If you were to paint a picture of commitment, what would it look like? Perhaps it would be parents who work extra hours for years so their children can go to college. Maybe it is a single mom working as a waitress just to make ends meet from her tips. Possibly it could be an athlete who begins each day with a 5:00 workout, even during the off season. It might be a student who stays up late and gets up early in order to study. Whatever it might be, commitment is something that is clearly seen in a person, whether they have an abundance or scarcity.
Within modern Christianity, there is a struggle for commitment. Many confess the name of Jesus with their mouth, yet few show significant effort to confess the name of Jesus with their life. According to the Barna Group, four out of five self-identified Christian adults (81%) say they have made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is still important in their life today. More than three out of four self-identified Christians (78%) strongly agreed that spirituality is very important to them. Yet, less than one out of every five self-identified Christians (18%) claims to be totally committed to investing in their own spiritual development.1
While we should take these numbers lightly, considering they include denominational groups, I still believe they represent the average Christian’s struggle to commit. Even in our most faithful and active congregations, there are those Christians who show very little commitment.
When Jesus was on this earth, He was seeking those who were seeking Him. In other words, He was seeking those who were committed to live a life pleasing to God. He saw no value in gaining followers if they were not committed. Jesus said it like this: “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:62 ESV). Jesus never showed any intention of simply trying to gain numbers. He aimed to gain committed followers. He boldly stated in Luke 9:23, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (ESV; cf. Matthew 16:24; Mark 8:34).
WHAT DO YOU DESIRE?
The heart is the root of commitment. What do you desire? What do you want out of this life? This question must be answered before preceding to apply the rest of the passage. Jesus basically says “If anyone desires to follow me”2 Christianity is not a forced religion. Christians are those who choose to follow Jesus by their own free will. One’s decision to become a Christian cannot be determined by a parent, friend, significant other, spouse or preacher. The heart of a disciple must be convicted and desperate for the grace of God.
Many like the idea of following Jesus, but their desire for something else steals their attention. The desire for financial success defines their goals for life. The desire for love and relationships reigns in the hearts of many. The desire for the American dream of a beautiful house, family and white picket fence shapes the majority’s ambition. The desire for fame and popularity controls the thoughts of more of us than would likely admit it. This question of where your desire lies must be answered before anyone can commit to Jesus.
Re-shaping and re-defining our desires requires one of the most difficult objectives in life: self-denial. Jesus says, “If you desire to follow me, you must deny yourself.”3 In the words of one, “Self-denial lies at the very threshold of Christ’s kingdom.”4 What does this look like? At the most fundamental level this is learning how to say “no.” Self-denial is saying “no” to ourselves that we might say “yes” to Jesus. It is denying ourselves certain pleasures of this life so we can be set apart from the world. It is saying “no” to certain actions “that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor” (1 Thessalonians 4:4 ESV). Notice that this is a process. Paul writes, “we ask and urge you in the Lord Jesus, that as you received from us how you ought to walk and to please God, just as you are doing, that you do so more and more” (1 Thessalonians 4:1 ESV).
Each day should be another milestone, some days more so than others, in the journey of self-denial and self-control. There is also a distinction between self-denial and self-control. A person cannot be self-controlled if they have not first committed themselves to self-denial. Self-control is the result of self-denial. The former is expressed in our actions, and the latter is planted in the heart. Jack Lewis wrote concerning Jesus statement, “The appeal is not for the easy denial of things to self, but for denying the very self.”5 It is not simply saying “no” to certain actions; it is saying “yes” to God in your heart. We have a decision lying before us: “We will either deny ourselves or deny the Christ who calls for self-denial.”6 Which will you choose?
TAKE UP YOUR CROSS
There is a point in which the decisions of the heart must translate into actions. Jesus says, “If anyone desires to follow me, he must deny himself and he must take up his cross” This is not an easy task. It requires pain, struggle and endurance. The symbol of the cross has become a trendy image of pop-culture. In some cases it might even be popular to be a “Christian.” This has not always been the case. “In Jesus time the cross was not an ornament to be worn on a necklace or on a jacket, but a method of torture. Crucifixion was one of the most painful, humiliating, and intimidating forms of capital punishment in the ancient world.”7 Although Jesus had not yet gone to the cross, the disciples knew this cross well. Jesus called His disciples to bear this cross. Jesus calls us to bear this cross. A voice from the past echoes this difficult truth, “the terms of discipleship are expressed here. If the disciple follows the Master, he must endure what his Master endures; he must travel the same road and bear the same burdens.” 8 The cross-centered life is not an easy one (Matthew 7:13-14).
Is it really worth it to you? Are you willing to bear that “Old Rugged Cross”? Although we are urged to walk with joy as we experience the abundant blessings of God, it is still a hard life and it requires commitment. “There are two ways to handles life’s difficulties: the easy way of shortcuts and compromises or the courageous way of conviction and perseverance”9 Yet if you have laid the proper foundation for your faith, God will lead you through the tough times (Proverbs 3:5-6). While it is a difficult road to travel, it is not “worth comparing” to the joy, blessing and glory that “is to be revealed to us” (Romans 8:18).
FOLLOW HIM EVERY DAY
Walking this cross-centered road is a day-in-day-out objective. Jesus is upfront about this. He says, “If anyone desires to follow me, he must deny himself and take up his cross every day and follow me.”10 So many think that once they submit their lives to Jesus and are baptized for the remission of sins (Acts 2:38), that their mission is complete. This is just the beginning.
Every day we must confirm our decision to follow Jesus. When you start your day ask yourself the question, “Will I follow Jesus today?” If we do not make this decision daily, we will grow tired of bearing the cross. Over and over we are encouraged to keep going:
“As for you, brothers, do not grow weary in doing good” (1 Thessalonians 3:13).
“Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted” (Hebrews 12:3).
Paul assures us, “And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up” (Galatians 6:9).
How do we stay committed to following Jesus? What practical actions can we do every day to help us stay motivated? Here is what we must do:
- Patiently listen to God through Scripture (Psalm 119:105).
- Put the Word of God in your heart through memorization (Psalm 119:11).
- Pour out your heart to God in prayer (2 Thessalonians 5:17).
- Place yourself under God’s continuous grace because you will mess up often (1 John 1:7-9).
- Practice regular accountability with other Christians you trust (James 5:16; Galatians 6:2).
- Passionately help others to faithfully follow Jesus (Matthew 28:19-20).
What will you do today to strengthen your faith? Following Jesus is an everyday decision, and it takes work, persistence and endurance. “The decisions you make today determine the person you will become tomorrow. In a sense you are writing your life story one day, and one decision, at a time.”11 Will you decide to follow Jesus?
- The Barna Group, “Self-Described Christians Dominate America but Wrestle with Four Aspects of Spiritual Depth” September 13, 2011. https://www.barna.com/research/self-described-christians-dominate-america-but-wrestle-with-four-aspects-of-spiritual-depth.
- This translation is provided by the author.
- This translation is provided by the author.
- E.W. Dorris, A Commentary on the Gospel According to Mark, Vol. 2 (Nashville, TN: Gospel Advocate, 1992): 199.
- Jack Lewis, The Gospel According to Matthew Part 2, The Living Word Commentary (Abilene, TX: ACU Press, 1984): 42.
- Sellers S. Crain, Jr., Matthew 14-28 Truth For Today Commentary (Searcy, AR: Resource Publications, 2011): 90.
- , 91.
- Leo Boles, A Commentary on the Gospel According to Matthew, Vol. 1 (Nashville, TN: Gospel Advocate, 1989): 350.
- Aubrey Johnson, The Barnabas Factor (Nashville, TN: Gospel Advocate, 2004): 29.
- This translation is provided by the author.
- Tim Lewis, The Domino Effect (Nashville, TN: Gospel Advocate, 2015): 17.