Obey the Challenge to Deny Yourself

Military history fascinates me. It presents real-life stories of leaders making decisions and facing the consequences in terms of reaching some objective. The strategos, in Greek, is the general who makes the big decisions about where to place troops and equipment and when to go into action. In the Korean War, the Allied forces were on the defensive and rapidly losing ground. Rather than fight the enemy head-on, General Douglas MacArthur did the unexpected and landed troops on their flank at Inchon and forced a hasty retreat that changed the momentum of the war.

Businesses and organizations make strategic decisions about what they will emphasize and how they will use their resources. Churches, too, have to make such strategic choices in times of rapid social change. But I discuss that elsewhere.

Here the focus is on individual strategic choices in the Christian life. The major choice, of course, is what to do about gaining eternal life in heaven at the end of this life on earth. Protestants stress that the next life is a gift based on the redemption Jesus Christ won for us. It is by grace you are saved, not by works. This is counter-intuitive in a world where you get what you earn.

My emphasis, here, is on our daily walk with Jesus. What is your strategy for living the Christian life for all it is worth? Will you be timid and just live day by day, or will you reach out for more of what God offers? What do you expect of him?

Peter had a major conflict with Jesus about strategy. Jesus predicted his death. Peter rebuked him for giving up. He was expecting this new kind of rabbi to win a big victory. Jesus in turn rebuked Peter for not having in mind the things of God, but the things of men. Then Jesus laid out his strategy of finding the good life God offers. “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. Whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it” (Matthew 16:24). Imagine Peter thinking, That’s it? That doesn’t make any sense!

Jesus’ Strategy for Winning by Losing

Jesus’ strategy for gaining the good life is to let the Holy Spirit teach you how to respond to his expectation that you love one another. You are not on your own. The desired outcome—victory, if you will—is that you love God and one another. You lose by continuing to depend on your own wits and abilities to work out your relationship with God. Give up dependence on yourself, and you will find that you have gained an even more abundant life than you could on your own.

Jesus explained his strategy in a conversation with his disciples after the Passover meal he shared on Maundy Thursday. It is recorded at length in John 14-16. Trust the Father, he started out. His plan is to send me, his Son, so that you may know him and discover how to love him and one another. I am the one he sent to show you his expectations. He and I will give you the Holy Spirit, whom only my followers will understand and not others. I will not leave you as orphans. After I have gone away, this Spirit will teach you all things and remind you of everything I taught you. This way you will find a peace, unlike anything the world offers.

Pay Attention to God’s Expectations

In Jesus’ strategy session, he used the words “obey” and “command” eight times. They must be basic to his approach. It would be easy to think of God’s plan in military terms. As a chaplain in the Navy Reserves for many years, I have a sense of what that can mean in the military context of orders issued by a superior about behavior that is required, regardless of what you think about it. But such a command-and-obey structure can’t be the meaning in this context because blind obedience to a superior’s commands is the way of the world, which is not what Jesus promoted. Again and again, he got angry with the Pharisees that demanded blind obedience to hundreds of religious laws.

There must be a softer interpretation of “obey my commands.” We have a translation issue. “Expectation” is a fitting translation of command. Jesus was telling his disciples what is expected of them in this new plan that will be empowered by the Spirit he and the Father will send.

“Obey” in the original conveys the sense of maintaining or preserving. I think what Jesus is telling his followers is to pay attention to, and stay focused on the expectation he sets forth. When Jesus said, “My expectation is this: Love one another as I have loved you,” he did not have in mind a military command.

Accept the Challenge To Deny Yourself

“Challenge” is another way to translate a command. At another time, Jesus offered a different perspective on his strategy. A wealthy young man approached him and asked, What must I do to inherit eternal life? One of the basics of strategic planning is to clarify the objective. This man was not just asking about how to get to heaven at the end of life. He wanted to know how to get the good life, the life eternal.

Jesus said he should obey the commandments. Which ones? All of them. This I have done, replied the young man. Then Jesus surprised him. Now sell all your possessions and give to the poor. Then follow me. This answer flabbergasted the man. He was not ready for such a drastic step and went away sad.

Jesus had confronted him with a challenge, not a command. He does not expect his followers to have no wealth. What he does expect, is that they do not let themselves lose focus on greater things by focusing only on what this world offers. Be sure to use God’s special blessings wisely for the benefit of others.

The name of this third practice is Obey the Challenge to Deny Yourself. I would have preferred Accept the Challenge. But my challenge at hand is to work with the acronym GROWTH. So “Obey” it is, with the understandings I have laid out.

The Holy Spirit’s Role in Jesus’s Strategy

Towards the beginning of the strategy session with his disciples, Jesus explained the means by which his people will be able to put his expectations into action. A good strategy always includes provision for the necessary resources. Jesus explains how he is asking his Father to give disciples a second helper besides Jesus himself. He will leave them, but this Strengthener will stay with them forever. This Advocate, the Spirit of truth, will teach them everything they will need to know. Teaching is not just head knowledge. He will influence and enable them to continue Jesus’ ministry.

Without his Spirit as Enabler, Jesus’ strategic plan won’t work.

When you hear a command to obey, what does that mean to you? How do you accept the challenge to deny yourself? And what is Holy Spirit’s role in Jesus’ strategy for following him?

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