminder, fire is hot and uncomfortable.
Going back to Daniel 9:24, The word “finish”, as in “finish transgression”, is also intended to mean restrain. Meaning God does not end our sun but gives us the ability to restrain it in our lives through His Holy Spirit. The important thing to remember is, once again, that we will always be sinners. But this isn’t about sin management; it’
s about becoming the people that God has called us to be and in order to do that, we must submit to His Holy Spirit so it can purify us – daily.
I wasn’t going to clarify this point but I’m choosing to now because of the way God makes his point to us by stating it over and over again throughout the bible. Daniel 9:24 is about Jesus finishing transgression. He put an end to our sin and has atoned for our wickedness in order that we may have everlasting righteousness. Atonement does not come cheaply. Our reconciliation with God cost Jesus his life and he suffered beyond belief. Sin requires suffering.
Let’s read Isaiah 53:10-12:
Yet it was the Lord’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer, and though the Lord makes his life a guilt offering, he will see his offspring and prolong his days, and the will of the Lord will prosper in his hand. After the suffering of his soul, he will see the light of life, and be satisfied; by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many, and he will bear their iniquities. Therefore I will give him a portion among the great, and he will divide the spoils with the strong, because he poured out his life unto death, and was numbered with the transgressors. For he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.
So God willed Jesus to suffer and to make him a guilt offering on our behalf. It was through suffering that made our atonement possible and because of that atonement we are able to see the “light of life, and be satisfied.” Christ takes everything for us; he took our iniquities. But that doesn’t mean we get a free ride. There’s no such thing as a full ride scholarship to heaven because sin requires suffering and we are all still sinners. Jesus calls us to pick up that cross and die to ourselves every day of our lives.
So we forgive others freely. It’s not about us. It’s about understanding God’s perfect love for us and showing that same love to others. We do that by letting go of our needs, our desires, and we run away from the idea that we deserve better or that we don’t deserve a certain sin someone has committed against us. And herein lies the battle, at least for me. If I want to follow Christ I have to get over everything that hurts me. In the trial I am facing I have to remember that this isn’t ultimately about me and definitely not about what I deserve. I’m beginning to see this time of struggle in my life as a time of purification and discipline. Really, really, strict discipline.
Hebrews talks about this kind of discipline. Chapter 12, vs. 7 says “Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons.” And vs. 6 says “the Lord disciplines everyone he loves.” This reminds me of a debate I had the other day with my friend Nick. We were hiking 5 miles out to an alpine lake and along the way discussing complex topics of the universe that were undeniably out of our league. But we entertained the thoughts anyway and had a great time in discussion on the hike. Somewhere along the long thread of conversation, the topic came up about military service and its positive effects on society (or what we perceived to be positive effects). We entered a long debate on whether or not our country should make military service mandatory for all men age 18-20. Nick was for it and I was against. Nick’s argument was all about the positive changes it makes in individuals; Things like teaching young people what it means to be accountable, trustworthy, to know how to work hard and have determination, and to understand discipline. Nick talked about the Navy Seals and what they’re put through and the lessons they learn about life through their training. My argument consisted on the real life politics that mandatory military service should never be instituted unless it is needed. Since we don’t have a need we shouldn’t do it. And it will never happen any other way in our country because prescribing mandatory military duties goes against everything this country was founded on; that being life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. I also brought up points about those values the military teaches being taught through private programs for youth, and any over arching laws by the federal government are not only unnecessary, but ultimately harmful to our country and directly against what the framers of our constitution had in mind. Anyway, we agreed on the values the military teaches but in the process annoyed everyone else we were hiking with. Discipline is important and God uses it to mold us, shape us, or redirect us on a path closer to him.
Later in Hebrews chapter 12, the author tells us that “God is a consuming fire”, and he shakes everything he created in order to reveal what can’t be shaken (Paraphrased vs. 25-29). What can’t be shaken then? Only God. Hebrews 1:10-11 says that the earth and the heavens are God’s creation and they will perish, but He will remain. Isaiah 54:10 says that his unfailing love for us will never be shaken. Therefore, if God is a consuming fire and his desire is to shake the heavens and earth (everything he created), we as Christians, followers of Christ and “the consuming fire”, we can not escape the fire in this life. God puts us through the fire to discipline us and to test us (Heb.12 and 1Cor.3:13).
There is nothing easy about being a Christian. Being a Christian means we are awakened to the reality that our flesh is constantly at war with out spirit. Ephesians 6:12 tells us our battle is not against flesh and blood, but against “the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.”
So what does this mean for us today? For me, I’m in a big trial. I’m asking for God’s help and interevention in my life more than I can ever remember doing before. I understand that I am being tested. I feel as though I’m being put through the fire to cleanse me of my sin and myself. I am in a process of atonement. My sins are being swept away and I am seeing more clearly than I have in a really long time. Like Isaiah 35:2 says, my spirit is bursting into bloom and I literally am rejoicing and shouting for joy. I’m taking comfort in Isaiah 54:10-11, that His love will not be shaken and though my heart (city) is being lashed by storms (trials) and I haven’t felt comforted enough though it, he will build me up for his glory.
What’s absolutely insane is that I was writing out a prayer the other day and during my journaling I fell asleep. I felt myself resting in the Lord. Matthew 11:28 says, “come to me all you who are weary and burdened and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for you souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” Then I woke up, used the bathroom, and came back with the intent to journal and study about the cost of being a disciple. I was frantically ripping through the bible like I haven’t in years. It was like a complex web of truth that was being laid out before me, in and out of the Old Testament fulfilling New Testament scripture. At one point I even called out to God, “You got to be kidding me!” It seemed like an endless revelation of truth and I feared and complained out loud to God that this is never ending. He was getting through to me. He had to nail it in my head by repeating himself throughout the entire bible over and over again.
So this is my ‘take away’: God is good, he is unchanging and he can’t be shaken. Our sin is ruining us and therefore we constantly need Christ. We need atonement every day and we must be willing to be tried and tested in ways that scare us the most. The Holy Spirit is a spirit of fire and judgment (Matthew 3:11) and He intends to cleanse us of our sin. God wants to works us to completion. Like Paul says in 2 Timothy 4:6-8, God wants us to fight the good fight that we may be rewarded the crown of righteousness. Not by our works, but through the works of Jesus Christ and our faith in him. For us then, fighting the good fight means we put an end to our passiveness and we confront our sin and wage war against it. So like 2 Corinthians 10:3, we take every thought captive and make it obedient to Christ. Being a Christian means you are now standing on the battlefield; therefore we should put on the full armor of God! (Eph. 6). If your not up for the fight you will be merely lukewarm and God will spit you out of his mouth. Not because he’s mean, but because that’s what it requires.
It’s time we all take a look at ourselves. Chances are that we don’t know what is keeping us from God. Obviously the answer is sin. But ask God what area in you does he want to remove. What does he want to cleanse you of? I don’t think this is something we can force but we can invite him in and investigate. If your not in a trial than you probably don’t see a big need for God in your life right now. Press into him anyway and use this period to serve others. Help someone else in their trial even if it means sharing a meal and sitting in silence. You don’t need words to support someone in something that is far beyond you and your experience. Talk with them, meet with them, and pray for them. And when you face your own trial don’t forget to dig into the Lord. You may notice the mental battle you face more intensely and clearly than at other times in your life. Thank God for his infinite wisdom and love that will carry you through hard times and set your feet on flat ground. He is molding you, shaping you for his glory. We need to remember that God is not absent in our trials. Sometimes we assume he’s absent but in fact it’s exactly the opposite.
So stop, slow down, and ask God what he wants you to learn from it. You will suddenly see God in your life and he will strengthen you through it and because of it. We need to remember that it’s ultimately about Jesus healing us. And it’s hard to look deep within ourselves because its ugly in there. Maybe that’s why Jesus said The Way is narrow. Ask God what you need to be healed from and don’t turn away from it! It will require surgery and there is no anesthesia for the operation. You have to carry your cross.
Rob Bell talks about this in his book Velvet Elvis. I like what he says about how a lot of people give up, they settle, and they miss out. He says, “it’s possible to be a Christian and go to church, serve, sing the songs and jump through all the hoops and never let Jesus heal your soul.” God wants all of you. That’s the cost of being a disciple. That’s what it means to carry your cross. You must suffer. You must die. Being a Christian means your life will be more difficult. As crowds became larger around Jesus his teachings became more challenging and difficult. Jesus did not have a messiah complex. He want’s to know who is serious about carrying their own cross; are you in or out?