As they went out, they found a man of Cyrene, Simon by name. They compelled this man to carry his cross. (Matthew 27:32)
Most of the time, bearing a cross gets a bad rap. Christians talk of some difficult task or person in their lives that is painful to endure, but they must accept it as part of what God wants for their lives. It is their “cross” and they assume they must heroically bear it for Jesus, using these verses to justify the sacrifice they are making.
And he 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? For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words, of him will the Son of Man be ashamed when he comes in his glory and the glory of the Father and of the holy angels.” (Luke 9:23–26)
And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. (Matthew 10:38)
John Piper, in his book Desiring God, invites readers to think about this in a different way. Instead of thinking self-denial as a strong indifference to what we want for ourselves and not caring whether we are destroyed, he sees this as a strong desire for something better. Being willing to bear a cross is more about a deep longing for true life, a better life, something greater than what we already have. First Peter 3:10 says this desire for a “good life and better days” should motivate us to speak rightly and move away from evil. The same desire ought also move us to “deny ourselves all the lesser pleasures and comforts of life” so we might have something better.
That is, if self-denial is a hatred of self, then Piper says we would be “indifferent to the value of God’s gift of life” and “would dishonor it.” He suggests that our longing for life should be measured by the amount of comfort we are willing to give up to get it. The gift of eternal life in God’s presence is glorified if we are willing to ‘hate our lives in this world’ in order to get it that better life.
Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. (John 12:25)
This is how self-denial is God-centered, yet is still about what is best for me. It means that I give up the short-term benefits in favor of the long-term benefits. It is similar to what I do when saving money for a big item instead of spending it on immediate temptations, or when I eat less to lose weight. I do these things because I care about myself, not because I hate myself. I see a greater value in self-denial than in self-indulgence.
This is what Jesus did when He went to the cross. He accepted the horror of it because of the greater glory that was coming beyond it, and bids me to think the same way...
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. (Hebrews 12:1–2)
Jesus denied self, but knew a greater glory was coming. For that glory, He endured the cross.
Simon didn’t have a choice when it came to carrying the literal cross of Jesus Christ. He was conscripted without any promise of a reward. On the other hand, God says that when I choose to deny short-term gain, or personal glory, or even what I assume is a safer way to live, then God will reward me. Do I want the very best? Or am I content with lesser rewards?
Lord, daily You offer options. Do I take up whatever will reward me now, or can I fix my eyes on the rewards that will come after I deny myself to follow You? I also know that self-denial is not always about enduring pain or difficult people and circumstances. Instead, it is about walking so close to You that I can take on whatever You ask me without thinking that I might be missing something else if I refuse.