I’m not saying “It’s hard to keep the Christian rules…”
The hard part about being a Christian is not something like, “Now that we’re Christians there are lots of rules and laws that we are supposed to keep.”
Most religions are full of rules, and many people have a self-imposed set of rights and wrongs that they are working through. People who don’t even believe in God may develop an intense religious system (though they would never call it that) of things that they “should and shouldn’t” do.
I am talking about the call of Jesus to “deny self”
I don’t think that keeping rules is what makes it hard to be a Christian. My personal experience, and what I see in some of the New Testament writings tells me that the difficulty is in self-denial.
When He had called the people to Himself, with His disciples also, He said to them, “Whoever desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me.
I have always loved the phrase… “He called the people to Himself, with His disciples also…” I have always read that as “How Jesus calls people to follow Him.” His call is (1) deny yourself, and (2) take up your cross.
The call of Jesus begins with self-denial. I think that in a hedonistic culture like ours, self-denial is a really repulsive idea. Every voice around us encourages us to comfort ourselves, put ourselves first, make sure that self is taken care of, base decisions on “me” and “my feelings,” and see anyone or anything as an enemy if there is a personal cost to me.
What will Jesus give ME if I follow Him?
Many appeals to follow Jesus today include things like, “Let me tell you what Jesus will do for you,” and “Here’s what God will give you if you become a Christian.”
There is no doubt that there are benefits to following Jesus (forgiveness, the hope of eternity in God’s kingdom, power to live for God right now, unhindered fellowship with God all the time, a new family of faith), but Jesus did not put those things in his preamble when calling people to follow Him. He called people to…
- Deny self (Mk, 8:34)
- Love him more than any other person (Lk. 14:26)
- Give up, if necessary – family, houses, money, and land in this life (Mat. 19:29)
- Be willing to suffer, be persecuted, be hated, and even die (Mat. 24:9)
The Hard Part – The tension between a primarily physical vs. spiritual orientation
More specifically, the hard part about being a Christian is letting the flesh take “last-place” in life. Allowing the Holy Spirit, and the spirit which is in me set the agenda for how I should live is where most of my battles are fought. This is one of the key battle-grounds in learning to live for Jesus.
I was born a physical being. When I was a baby, all my physical needs were met. I cried if I did not get what I wanted. As I grew up, I learned to do everything I could to get my needs met. When I was “born in the Spirit” (Jn 3:3) a new set of values, a new agenda, and a new principle of life took over. But the flesh does not give up easily!
Even the Apostle Paul wrote of his personal struggle to learn this:
14 For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am carnal, sold under sin. 15 For what I am doing, I do not understand. For what I will to do, that I do not practice; but what I hate, that I do. 16 If, then, I do what I will not to do, I agree with the law that it is good. 17 But now, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me. 18 For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) nothing good dwells; for to will is present with me, but how to perform what is good I do not find. 19 For the good that I will to do, I do not do; but the evil I will not to do, that I practice. 20 Now if I do what I will not to do, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me. 21 I find then a law, that evil is present with me, the one who wills to do good. 22 For I delight in the law of God according to the inward man. 23 But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members. 24 O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? 25 I thank God—through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, with the mind I myself serve the law of God, but with the flesh the law of sin.
I hear Paul saying “My body (flesh) wants one thing, and my Spirit – in connection with God’s Spirit, wants something else. I struggle to yeild to what God’s Spirit wants when the urges of my physical body and my carnal nature are so strong.”
Places where it’s hard to be a Christian
In the realm of pleasure, the flesh wants stimulation. But the Spirit requires that pleasure be experienced in legitimate ways. Following Jesus is not an “anti-pleasure” proposition. But it is contrary to Christ to participate in anything that brings pleasure to the flesh while simultaneously destroying Spiritual life and the human identity.
In the realm of relationships, the flesh wants to use people for self-gratification. But the Spirit requires us to love and serve others, and even put the needs and weaknesses of others first.
In the realm of money, the flesh wants to amass and spend as much as possible on that which brings the most comfort. But the Spirit requires us to submit all we have to God, and look to Him for the most honorable ways to use what He has given us.
We could go on and on. The point is – the Flesh and the Spirit are at war. If I am going to live for Jesus Christ, I must yield to the Spirit, and “make no provision for the flesh” (Rom. 13:14).
Yes. It is hard to be a Christian. Not because there are Christian rules that must be followed. It is hard because we are broken, and the work of Jesus is to repair us and reorient us into the version of ourselves that we were always meant to be. Our previous state of spiritual death could not detect this, and yes — even after we have been regenerated, something in us still wants to resist this transformative work. That’s why I think the challenge of Jesus is… “take up your cross every day and follow me — or else you cannot be my disciples.”
How are you doing in your day-by-day journey to carry your cross and let the Holy Spirit conjoin with your spirit to drive your life? I am learning. Every day there are choices to make. Every moment is an opportunity to lose ground, or to gain momentum.
If you have not read Pt. 1 yet, you can read it here.