The passage that comes to mind when talking about the criteria for a Christian is Matthew 16:24-25. In it, Jesus says to His disciples, “If any of you wants to be my follower, you must give up your own way, take up your cross, and follow me. If you try to hang on to your life, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for my sake, you will save it.”
First, I notice Jesus’ beginning statement. “If any of you wants to be my follower…” It’s as if He’s putting a big asterisk at the beginning of His talk. “This message I am about to share with you is only for those who want and desire to follow me.” It’s only for those who recognize that He alone has the words of life.
Jesus goes on to say that to be His follower, “you must give up your own way, take up your cross, and follow [him].” This is a hard statement. Jesus is essentially saying, you are giving up your independence. All other gods that you used to follow–sex, career, family, and self–must be put to death because now you live for another. Whatever passion drives you more than your desire for Him must die.
Recently, I was listening to a message on this topic by Sam Alberry, author of Is God Anti-gay?, 7 Myths About Singleness, and other books. He noted that in Jesus’ day picking up your cross meant that you were giving up all rights to be treated as a dignified human being. You were literally carrying your cross to the place where you would be crucified on it, and on that journey, people could do and say anything to you that they wanted. The abuse suffered on that journey was so gruesome that people were said to feel relief when they reached the place of death.
So why does Jesus use this analogy when He describes the life of a Christ follower? Because when we follow Jesus, we are giving up our rights as citizens of this earthly world and are taking up our citizenship in another world. But in order to take up our new citizenship, we must die to the customs of our old life. We now live for a different kingdom, one in which Jesus is king and we are His subjects. Being subject to Jesus means that we now look to Him as our standard of truth. When questions of ideology and customs are raised we look to Him to provide the answers.
As someone who experiences same-sex attractions and desires daily, I have to approach Jesus and ask, “What is the truth about these desires I have? As my Creator, what was your original design for sexuality, and do my desires line up with your original design? If not, what would you have me do with these desires?”
When I take these questions to Jesus and to His Word, I find that the truth is God designed marriage and sexuality to be a beautiful union between one man and one woman for life as a picture of His union with us, the Church. That’s hard. Especially when I didn’t choose these desires, and on the surface they can seem good. But will I trust Jesus enough to submit to His design for sexuality despite feeling what I do?
One of my favorite authors and speakers is Jackie Hill Perry, who also experiences same sex attraction. She says in her new book Holier Than Thou, “If God is Holy, then he can’t sin. If he can’t sin, then He can’t sin against me. If God can’t sin against me, then shouldn’t that make him the most trustworthy being in the whole universe?” It’s really quite simple. If the Holy God of the universe created me and He cannot sin against me, why wouldn’t I trust Him when He guides me by the hand and whispers in my ear “That’s not for you”? I think it’s exactly that. A trust issue. Allberry says, “You cannot make sense of the way Jesus calls us to live when it comes to the area of sex unless you understand who Jesus is.” He’s right. That’s actually true of all areas of life. We cannot walk the narrow road before us without knowing the heart of Jesus for us.
Paul says it is the kindness of God that leads us to repentance (Rom. 2:4), and His kindness is His willingness to lay down his life, take up our sin, and die the most gruesome death in human history–all with us in mind. Jesus’ death and resurrection is the culmination of His kindness. He did this so that He could say “No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you.” (John 15:15). This is His kindness. This is the heart of Christ for us: that we would no longer be His servants but His friends.
If He is willing to die for me so that I could experience a restored relationship with Him, then He is worthy of my trust when He calls me to holy living. When He asks me to be thankful for all the intimate relationships He has given me instead of coveting the kind of intimate relationship I do not have, He is justified in asking that of me, and He is worthy of my trust in His command.
When I say Jesus is killing me, I mean He is killing the part of me that doesn’t line up with my new life–my new citizenship–so that I may experience the abundant life that he promised (John 10:10). It is good for me that He is killing me. Without it, I would keep on stumbling in the dark, clinging to the desire for a life that promises much but delivers death. Jesus said in verse 25 of Matthew 16, “If you try to hang on to your life, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for my sake, you will save it.”
Without Jesus’ gracious act of killing my flesh, I would be as the rich young ruler in Mark 10 who sought to follow Jesus but lacked the commitment to follow Him. The ruler followed all the commands of the Jewish law since he was a little boy, but he lacked one thing–total surrender to Jesus. When Jesus told him to “Go and sell all your possessions and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” The text says the man went away sad for he had many possessions. He did this because he didn’t know who Jesus was. He didn’t know that Jesus actually is worth giving up everything for, and that in doing so, he would gain much more than his earthly riches could ever offer.
What riches do you cling to in your life that are proving to actually be idols keeping you from wholly surrendering to Jesus? For me, one of them is my sexual identity. I find myself trying to cling to my old life thinking that in it I will find more satisfaction than in my Creator.
Jesus told his disciples, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God… In fact, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” But thanks be to God for Jesus Christ and the work of Salvation. For “humanly speaking, [being saved] is impossible. But not with God. Everything is possible with God.” (Mark 10:27)
Through Jesus, we are able to give up our earthly riches and treasures knowing that we are storing up heavenly treasures. And even in this life, Jesus promises that “everyone who has given up house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or property, for my sake and for the sake of the Good News, will receive now in return a hundred times as many houses, brothers, sisters, mothers, children, and property–along with persecution. And in the world to come that person will have eternal life.” (Mark 10: 29-30)
The Christian life is a life of sacrifice. A life of persecution. A life of dying. But it’s also a life of immense return on your investment. Jesus promised that when we sacrifice things in this life for Him and for the Gospel, we will receive not just eternal life with Him, which is far better than anything else, but we will be blessed in this life too. He will care for our physical and relational needs. He is our provider both now and in the life to come.
Knowing Jesus is the key to self denial. Because if you know Him, you quickly realize that He alone can fulfill your desire to be known, seen, and loved. We were made for intimacy with our Creator, and He went to great lengths to make sure that intimacy would be kept intact. The world will always offer cheap substitutes for what He alone can provide, but if we will trust Jesus’ words above all else we will see that dying to self is the only option for living with Him. He knows what’s good for me. I don’t, and Calvary is my proof.