Make me the man that you want me to be E’en if I do not want to be that man. Teach me to trust you when I cannot see The purpose in the details of your plan. Help me to hope when tempted to despair At circumstances greater than my strength, To trust that, in the darkness, you are there With love beyond all height, depth, width, and length. Show me myself, and make me truly know The greatness of my need and of your grace. Remind me you are with me as I go, And lead according to your path and pace. Lord, search me, try me, know me, make me new. Let all my life be lived in love of you.
I make my pray’r to you. You answer, “No.” And I don’t understand your reasoning. I ask to stay, but you call me to go. ‘Tis daily bread with bitter seasoning. I try to turn my grief into a gift: My heart’s desires become my offering. But I can’t see the rescue in the rift, And sov’reign love feels much like suffering. In seasons such as this, my faith is stretched, A stretching that is needed though it hurts. And through the test, your grace and truth are etched Upon my heart more deeply and convert My ignorance and fear to trust in you, The God of love who’s making all things new.
The psalmist waited patiently for you And then bore witness to your care and grace. Relief followed the waiting like the dew After a night when darkness hid your face. Though you are never absent, we may not Detect you in the time before the dawn. Your promises—oft doubted, oft forgot— Prove true, a hope long hidden, never gone. But patience is required, for though the end Is certain, yet it does not come too soon. You use the time we wait to break and mend. In silence, we learn how to sing in tune. So hope, though time be now a source of strain. Our waiting on the Lord is not in vain.
Some things are lost never to be recovered. Some absences are gifts shrouded in grief. Apart from pain, some truths stay undiscovered. Some losses point the way to true relief. But future glory does not make less real The sufferings we meet from day to day. Christ does not minimize the pain we feel; Christ knows it best and shows there is a way For loss to pave the road to greater gain, For suffering to serve a holy end. We mourn in hope, for nothing is in vain In service to the ever-faithful friend. Count it all joy no matter what you face. Feel deep the loss, then rest in perfect grace.
While many sayings of Jesus bring great comfort to our souls, some can deeply disturb us. Luke records one such saying.
And [Jesus] said to all, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and 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 world and loses or forfeits himself?”
Jesus’s words here call to mind similar texts throughout Scripture. Paul calls believers to be living sacrifices, for example, and the author of Hebrews speaks of enduring in the struggle against sin (Romans 12:1-2; Hebrews 12). But what does it mean to deny ourselves? What does it mean to take up the cross? What does following Jesus really entail?
I don’t think denying ourselves means we self-flagellate, depriving ourselves needlessly of joys that God gives. The Lord created a world filled with good things, things that fill us with wonder as we partake. Food, drink, fellowship, art, sport, work, travel—we can enjoy all these and more with thanksgiving. “So,” Paul writes, “whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31). True, we live in a world broken by sin, and we feel in our own bodies the effects of the break. Good things may be twisted, good desires corrupted, good gifts turned to vices. But so long as we do not sin in our partaking, we may partake in worship.
At times, however, we must deny ourselves for the sake of Christ. Sometimes, we deny ourselves the enjoyment of some good thing in order to better serve a fellow Christian (Romans 14; 1 Corinthians 10:23-33). At other times, we deny ourselves the pursuit of our own plans in order to submit to the will of the Lord (Proverbs 19:21; James 4:13-17). In these ways, we act out of love for the Lord and for people.
I find myself tending to think of self-denial as singular instances of action rather than as a lifestyle of surrender. In both of the above cases, for example, I can misread the text to pertain only to specific cases, to particular times and places where I have to give up my choice for that of another. But what if self-denial is more of a lifestyle, a settled conviction that the Lord reigns over every desire, every decision, and every direction of my life? How might that change the day to day journey?
Viewing self-denial as a way of life would change how I view persistent desires. The strength and the persistence of a desire may lead me to assume I am justified in pursing the desire’s fulfillment, but such a conclusion does not necessarily follow. Sin finds its root in our desires, growing toward death as we pursue our desire’s fulfillment apart from the Lord’s provision (James 1:13-18). At times, I’ve prayed for some desires to be taken from me, for me to be granted freedom from the struggle. I don’t believe such prayers are wrong. But the Lord may not answer such prayers for relief. Paul, for example, prayed three times for the thorn in the flesh to be removed, for the harassment he underwent to be withdrawn; but the Lord saw fit to leave the thorn, for his purpose was Paul’s sanctification (2 Corinthians 12:7-10). The Lord uses the struggle, our ongoing self-denial, for good, even if we can’t see or understand his purpose in the midst of the fight.
Viewing self-denial as a way of life would also change how I view allegiance to Christ. Relatively speaking, I have not had to sacrifice to the same extent as many other Christians. I stand amidst a mighty throng of martyrs and missionaries, of those who chose Christ over family, friends, health, safety, and life itself. Though all Christians bear crosses, some do seem to have a heavier weight, a fiercer struggle. And when the call of Christ requires your all, when devotion to the Lord means a greater denial than you ever realized you could make, you wonder if Christ is worth it. Ultimately, that’s the question we must answer: is Christ worthy of the greatest extent of self-denial? If pressed, will I surrender my deepest desires, my ties to family and friends, and my comforts and securities in this world for the sake of this Jewish teacher? Is he worth it? Jesus claims that he is: “whoever loses his life for my sake will save it” (Luke 9:24). He even raises a challenge to those of us who doubt: “For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself?” (Luke 9:25). More than that, he walked the road before us, suffering on our behalf to save us from slavery to sin and death. His cross was heavier than any he calls us to bear. He can sympathize with us (Hebrews 4:14-16). But he doesn’t just sympathize with us; he changes us for good (2 Corinthians 5:17).
Admittedly, we could embrace our desires, follow our dreams, and live according to our plans. That option remains on the table. But what do we really gain, especially if we lose ourselves in the process? Furthermore, who has the Lord ever cheated? Who has the Lord ever failed? Who has come to the end of a life of faithful service and concluded, “The Lord was not enough”? If God has promised to provide for our needs as we seek his kingdom and righteousness (Matthew 6), then, though we may feel a lack of some good thing, we will have all we truly need. He knows best, and his love and faithfulness have already been sufficiently proven (Romans 5:1-11; Romans 8).
Self-denial, if understood as a way of life, will require far more than we may be comfortable surrendering. And I think that’s part of the point. Jesus didn’t downplay the seriousness of the path of the kingdom because he knew the gain far outweighed the losses. Paul understood this point well, forsaking any earthly gain and rejoicing in any present weakness for the joy of knowing Christ (Philippians 3; 2 Corinthians 12). The twelve disciples faced persecution and death for their allegiance to Christ, and they rejoiced. The people of God are a people of peace, peace that surpasses any counterfeit offered by sin. So we need not fear self-denial for the sake of Christ. We may mourn the losses we experience in this life, but we may bear our crosses with joy. We are the followers of the Son of God, those called from death to life, those made sons and daughters of the King. Let us not fear the loss of this world; we stand to gain our souls.
Sadness is a growing thing. It is watered by frustrated plans, fed by unfulfilled affections, lengthened by loss. Sadness is a subtle thing. Unchecked, it soon can choke life and love and laughter as grief sours and breeds bitterness. Sadness is a frail thing. It breaks open and spills out unexpectedly at the slightest touch. Sadness is a fleeting thing, a fading thing. It is disarmed by a deeper truth, held in perspective by purpose, and will be redeemed at the coming of the one whose love was never lost. He will wipe away every tear.
Knowing God is growing you, refining
Faith in faithfulness, slowly aligning
Heart and head and habit with his beauty.
Deeming discipline a joyful duty.
Knowing too his work is far from finished,
That you are yet still must be diminished,
That the recognition of a reason
May not mark the closing of the season.
How many little moments will we find
Were not without significance at all
But were the subtle graces of a kind
Untarnished by the twistings of the fall?
How many hours of testing will reveal
Themselves to be the reasons for our joys?
How many wounds will show they served to heal?
How many pains upset the serpent’s ploys?
How many seasons thought to have no end
Did end one day with mercy fresh and new?
How many things seemed only to offend
But deepened both my love and faith in you?
How often is there more than eyes can see?
How little do we understand of thee.
For the first time in months, I opened my book and read some of the poems included. As I read, I was encouraged, challenged, comforted, and convicted. I’d forgotten some of the lines I wrote years ago, and I was glad to find them again.