Just before the start of the Holy Week Convention, I received a text from a dear friend that her husband had passed on. Her message was calm, and she wanted me to hear the news from her.
A few weeks earlier, we met and I remembered what she shared. She said she was praying for her husband who was confined to an elderly care home. About 20 years ago, we had gone to this elderly care home for Christmas caroling together. Who would have known that one day her very own husband would end up in this very place?
I envisaged myself going to the wake and seeing her breaking down in tears. I prepared tissues and was bracing myself for that moment. As I opened the door, I saw people scattered across the room. As I was scanning the room, I heard a loud voice, “Loli is here!” It was followed by her typical peal of laughter. I wasn’t prepared to see her in such a joyous mood at the wake of her late husband. In other words, I wasn’t prepared to see her living so joyously among the dead. But that was her.
As we sat down at the table, she reminded me that God answered all her prayers, and she was at peace. At this juncture, I must say she is almost double my age. I am neither young nor old, if you know what I mean. I am a middle-aged person. When I mingle with young people, I find them bursting with full of life and endless possibilities. We almost never talk about death and dying. It often seems distant unless someone in the family has passed on. On the other hand, when I am with the elderly, we often talk about the reality of death through the lens of their experiences and lessons learnt in life. Those who have experienced the loss of a loved one seem to have a way of understanding and looking at resurrection.
This elderly friend of mine found Christ in the most unlikely places. During her hey days, she was the second in command in the company, but she found her life meaningless. She was successful but lonely and devoid of happiness. She found her success dead in every sense of the word. She was looking for meaning and purpose elsewhere by running away from God. When God called her down from the ladder of success, it was there that she found the living God, the source of her eternal life and joy. It was also through cancer that she would run back to God. Whenever I meet her, unbeknownst to her, she teaches me a lesson or two.
This week, I am reminded of the women who went to anoint Jesus’ body at the tomb (Luke 24:1-12). They were greeted by two men in dazzling clothes and their presence frightened them. I would be too if I had gone to a cemetery and men in dazzling clothes talked to me! The men said to them, “Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.” This question is addressed to me and to us all too.
Where might we be looking for Jesus, for meaning and significance in life? In this time and age where everything revolves around me, myself and mine, it is easy to get trapped into climbing the ladder of narcissism. We could go on endless pursuits of happiness through activities, entertainments, recreations, families, friends and even career. The list goes on but to what end? All these in itself are not evil and are God’s gifts to us but none of these can give us eternal life. In many ways, they are dead. Only the finished work of Christ on the Cross can truly make us alive.
Interestingly, the Russian word for Sunday apparently means resurrection; to recall, to resuscitate, to recreate, to bring back to life! John Stott writes, “Christianity is in its very essence a resurrection religion. The concept of resurrection lies at its heart. If you remove it, Christianity is destroyed.” Truly, every Sunday is a reminder and celebration of Christ’s resurrection. Only Christ is able to recreate and make us alive. Rev 21:5 reminds us that He makes all things new. He died so that we might live. And because Christ has risen from the dead, we too can live life abundantly even in the midst of the dead.
During the Holy week, I found the living God in the most unlikely places. I found God in my daughter’s fever even as I had to leave her behind to attend to Holy Week services. I found God in the prayers lifted up for her by other believers. I found God in the company of God’s people gathered to worship together. I found God in the word of God preached through Psalm 22 & 23 that I can praise God even through pain. I found God in the company of the sick and lonely people who are suffering. I found God in a widow. I also found God in a funeral.
As I was leaving the wake, my elderly friend turned to me and said, “God is keeping me for a reason; to tell others about Christ. I have peace because He lives.” As people of the living God, may the spirit that raised Jesus from the dead raise us too from our slumber so that our lives may proclaim:
“I serve a risen Savior, he’s in the world today;
I know that he is living, whatever men may say;
I see his hand of mercy, I hear his voice of cheer,
And just the time I need him, he’s always near.
“He lives! He lives! Christ Jesus lives today;
He walks with me and talks with me along life’s narrow way.
He lives! He lives! Salvation to impart;
You ask me how I know he lives –
He lives within my heart!”
On the 27th of March, I participated in a Christian-Muslim interfaith dialogue which took place at Covenant Presbyterian Church (CPC). This dialogue was jointly organised by Masjid Yusof Ishak and the National Council of Churches of Singapore (NCCS) and supported by Harmony Centre and the Ministry of Culture, Community, and Youth (MCCY). The purpose of the dialogue entitled Living Together for the Common Good was to build bridges of social cooperation between Christian and Muslim youth leaders. Some of you may recognise Masjid Yusof Ishak as one of the two mosques marked out for terror attacks by the self-radicalised 16-year-old Singaporean Christian youth recently detained by the Internal Security Department (ISD). In fact, this interfaith dialogue arose as a result of that. When Christian and Muslim leaders met in the aftermath of the incident, they recognised the urgent need for better mutual understanding and cooperation, since it was a bad impression of Muslims and an erroneous understanding of Islam that contributed to the Christian youth’s radicalisation. If similar future incidents should be prevented, then dialogue between the two faiths needs to take place.
At this interfaith dialogue for youth leaders, both Christian and Muslim participants were assigned to small groups that engaged in conversation over a given topic. The following topics were discussed: the part violence plays in our religiosity, the tension between religious diversity and need for social cohesion, and mutual cooperation for the common good as citizens. The various small groups then presented the fruits of their discussions to everyone present, which included Ustaz Dr Mohammad Hannan Hassan, the deputy mufti of Singapore, and Bishop Terry Kee (of the Lutheran Church in Singapore), the vice-president of NCCS. The two senior religious leaders then gave their comments on the issues raised and fielded questions from the participants.
The dialogue turned out to be a good time of mutual learning and constructive discussion which took place in an air of empathy and respect. Given the topics tabled for discussion, it would have been rather unfruitful (and perhaps disastrous) if participants brought defensive and narrow-minded attitudes to the table. However, I was pleasantly surprised by the overall candidness of the conversations which took place. For example, an Ustaz admitted the history of violence in the propagation of Islam, and some Christian pastors highlighted the presence of texts in the Old Testament explicitly commanding violence. Despite these being thorny religious issues, they weren’t simply glossed over or whitewashed but humbly brought to the table and acknowledged. Although the brevity of the dialogue meant that delving into issues and laying out concrete plans for mutual cooperation was impossible, it still went a long way in building a bridge between our two Abrahamic faiths. Allow me to share some of my reflections after the session.
The purpose of such interfaith dialogue isn’t meant for Christians to convince Muslims of the truth of our gospel (or for Muslims to defend the veracity of their faith)—interfaith dialogue isn’t an avenue for evangelism and proselytization, and that can’t be stressed enough. This is especially so in a pluralistic society like Singapore where religious feelings of Muslims and Christians are often deep rooted. Attempting to proselytize or be strident about one’s belief at an interfaith dialogue would be counterproductive. This doesn’t mean we don’t share the gospel with Muslims, but it means we’re wise about it and we recognise there’s a time and place for everything. Of course, some well-meaning Christians may still see this stance as a pusillanimous compromise and a capitulation to relativism and universalism. They believe that if Christians possess the truth, then everyone else is in error and interfaith dialogue has to be an avenue to “convert the heathens.” However, such unhelpful attitudes may just be conducive to radicalisation. If our theology is so narrow that we can only view non-Christians as “the others”—the “reprobates” and “infidels”—and mere targets for proselytization, then we aren’t too far from the perspective held by the self-radicalised youth, who could only see the relationship between Christians and Muslims as one of stark contrast and unavoidable conflict. As a result, he felt the inexorable need to act pre-emptively against “the others” to defend “his people.” Yet, that’s forgetting that all humans are created in the image of God and precious in God’s sight.
According to Dr Adeney-Risakotta, Professor of Religion and Society at the Indonesian Consortium for Religious Studies, the purpose of interfaith dialogue is
to understand and learn from each other, while accepting there are substantial differences between religions as well as between different interpretations within the same religious community. This kind of dialogue aims to break down barriers, clear up misunderstanding and make it possible for us to work together for common goals.
To him, dialogue shouldn’t minimise the differences between faiths, as “understanding how we are different may be more valuable for both sides, than just knowing what we hold in common.” Which means interfaith dialogue isn’t about Christians and Muslims coming together, holding hands in a circle, and singing kumbaya, ignoring all differences in ultimate truth claims between the two faiths. Relativism and universalism are not presuppositions to an interfaith dialogue. On the contrary, because we want to learn and understand each other’s faith better, nobody should be leaving their faith commitments at the door.
So why is such dialogue necessary? Imagine two neighbours who live above and below each other but hardly ever interacting. One day, one of them—let’s just call him Mr Chin—begins to hear knocking noises from his ceiling every day in the wee hours of the morning. As a nice neighbour, he tries to bear with the noise for a while, but eventually gets frustrated and upset at—let’s just call him Mr Mehta—his upstairs neighbour. After weeks of tolerating the din, Mr Chin heads upstairs and breaks Mr Mehta’s flowerpots in retaliation, believing that Mr Mehta is deliberately disturbing his sleep out of spite because he had complained about his dripping laundry. Little did he know, Mr Mehta’s wife had a mild stroke recently, and the knocking sounds were simply her attempting to ambulate to the toilet in the middle of the night with her walking aid. If Mr Chin and Mr Mehta had interacted more often on friendly terms, then Mr Chin would’ve known of Mr Mehta’s wife’s condition and he wouldn’t have jumped to conclusions and destroyed his flowerpots in a fit of anger. Perhaps, they would even have work out a solution to the problem together (like purchasing a commode for her).
Likewise, if interfaith dialogue can help Christians understand that the Islamic faith doesn’t command Muslims to do violence (or kill Christians) and the Islamist extremists are holding to an erroneous interpretation of the Quran, then perhaps we wouldn’t want to imagine Muslims in Singapore as closet terrorists—that would be abhorrent and bigoted. Also, if Muslims know Christians are able to sit at table with them and converse on religion as friends without criticising Islam or “hard selling” Christianity, then perhaps they would be more inclined to befriend Christians and even converse with them about religious matters. Clearing away the underbrush of misunderstanding and false notions about the other faiths paves the way to a better society.
Furthermore, having a dialogue puts faces to the faith in question. It’s easy for Christians talk about and criticize Islam among us behind closed doors (mutatis mutandis for the Muslims), but at an interfaith dialogue, religion is no longer an abstraction but is the lived reality of sincere and faithful persons sitting across the table. Both Christians and Muslims have similar hopes and aspirations in life, can be deeply committed to their faiths, and desire to peacefully live out what they believe in. Being able to put a face to the faith helps to soften any prejudice we may have and gives us true compassion to interact with each other in the public square amicably.
To play into the contrast and conflict framework of interaction and generate interfaith friction would have unfortunate outcomes for both Christians and Muslims in Singapore. On the 1st of March, there was an exchange in parliament between Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam concerning the possibility of religious bias in top civil servants. Mr Singh had asked, “Is there a danger in Singapore that laws and policies could be tilted towards particular religious beliefs—for example, because of the dominant religious beliefs of senior civil servants or people of influence? If not now, maybe some time in the future?” He later clarified the motivation behind his question “was to really seek a restatement of the Government’s commitment towards secularism.” It would be hard to miss the assumption underlying Mr Singh’s question: religious persons cannot be trusted to be seek the common good of all, so we need to ensure religion is purged from the civil service (and from the public square). This is the narrative of secularism that many here have bought into. If Christians and Muslims are unable to muster theological resources from their faith traditions to dialogue and work together for the common good, then we’re just affirming this flawed narrative and further estranging ourselves from the public square.
The reality of the matter is, whether Christians or Muslims, we’re all creatures of God made to subsist in space-time. As a people bounded by geography and citizenship to a place in time, Christians and Muslims here share a common life together (Singapore Together!); our lives are intertwined by virtue of being Singaporeans—if there’s a drought here, we’ll suffer together. Hence St Augustine can write, “Thus even the Heavenly City in her pilgrimage here on earth makes use of the earthly peace and defends and seeks the compromise between human wills in respect of provisions relevant to the mortal nature of man, so far as may be permitted without detriment to true religion and piety.” In other words, because Christians will inevitably live alongside non-Christians in this age, be wise and seek a way to live harmoniously and work together for the common good. To do so, there’ll be a need to reach compromise on some matters (while remaining faithful to the gospel) to make the shared life possible, after all, our fundamental commitments remain different. Since we’re all in it together until Kingdom comes, then mutual understanding and cooperation is unavoidable. In fact, it is even the desire of God. As God declares in Jeremiah 29:7, “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” Interfaith dialogue is a step in that direction.
I remember back when I was in university trying hard to share the gospel with others as a young Christian. At times I would sense that the Lord had laid an individual on my heart and what followed were my urgent attempts to share the gospel with them. At times I would pray desperately for opportunities to inject the gospel into our conversations but would often find none.
Perhaps you have found yourself in a similar situation with a friend, a family member or a loved one. You prepare for the chance to mention the gospel, but the chance never comes. Or when the opportunity does present itself you do everything within your power to make the gospel as pleasing and attractive to said person as possible. Maybe you’ve even felt like Paul; becoming all things to all people in the hopes that some might be saved (1 Cor 9:19~23).
When faced with such a situation, I feel as if the entire burden of reaching out to the person has fallen on me and if only, I try ‘this’ or ‘that’ method perhaps the person would be convinced and be saved. Still despite all these attempts, it can become discouraging when nothing seems to change.
However, God’s plans for people never fall along our expectations and Jesus’ words in Matthew 11:25-30 shed some light on God’s methods.
At that time Jesus declared, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. All things have been handed over to me by my Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him. Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:25-30)
I’ve always been struck by the words of this passage because of how profound they are. Firstly, the truth has been hidden from the wise and understanding, being reserved for those who have a child-like faith instead. More importantly, these words also state that no one can know God (and therefore receive salvation), unless Jesus chooses to reveal the truth to them (v27). If that is the case, then isn’t it entirely within Jesus’ power alone to save someone? We can bring a friend to church, give them a Bible, send them beautifully designed bible verses on WhatsApp or paint the gospel in as attractive terms as possible, but unless Jesus chooses to reveal the truth to them it won’t matter how much we do. That isn’t to say that our efforts are in vain, but rather that we need to trust more in Jesus’ role in opening a person’s heart to the gospel, then our skills alone.
Back in my University days when I laboured away to share the gospel, while I believed I was entrusting the outcome to the Lord, more often than not I was really depending on my own abilities instead of God’s grace. This is clear to me now because It certainly felt like a personal failure whenever I could not accomplish my goal of “leading people to Jesus” as I so desired to. Rather than desiring quick results and being frustrated in the process, I should have searched my heart and surrendered the outcome to Jesus while thanking Him for the opportunity to be a part of that person’s salvation plan instead.
Furthermore, even though the words in verses 28-30 speak of Jesus’ ‘light’ yoke, compared to the heavy legalistic yoke of the Pharisees, I think it could apply very much to modern day Christians as well. Often, we too can get caught up in self-imposed requirements that get unnecessarily tied to our sense of worth as a child of God. In this case, how many people have I shared the gospel with? In addition, an unclear understanding of our relationship with God or the status of our salvation doesn’t help either as it can drive some to do as much as possible, just to be certain, and getting tired and burnt out in the process.
In comparison, the image of a being securely ‘yoked’ with Christ, following His direction where He leads and trusting His decisions for us as we evangelize others is a superior one. Not only can we trust that whoever He has led us to share the gospel is someone He has chosen to save, we can also ‘rest easy in His guidance as we journey together with them.
When I reflect back upon the few times when I actually played a part in someone’s salvation journey a few things stand out. Firstly, I often was only involved in a short portion of their journey, like Paul in 1 Corinthians 3:6. Perhaps I planted, or I watered or I added fertilizer, but God made the seed of the gospel grow. Secondly it is the relationships I’ve had where I wasn’t actively trying to evangelize people where God’s goodness has been revealed most naturally and had the most impact. These two points stand in stark contrast to how I picture myself heroically and single handedly sharing the gospel with a person so that they fall down in gratitude to the Lord for His grace to them. Rather God’s image of evangelism seems to be like that of the righteous who answered Jesus in Matthew 25:31-40 without even realising what he/she had done. Perhaps when we walk so in step with Jesus, we will naturally do what He has called us to do and that is the picture of harmony and unity with the Spirit that also pleases God?
So my dear brothers and sisters, please be encouraged that it is not Jesus’ intention for us to become burdened and frustrated for the gospel. Rather He seeks to work alongside us as we avail ourselves to be used by Him so that the gospel might be shared naturally through our lives. Let us then rejoice in our humble role with our glorious Saviour and enjoy the rest that He promises and may His kingdom be extended slowly and surely through His church here on earth.
Although crying is a natural reaction to sadness and stress, there are probably many who still expect men to maintain a calm and composed demeanour in public. Even today, men are less likely to cry in public than woman because it is commonly believed that any show of emotions, particularly crying is considered a sign of weakness. Indeed, as with lots of behaviour, there is a gender gap so much so that some view this as harmful to society and to men themselves and label certain behaviour and cultural expectations as toxic masculinity.
Without going into further details of how this concept of toxic masculinity came about and what may constitute as toxic masculinity, it would be worthwhile to also explore what toxic femininity may look like. After all, if we can agree that both males and females have our own blind spots and are equally capable of sinning against God and each other, it should be relatively easy to come to a reasonable conclusion that the root cause of our social ills and relational brokenness has little to do with whether one possesses XY or XX chromosomes.
Interestingly enough, as much as the historical characters mentioned in the Bible lived in a patriarchal society, we find various accounts of men publicly expressing their emotions. Whether it was Joseph (Gen 45:14-15, 46:29), David (1 Sam 30:4) or the Ephesian elders (Acts 20:36-38), there is little hint of any of them trying to put up a stoic front. Upon a closer look into each context, there are good reasons to believe that these records of intimate details are meant to portray poignant moments, offering us some insight into the biblical character’s humanity and depth of relationship with others.
Even though their display of emotions is not meant to be prescriptive, I think it does provide Christians with a glimpse of what godly masculinity may look like. After all, it is one thing for a child to shed tears but the reasons behind why grown men would do so, especially in public, would be quite different. If seeing a child in tears can elicit feelings of sympathy, I imagine that one would be even more affected when the person who weeps is someone whom we esteem or consider as calm and not prone to emotional outbursts.
The Bible also records for us that Jesus Christ himself, as God incarnate wept on several occasions (John 11:33-36, Luke 19:41-44). Although the same English word “weep” is found in both Gospels, the two words in Greek are actually different in terms of emotional intensity. In John’s Gospel, the Greek word is ‘dakruo’ which means to shed tears. But it has more to do with “silent weeping” where one’s tears well up in our eyes and rolls down our cheeks.
In the context of Luke’s Gospel where Jesus approaches the city of Jerusalem, the Greek word is ‘klaio’, a “powerful” verb which can be translated as wailing, audible weeping. As one commentator describes it, it is a weeping which so suddenly seizes you that you lose control and you cry out aloud. In other words, it is not a modest sniffle, but a gut-wrenching, public expression of grief.
For the purposes of this perspective, we will just focus on what can we learn from this touching scene of Jesus weeping over Jerusalem. Why did Jesus as a grown man weep in such a dramatic way? When we continue to read Luke 19, we will find Jesus explaining why he was so gripped with emotions as he gazed upon Jerusalem. Even though the city had a chance to embrace the peace that Jesus came to offer through his death and resurrection, they rejected it even as they rejected him. Thus the salvation of God is now hidden from them and in time to come, Jerusalem would be razed to the ground because they failed to recognize their “visitation from God” (19:44).
Just as the prophet Jeremiah once wept over Judah and Jerusalem due to their covenantal unfaithfulness (Jer. 9:1-11), Jesus felt tremendous grief over the fate of those who instead of living out their sacred calling to glorify God have chosen to harden their hearts towards God’s promised Messiah. As one who is fully God and fully man, Jesus was not detached and the foreknowledge that he had about what is to happen moved him to tears. As much as Jesus did not want any to perish but desired them to come to repentance (2 Pet 3:9), he is also mindful that there will be many who will come under God’s righteous judgment of sin.
Secondly, these tears remind us that our Lord Jesus loves sinners. Even though Jesus knew what the religious leaders and crowds would do to him, the malice, the scouring and jeering, he did not weep in self-pity. Instead, Jesus wept over their sins of unbelief and wept for those who will never get to experience the peace that they have so longed for and desperately need.
Indeed, there is no doubt that Jesus’ tears were tears of gracious love for his covenantal people. After all, shortly after his Triumphal entry, Jesus had uttered another lamentation over Jerusalem. There Jesus expressed his compassion towards his people, saying how “often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings and you were not willing” (Matt 23:37-39). Such was the depth of God’s love that even in the face of impending death at the Cross, Jesus did not cease to seek earnestly after the welfare and salvation of his people!
For us who have come to Jesus in humble repentance, I trust that we will continue to learn to take sin seriously and grieve over our own sins. But instead of feeling condemned, we should continue drawing near to Jesus with a broken spirit and contrite heart (Ps 51:7), trusting that we will “receive mercy and find grace in our time of need” (Heb 4:16).
Apart from “weeping” over our own sins, we should also persevere in interceding for our cities, praying that people’s eyes will be opened to the truth about Jesus. As we weep over the ways people have fallen short of God’s glory, I trust that the Holy Spirit will work in our hearts such that increasingly we will align ourselves with God’s kingdom purposes and be intentional in seeking the good of our neighbours and reaching them with the Gospel.
After all, Jesus himself didn’t stop at weeping. After weeping, Jesus obeyed his Father and gave of himself sacrificially so as to defeat sin and usher in an eternity where one day there will be no more weeping for all who trust in his redemptive work. Until then, despite how men and women may differ in the amount of tears in their lifetime, may each of our tears that is over the things of God be used by God himself to bring life unto many, to the glory of his name.
We are more than half way into the season of Lent. Have we lived our lives any differently or is it the same old? This 40-day period is a time when we intentionally remember, proclaim and respond to the atoning death of Jesus. It’s not that we don’t think about the death of Jesus in other parts of the year. Rather, it is during this season that we deliberately yearn to have a heightened awareness of what Jesus has done for us on the cross.
We remember, proclaim and respond to the atoning death of Jesus when we gather for corporate worship – the songs we sing surrounding the cross, the sermons we preach that are Gospel-centred and of course the communion meal we share where we remember the body broken for us and the blood shed for us. Do you also recall those familiar words: “Whenever we eat this bread and drink this cup, we proclaim the Lord’s death again, until He comes”?
There is much more we can do to respond to the atoning death of Jesus. Lent is a period for self-examination, and we sincerely pray to God that his Holy Spirit through his Holy Word will convict us of our sins. Instead of being defensive or apathetic, we humbly come before our merciful God in confession and repentance. We know he will readily forgive us on account of his Son.
Repentance has to do with turning around. We turn around from loving self to loving Jesus. We repent of our selfishness, self-centredness, self-absorption, self-worship. Jesus told his disciples: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23). In order to say “yes” to Jesus, we have to say “no” to self. As we consistently engage in this turnaround instructed by God’s Word and empowered by God’s Spirit, surely we will grow into the likeness of our Saviour and Lord!
Jesus has set for us the example of what it means to deny oneself when he did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped but emptied himself – confining himself in the body of a human being so that he could walk the dusty streets of Palestine and interact with us to show us the way back to God; he literally carried the cruel cross upon which he was nailed, thereby not just showing us the way but being the way himself, the only way through which we can be reconciled to God.
When Jesus commanded us to deny ourselves and take up our crosses, we are following in his footsteps because he has been there, done that. This is the basic requirement of every disciple of Jesus. We may call ourselves a Christian but if we don’t follow him, then we are not really his disciples and it will be hypocritical of us to call ourselves a Christian.
To deny ourselves means to strongly reject the egoistic self, the false self, the fallen self, the self that is stained by sin, the self that loves sin; in other words, it is to turn away from the idolatrous self.
We may think that denying self is a really painful thing to do but it actually leads to joy. “Self-denial destroys the very root and foundation of sorrow.” (Jonathan Edwards) All the world’s sorrow, grief and trouble find their beginning in our first parents’ choice of self over God. Many of our own sorrows also grow from our choice of self over God. If we are going to destroy our sorrow down to the bottom and experience true joy, the self that loves sin must be destroyed.
To deny self has to do with putting to death the old self. Paul would express it as being crucified with Christ. When we are told to take up our crosses, it is not just about carrying the cross – the destination is death. The one who carries the cross is eventually crucified on it.
Let us therefore put to death the desires of the flesh. Some Christians observe a period of fasting during Lent where they deny themselves of food, caffeine, Facebook, Netflix, online games, shopping spree, etc. These may not be bad per se but learning to deprive ourselves, especially if we are spending an excessive amount of time and resources on them, can be a healthy spiritual discipline. Divert the time spent on these activities to prayer instead.
We can also say “no” to self in the areas of thought, word and deed.
Our minds can be a fertile ground for breeding impure thoughts of all kinds – lust, anger, prejudice, self-pity, pride, greed, jealousy. “You cannot keep birds from flying over your head but you can keep them from building a nest in your hair.” (Martin Luther) When unwholesome thoughts appear in our minds, we can say “no” to self. One practical way is to say the Jesus’ Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” By repeating this prayer aloud or in our hearts, calling on the powerful name of Jesus, we resist the temptation to dwell further in those thoughts.
Let our speech be always gracious and whenever we are tempted to gossip, malign, slander, lie, swear, use foul language, hurl abusive words, engage in obscene conversations, pass unkind remarks or anything that has the danger of tearing someone down, we say “no” to self. We ask the Holy Spirit to empower us to exercise self-control and to set a guard over our mouths and keep watch over the door of our lips so that we speak only what is edifying.
The selfish self is very big on protecting its own rights. Let us be willing to give up our rights for the sake of those who are weaker in the faith. Let us learn to put the interests of others above self. This may mean dressing in a modest manner so that we become less of a distraction to others when we come to church, flowing with another person’s way of doing things rather than insisting on our own ways as we serve alongside each other, saying “no” to our egoistic self so that we don’t need to have the last word in every conversation.
We also deny self when we are willing to sacrifice our time, energy, reputation, comforts and privileges to serve others – the saints as well as those outside the family of God. We may not receive any reward or recognition. There may not even be any word of thanks or worse still, those whom we serve may turn around and bite us, but it is all part of carrying the cross of Christ.
For most of us, it is not about taking up our crosses once and for all. This can happen when we are required to be martyred for our faith. Instead, every day and every hour, in every action, every conversation and every decision, for our entire lives, we must choose whether we will deny self or deny the cross.
It is impossible to carry both the cross and self at the same time. We have to carry one and reject the other. Are we therefore denying self and carrying the cross or are we taking up the self and rejecting the cross? We cannot serve two masters. In light of the atoning death of Christ, how would we choose? How should we respond?