January 21, 2021

Difficult Scriptures

And He was saying to them all, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross daily and follow Me” (Luke 9:23, NASB).

Perhaps the most difficult thing about this verse is not interpreting it correctly, but living it out. Just how does one deny himself as Jesus says? What does it mean to take up our cross? Would it make more sense to us today if we were told to take up our electric chair or lethal injection?

It appears from this passage, and the similar verses in Matthew and Mark, that there is no other way to be a follower of Jesus. So, what about those who call themselves Christians but refuse to deny themselves and pick up their cross? Are there levels of being a Christian? You know—normal Christians make a sacrifice now and then, but on the whole keep their lives. If you want to be a “super Christian,” otherwise known as a disciple, you need to deny yourself and take up your cross each day.

And why do we have to take up our cross each day? Isn’t it a one-time deal?

Ok. Have I made this muddy enough? What is Jesus saying here, and more than that, how do live it out?


  1. Ah, the “super Christian”. I grew up in ministry in a denomination that consistently labeled folks according to their actions, which determined whether or not they were “carrying the cross”. Everyone generally fell into one of these categories…

    1) Saved.
    2) Lost.
    3) Saved, but backslidden.
    4) “I know they prayed to receive Jesus into their hearts, but I wonder if they were ever really saved at all.”
    5) Heretic (This classification was generally reserved for anyone that took communion every Sunday, used words like “Eucharist”, or had a crucifix rather than a cross hanging from their rear view mirror. I’m now one of these, according to former ministry partners).

    What a confusing mess. Funny, “disciple” was never used as a label, even though Jesus’ commission was to “go and make disciples of men”, not to “get people to pray the prayer so they can get on the glory train!”

    From Augustine to Bonhoeffer, there has been discussion of the visible vs. the invisible church. Some people are simply not what they claim to be, when they say they are Christians. But are behavior patterns that we define as “taking up our crosses”, such as consistent Bible reading, self-denial, selling all you have, or abstaining from sin, the only indicators of whether or not someone is truly a disciple? I mean, if consistently carrying your cross throughout your life, as demonstrated by “proper” behavior, is the mark of a disciple, I fear that some men I greatly admire…Brennan Manning, Augustine, Bernard of Clairveaux, etc….just aren’t going to make it into the Pearly Gates.

    God is sovereign. Only He knows our hearts, and He’s the one that will most assuredly separate the disciples from the billy goats.

    I had a great conversation with an Orthodox priest in Bulgaria several years ago about who would make it into heaven. We began the conversation discussing different theologies, who was right and wrong denominationally, etc. At one point, he looked at me and smiled, and said, “You know, I’m thinking that St. Peter’s keys will be worn much thinner than we imagine. There will be some people in the Kingdom that neither of us ever expected to see.”

    Along the same lines, there will likely be some who are conspicuously absent….

    This promises to be an interesting conversation.

    • Oh yes, that it does. Thank you, Lee, for starting it off with a bang. Now I’m wondering where I fit in among those five categories…

      • LOL! Yeah, I never knew what eternal security felt like until I escaped from preachers who talked about eternal security so much….

        • It sometimes seems that those who most strongly preach “eternal security” are the ones who are most quick to announce that someone was never saved in the first place!

    • Dear Lee, if you mean to intimate that Bernard of Clairvaux did not engage in consistent Bible reading, self-denial, and abstaining from sin, it’s looking pretty grim for the rest of us!


      • I actually believe that Bernard is a great picture of a disciple…committed to all of those things…but with skeletons in the closet (see the Second Crusade!)

        I consider “On Loving God” one of the greatest pieces of literature I’ve ever read, BTW….;o)

    • ‘But are behavior patterns that we define as “taking up our crosses”, such as consistent Bible reading, self-denial, selling all you have, or abstaining from sin, the only indicators of whether or not someone is truly a disciple?’

      i reckon you could do all these things and not be a disciple of Jesus

    • Lee!
      I grew up in the same denomination of Super Christians.

      But now I am in category 5 – Heretic.

      People have strange reactions when I tell them I go to an Anglican church.

      • LOL! Me, too. I’m ordained in the Baptist church, and really do value my history there, despite my occasional sarcasm. I was telling an old Baptist friend the other day that I was pursuing the priesthood in the Anglican church, and she shook her head and said, “I just hope you still have Jesus in your heart.”

        As mama would say, “Bless her heart…”

    • I can’t believe we’re talking about Bernard of Clairvaux here on imonk. I’m taking a mid-term exam for my graduate seminar in music history tonight, and he is certainly on the test. What a coincidence. Perhaps now I’ll actually remember him!

  2. Let’s see….if getting on the glory train is what it’s all about, can we make JeffD a HOLY HOBO…. ?? Just make sure you enunciate folks, we don’t want team pyro over hear…

  3. “A man who is eating or lying with his wife or preparing to go to sleep in humility, thankfulness and temperance, is, by Christian standards, in an infinitely higher state than one who is listening to Bach or reading Plato in a state of pride.” – C. S. Lewis

    Not all Christians are called to sell all they have and become priests, monks, missionaries, etc. Not all Christians are these things. Some are called to live their own lives with God at the center and that can be a much more difficult task. Humility comes easily when the Creator has told you a direction. But being humble is difficult when you have to trust that God is using you in your everyday life. Taking up your cross may simply be working every day to make and keep God as your foundation and praying that your life will be of use. We may never see that our lives are useful to the Lord, but if we keep moving toward Him we have to trust we will be.

    • Well said my friend. Well said!

    • Great thoughts on the role of humility in discipleship. We do tend to get puffed up about our spiritual accomplishments! I’ll add some thoughts from Jesus (John 21:18-19)…

      “Very truly I tell you, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. Then he said to him, “Follow me!”

      Spiritual maturity is not marked by behavior modification, but according to Henri Nouwen, by a willingness to led places that one would rather not go. Humility and submission are the earmarks of those who do choose the path of following Jesus.

    • Randy Thompson says

      You’re right. Not all Christians are called to “sell all they have,” but I can’t help but think we’d better be prepared for it!

      And, by the way, does selling all we have necessarily entail becoming a Christian professional? Maybe it has more to do with viewing your money, possessions and gifts (spiritual or otherwise) as being available for others.

  4. IMO picking up ones cross daily and following Jesus is equal to allowing others the freedom not to.

    And in that freedom you’re not judging them or giving them lables that you think you’re so good at handing out and doing it so readily and appropriately but they don’t apply.

  5. David Cornwell says

    The classifications I came to know as a young man were these:
    1. Lost
    2. Saved
    3. Backsliden, probably NOT saved anymore
    4. Reclaimed: Saved again! (some people made trips to the kneeling rail anytime an emotional preacher gave the invitation). In their testimony they would say various things, but most were backslidden again.
    5. Entirely sanctified: the carnal nature cleansed away. One could be made perfect in love and would strive for perfection. One could still backslide, but not as likely in this state. Becoming entirely sanctified was the “second work of grace” coming after being saved.

    It was sort of like shifting gears, first, second, third, etc.! One preacher described it as running the bases in a baseball game. One seldom hit a home run, rounding all the bases at once.

    The doctrine of “assurance” was part of this. One needed to have some kind of inner testimony to the heart that one was saved, so you “prayed through” until you had this. This was sort of modeled after Wesley”s heart warming experience at Aldersgate. Wesley is probably wishing he’d never said this!

    Needless to say, all this created a lot of confusion (or at least it did with me).

    What does Jesus say here? I don’t claim to have the “right” answer. But I think it means be careful about one’s first love, i.e Jesus is to become the center of one’s affections and not the aspirations that spring from something else. It is a daily death that would call us away from those things that would pull us away from that love for Him.

  6. one’s “cross”, the form and shape that it takes, is directly tied together with one’s vocation. it will not look exactly the same as another’s. i would add, however, that at the root of all possible answers to this question is this singular, universally applicable answer: the “cross” that we all must bear is most clearly understood over and against and within our relationships with other people.

    can anyone deny that living in relationship with others most definitely draws out and demands the fruits of the spirit that are spoken of in Galatians?

    in order to have genuine, real and authentic love, we definitely have to deny ourselves continually.


    what saddens me is that over the years this questions has been bandied about, with various answers being given, and i have never heard anyone answer it within the context of real life and love. the answers always seem to come from some place that i honestly do not believe most christians come from, and as such, find it difficult to truly and intimately relate to; i.e., answers seem to typically come from a place of outstanding and amazing sacrifices, you know, dying in the amazon or some such sentiment. the majority of christians that i know cannot really, truly relate to these sorts of answers. difficulties in relationships, on the other hand? this is something that every person on the face of the planet can relate to. who among us has never felt the sting of rejection, misunderstanding(s) or betrayal? these are universally human realities. and isn’t this part of why Jesus came? to both teach and show us how to love one another the way that God wants us to? didn’t Jesus tell us that we must become servants to our fellow man?

    i don’t know about you all, but sometimes, i really don’t want or desire to be my wife’s or children’s servant. but then i remember my Lord and the example He set. and once i remember that, from a level of such depth within my heart that i could burst at the fragility of it all, i gladly become their servant with tears in my eyes.

  7. Receive and suffer for the world’s sins just like Christ. Whether it be turning the other cheek, returning blessing for cursing, going two miles when compelled to go one—whatever it is, suffer willingly for the world’s sins which it puts on you and thereby join with Christ in redeeming the world. When we suffer unjustly then return a blessing and stay faithful, the world will ask how we have such a hope and will see our good works and glorify our Father in heaven.

  8. I have personally struggled with this verse for many years, and had all the same explanations as you stated above thrown at me as to what it really means.

    However, now I believe that God has shown me that “carrying my cross” is the act of daily reminding myself that Jesus has secured my righteousness, and I need to to stop trying to earn it. It is truly second nature for us to strive to live in a way that will make us acceptable to God. Instead, if we focus/meditate on Christ and who he is and what he has done on our behalf, then I think we are denying ourselves as Jesus says we must.

    • Yes! We do good works not because we believe we can impress God, but because we are infinitely impressed with God!

      • Amen to that!

        It seems to me counterintuitive, but when we are focusing on Him, his love, mercy and grace more readily flow through us to others. I’ve found that the harder I try to “behave” as Jesus would have me do on my own steam, the more I tend to be self-congratulatory about the results, and prideful as a result.

  9. This makes me think of the rich young ruler. He had all the boxes checked but those “disciplines” were not the issue, the lord of his life was. That’s how I try to work this out in my life, who or what am I making to be my lord other than Jesus.

    That really seems much too simple to me and I want a proven formula with a bunch of boxes I can check off so I’ll know I”m “good” but it’s the boxes that are too simple. God created us as complex beings and as individuals (beings in need of being interdependent) so the answer to this and so many questions don’t fall into simple, easy to follow categories and, usually, require much more grace than at first perceived.

  10. An understanding of taking up the cross just now occurred to me. To the first century person, being told to take up the cross did not mean instant death. It meant carrying it, like Jesus carried it up the Via Dolorosa, a long and tiring and often torturous process, and what is one’s earthly reward for carrying that cross up the hill? Death on that cross.

    That may seem obvious, but I don’t think I ever tied personal crucifixion to carrying the cross.

  11. I think what makes this and similar sayings “difficult” is our tendency to interpret their application to our own lives through the lens of staying personally safe, reasonably well off, and in control of our destiny.

  12. A “cross” is not a hardship, trial, or spiritual practice. A cross is an instrument of death. “When Jesus calls a man, he bids him come and die.” (Bonhoeffer) Luther’s comments about the ongoing meaning of our baptism apply here: “It signifies that the old Adam in us should, by daily contrition and repentance, be drowned and die with all sins and evil lusts, and, again, a new man daily come forth and arise; who shall live before God in righteousness and purity forever.”

  13. Part of the puzzle is how we are to die not just once but daily.

  14. “Part of the puzzle is how we are to die not just once but daily”

    Nice one, Andy Z !.

  15. The verse in question is immediately after Luke 9:22, where the Lord announces his own suffering, rejection, death and resurrection to his disciples. They are away from the crowds. I really understand verse 23 and following to be a specific warning that it is about to get rather hairy for him and for all who continue to follow him closely. Unless they are prepared to die any day, they should bail out now! All private agendas need to be abandoned. He is headed for a cross.

    Does this have an application for those who follow Jesus today? Yes, in the general sense of a readiness to sacrifice even our lives if that is where his path for us leads, but no, not in some overarching way of declaring that we all need to jump up, dump everything and go to the far ends of the earth or we are none of his.

  16. He must increase, but I must decrease. John 3:30

    although i am incapable of transforming myself, i must have the willingness/attitude to be a better representation of Jesus daily…

    denying myself simply admitting that He indeed is greater. and His greatness is what i want more than my corruptibleness.

    my cross isn’t a one-size-fits-all design. It will not be like yours, but the end result will be the same…

    Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil—and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death. Heb 2:14-15

    i do not need to fear death. i will make a distinction between physically dying & the greater implication of spiritual death, but no, i do not ‘fear’ dying to myself in the sense i am losing something while gaining nothing. i do lose what is mortal/corruptible for something far greater. Jesus went before us. showed us by divine example how it is done. and then He works out all the particulars in & thru us too? what is it about the nth degree of God’s mercy & grace that is so unattractive to those that do not accept His offer of forgiveness, accetpance, re-creation, etal? i am at times simply overwhelmed by the scope of His interaction with me…

  17. Romans chapter 6 calls us to know, consider, and present . I think this has something to do with it.

  18. My take: the cross means suffering. To the extent that our lives are devoted to avoiding this, our efforts are doomed to failure–in the face of existential crisis (such as death), neither money, nor power, nor pleasure remain meaningful. Some things, however, only become more meaningful, and love is chief among them. (An insight by no means limited to Christianity.)

  19. What does it mean to take up our cross and follow Jesus? The specifics may vary depending on vocation and circumstance, but I think the unchanging heart of it is to follow Him faithfully regardless of the consequences.

    Not every case will be this public or high profile, but the best example I’ve seen this week is here.


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