19_150612192149_1_litFor a period of time, I rented a room from a retired Thai couple that also lived on the property. To keep oil from splattering everywhere when the wife did her deep-fried Eastern cooking, the wall next to the stove had been meticulously plastered with pages from a cruise magazine. Since we shared the kitchen, any time I was preparing food my eyes would be drawn to the colorful images showing carefree couples on pristine beaches and luxury cruise ships roaming the seas.
          “All the toys for the ultimate vacation,” read one of the headlines. The article featured a photo of a family playing watersports in an exotic location, far away from the daily grind and hustle.  
          As I stood there cooking, I’d often ponder the lifestyle depicted in the articles. I’d think about how our flesh desires relaxation and recreation; how we want life to be comfortable and convenient. In fact, the more comfort and convenience we have, the more freedom we believe we’ll be able to experience.
          It makes sense that unbelievers would think this way. But as Christians we walk to the beat of a different drum. While there’s nothing wrong about wanting to enjoy the blessings God has given us, we must be wise about how we spend our time and money. Our life is no longer to be characterized by the pursuit of pleasure the way it was before we knew the Lord, but by love and service. And freedom, the Bible teaches, isn’t found in comfort and convenience, but in sacrifice.  
          As followers of Jesus, we’re called to live lives of self-denial. As Christ put it, “For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it” (Matthew 16:25).
          Jesus is saying here that when we give up our own self-serving desires and instead seek to live for Him, we find true life. We discover the purpose for which we were created; what it means to live the abundant life He came to give us (John 10:10). This is the great paradox of the Christian faith: gaining is found through losing.
          To follow Christ we have to abandon our old way of thinking and completely change our course. We must put our hand to the plow and not look back (Luke 9:62). We must be prepared to give up everything for the sake of the Gospel. If we aren’t willing to make the necessary sacrifices, Jesus said, we cannot be His disciple (14:26). Not that we shouldn’t be – we cannot be.
          The concepts of “denying yourself”, “picking up your cross”, and “dying to self” are found throughout the pages of the New Testament. They describe the truest essence of what it means to serve the Lord, and they stand in stark contrast to what the world says about how to be happy. The world tells us that life is enriched primarily through pleasurable experiences. The Bible, on the other hand, teaches that joy, fulfillment, and purpose are found in the process of being molded more and more into the likeness of the Son of God. And Christ, as we know, lived a life of perfect selflessness.
          The process of spiritual growth is hard. It often involves inconvenience, discomfort, delayed gratification, and even pain. It takes dedication and commitment every single day. It involves walking in continuous self-awareness, praying and thinking things through, patiently waiting on God, and surrendering our will to His. Simply put, it means being willing to do the difficult inner work required to grow in holiness.
          It also means that, like Jesus, we seek to set aside our self-serving desires and put God’s Kingdom first; that we’re more concerned about doing the right thing than about looking good. It means that, above all, we seek to honor our Lord.  
          In terms of lifestyle, living out Christ’s principles of self-denial strongly indicates that we don’t live beyond our means. We don’t rack up credit card debt by purchasing things we can’t afford just so we can keep up with the Joneses.
          Even if we have the money, there will be times when we choose not to give in to our heart’s desires. We don’t necessarily buy the latest phone on the market just because we can (when our current one is just fine), or fill our closet with new clothes or shoes when we already have more than we need.
          It’s good to practice small acts of self-denial like these because it helps us to not become self-indulgent. It helps free up our mind to focus on spiritual realities. It keeps us from becoming possessed by our possessions; from cluttering our life with things that distract us in our service of God.  
          Money is one thing; how we choose to invest our time also speaks volumes about the state of our heart. If we spend more time pursuing the perfect physique than we do holiness, something is clearly off with our priorities. The same can be said if watching TV or planning our next getaway or shopping for new furniture is a bigger part of our life than serving at church or reading God’s Word or evangelizing the lost.
          Unfortunately, many of us have gotten things backward. As far as our externals, we always want more – more stuff and more experiences – but when it comes to spiritual things, we settle for so little. Very often, what drives us (yes, even us Christians) is not a pursuit of holiness but a pursuit of worldly goals. And, sadly, in the process of striving after the things of the world, we miss out on a lot of great work that God wants to do in us and through us.
          Is what we are living for worth Christ dying for? This is the question we should be regularly asking ourselves. And only when we can answer in the affirmative, can we be said to be fully yielded to the Holy Spirit. Only then are we truly picking up our cross. And, mind you, the Lord requires nothing less of us. As one pastor put it, “Jesus never called for a superficial makeover but a total takeover.”
          May God help us be less conformed to our culture. May He help us better embrace the essence of the Christian life and make a difference with the short time we have left. Following Jesus is about sacrifice, not ease or self-indulgence. It’s about living not for immediate gratification, but with an eternal perspective. It’s about giving up and laying down. It’s about storing up treasures in heaven, where they’ll last forever (Matthew 6:19-20).
          It’s not about the toys or the vacations. In fact, probably nothing is farther from the Christian’s calling than that. Because it’s not about us, you see. It’s not about what we can get out of life. It’s about Jesus. May we always keep Him where He belongs: at the center of all our desires and pursuits.