The Gift of Self Denial

Sometimes the greatest gifts God gives us in life are those that most people would run from. Francis Chan once said, “Something is wrong when our lives make sense to unbelievers.” What a follower of Christ would see as a treasure from God, the world may view as crazy. Even some Christians at times may not recognize Gods gifts and could very easily mistake them for punishment…as if God’s favor is not on them.  Even the most devout Christians can miss out on awesome blessings if they are not filtering every experience through the lens of scripture.

Not a day goes by that I don’t think back to one such gift God graced me with. This gift was the opportunity for my family and I to move from the United States to Panama to live as missionaries for six months last year. I have to be honest with you, upon arriving in the country as I looked around, the first thought that came to my mind was, “Oh my goodness, what a mistake I have made!” So why do I see this experience as such a treasure? Many people have looked at me as if I was just let loose from the nut house when I talk about my love of living in a third world country. Let me explain to you why Panama was such a special gift from God.

The airport we flew into in David, Panama was very small and out dated. As we left the airport and drove to our new home, I saw no nicely manicured neighborhoods or shopping malls. The roads were in bad condition, and the homes we passed driving were not much more than a cinder block hut with a tin roof. Some homes only had dirt floors, which was easy to see because they didnt have doors attached. We stayed in David, Panama for about a month before moving into the mountains of Boquete about thirty minutes north.

We rented a house in what was considered an upscale neighborhood. But the rent was dirt cheap by US standards. We had no air conditioning in our home, and television was pointless when the few channels we received were in Spanish. We didnt have technology, fancy shopping centers, or movies to pour ourselves into, because it just wasnt available. So in order to fill that void that is temporarily satisfied by so many things in America, I turned to scripture.

The time that would have been used to watch television was now filled with reading my bible on our back porch, surrounded by the majestic mountains of Panama.  The times I would have used in the states communicating with friends via the internet or Facebook was now replaced with face to face interactions with the people we were ministering to in Panama.  God took away all of the things that we just view as normal….even necessary in our Americanized lives, and left me with nothing but Him.  I began to realize just how blinded we really are in the United States to our own wealth and how subtlety and gradually Satan has taken our eyes off of the mission of Christ and placed our focus more on ourselves. Look at the example below Jesus gives…..

“A certain ruler asked him, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

19 “Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone. 20 You know the commandments: ‘You shall not commit adultery, you shall not murder, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, honor your father and mother.’”

21 “All these I have kept since I was a boy,” he said.

22 When Jesus heard this, he said to him, “You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

23 When he heard this, he became very sad, because he was very wealthy. 24 Jesus looked at him and said, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God! 25 Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” Luke 18:19-25.

It is apparent that in the days of this rich young ruler’s youth, he had some sort of “religious” experience. In verse 22, the rich man says that he has kept certain commandments of God since he was a boy.  In modern day terms, he may have walked down the aisle at an emotional youth camp and professed giving his life to Christ. He may have been baptised. He may have went on from their to be a leader in his youth group. He may be telling Jesus that he gives some money some money to charity occasionally, teaches a Sunday school class, and is a loving husband and father to his family. He has a laundry list of accomplishments of good things he has done in the name of God.

But Jesus could see his heart. And Jesus pin pointed the one thing that this rich man held in higher esteem than Christ. His wealth. Jesus asked him to give up the one thing that took his attention off of God. But dont just picture Jesus asking this rich man to give up money. Wealth is not just money….its a love of materialism over Christ.

Are we like the rich young ruler? Is it possible some of us have been playing a religious game? Put yourself in the rich young rulers place. And picture Jesus coming to you. You begin to tell Jesus how you love your church, you tithe on Sundays, and you never watch rated R movies. And Jesus says, “Yes, all of that is great. But if you really love me, lets clear some of the things that you spend more time with than me.” What if Jesus said to us…….

“You still lack one thing…..give up your Facebook account….”

“You still lack one thing…..throw away your computer…..”

“You still lack one thing…..give away your television set……”

“You still lack one thing….Downsize your two car garage house and give the excess money that you now save on the mortgage to the poor….”

The frightening reality is that Jesus does say these things to us. Whats even more frightening is that if we were to really recognize this, many of us would cling to our religious resume of things we have done in God’s name and in some way justify our idols so that we may hold on to them.

And Jesus would look at us, just as he did the rich young ruler and say, “Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.

We have a tendency to hear this verse about the rich and think of someone two or three rungs above us on the financial ladder. We would never consider ourselves rich! But lets examine ourselves a bit further…..

-Do you have a cell phone?

-Do you have a home?

-Do you have a car?

-Do you have a bed, a carpeted floor, electricity and running water in your house?

-Do you have a bath tub or must you bath in a nearby river?

-Do you have food available to you for consumption every day?

Do you realize that the United States of America is the exception in comparison with the majority of the rest of the world? We live in the richest country in the world! Little things like a cell phone, or a car, or even a house with air conditioning are considered necessities to us, but to most of the rest of the world, these things are luxuries! Do not be deceived. When Jesus speaks of the rich, Jesus is talking to you and me. We’re the rich.

We have a tendancy to think in America that we are so blessed and have such an advantage spiritually over poorer places in the world. When in all actuality, Jesus is saying, “It going to be really hard for you.” And its because of the abundance of distractions and stuff we fill our lives with that easily take the place of Christ. But it is possible for the rich man to enter Heaven. Look at Zaccheaus, the rich tax collector who after meeting Jesus, happily gave away half of his possessions to the poor in exchange for Christ! He realized that the real treasure was not in video games, or I Pads, or stuff, but in Jesus. Just give me Jesus.

One of my favorite evangelists of old, Leonard Ravenhill told the story of a preacher up north once. He said that it was snowing terribly hard outside and it was bone chilling cold.  In spite of the weather conditions, some of the church congregation managed to show up for church that evening. The preacher stepped into the pulpit on that cold night as he looked at the few people that made it to church and greeted them.

The preacher said to the congregation, “How wonderful it is of you to make it out to church on this dreadfully cold night.” The people were patting each other on the back and apparently very proud of their level of commitment. The preacher continued. He said, “Yes, it is great that you braved the snow and freezing temperature to come and spend time with the Lord. In fact, I think its marvelous that you left your central heated homes, and got in your warm, comfortable heated cars, and drove a few short minutes to this warm church with such comfortable pews to sit in.”

The preacher went on and then said, “But did you know that in Africa, Ive seen men travel miles by bare foot, through the jungle, where dangers of lions and wild animals lay at each turn, just to go to a small, block hut and listen to a three hour bible study in 100 plus degree temperature. Afterward, they must make the long walk home in the dark, to go back to their home which many times has no food for them. Yet they never miss a service. I am going to preach now, but I must go throw up first. Our culture makes me sick.”

What will the church of Jesus Christ in America do when real persecution falls upon us in a world where we hold our comforts in such high esteem? We pat ourselves on the back for our morality yet we are blind to the fact that we love the comforts and glitter of this world more than Christ!

Jesus delivered a message to the church in Laodicea in the book of Revelations. These people were very affluent compared to the rest of the world. Much like us. They prided themselves on religious bench marks instead of having a true commitment and love for Jesus. Here is what the Lord said to them.

“To the angel of the church in  Laodicea Write:

These are the words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the ruler of God’s creation. 15 I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! 16 So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth.

17 You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked. 18 I counsel you to buy from me gold refined in the fire, so you can become rich; and white clothes to wear, so you can cover your shameful nakedness; and salve to put on your eyes, so you can see.

19 Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest and repent. 20 Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me.

21 To the one who is victorious, I will give the right to sit with me on my throne, just as I was victorious and sat down with my Father on his throne. 22 Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” Revelation 3:14-22.

So much could be unpacked in this verse. But lets focus on verse 16. God tells them that they are lukewarm. Historians have said that the church in Laodicea was located on top of a big hill. So they had developed pumps to deliver the cold water up the hill through a pipe system. However, by the time the water was pumped from the cold spring below, it would lose it coldness and grow lukewarm. As a result, the people in the town of Laodicea complained about the drinking water constantly.

God is relating to them in a way that they understand. He calls them lukewarm. Many christians misuse the term lukewarm to describe a person who follows Jesus just not very closely. But look at what Jesus says in verse 17 to describe the church. ” But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked.”

Does this sound like the description to someone who is a follower of Christ? How does the old hymn go….”I once was blind, but now Im blind…?”  No, its “I once was blind but now I see!” Jesus is speaking to a people who are so caught up in their wealth that they are missing what it means to follow Jesus! Its not just a profession of the lips or Sunday school attendance! Its viewing the temporary world we live in through the eyes of Christ.

Jesus says in Matthew 7:21 that on that day of judgement, many will bring their lists of church stuff and things to the foot of his throne. They wont realize that they had lived their earthly life just like the rich young ruler. Like the ruler, they will boast of the things they did for God and the commandments that they kept. And Jesus will reply to them, “I NEVER KNEW YOU.” In the book of Isaiah, the Lord tells worshippers that he tried over and over to get their attention, but they put more stock in their acts of worship than in self denial for the cause of Christ, and they would not listen.

The scriptures speak over and over of the Christian life being one of self denial and sacrifice. Yet so many of us treat God as a cherry on top of this ice cream sunday of life we live. We treat Jesus as an accessory to our stuff. Yet if push came to shove, and we were told to give up the ice cream or the cherry, we’d sooner part ways with the cherry than give up our junk food. You see, many want to follow Jesus, as long as he doesnt require too much. Many want to follow him, as long as we can continue to live in the world and not deny ourselves. Its easy to love the aspects of following Christ that ease our conscious or benefit us in some way. And its also easy to skim over the parts that call us to a great sacrifice.

My trip to Panama was a gift. And the reason it was such a gift is because the real world as Jesus sees it became apparent to me. The materialistic scales fell from my eyes. The things I thought were necessities in my life became obvious that they were luxuries. The people we served in the remote indian villages of Panama lived in dirt huts and had literally nothing. But each time we arrived, they showed nothing but hospitality to us. And though they didnt have all material things and conviences of a modern world…..they were happy. I realized how rich I really was. And I saw that I was in danger of becoming the rich young ruler who loved his possessions more than Christ.

Pastor Paul Washer pointed out in one of his sermons that in the old testament, thunder and lightning were used as warnings from God to his people to repent of their sins and believe and follow him regardless of the cost. But on that day when we stand in front of the Lord at the end of our lives, there will be no thunder. And there will be no more lightning. Because the time for warning is over. It will be too late to change or repent and begin living for Christ and his mission. The only thing left for us will be his judgement.

Examine your life. Ask yourself a question….”What is it that would be the hardest for me to give up?” And when you pin point that idol, does it consume more of your time, thoughts and energy than is allotted to Christ?  I tend to think very deep into things. But our eternal destination is at stake. And Matthew 7:13 hauntingly reminds us that few are those who will actually enter the kingdom of God, and many are those who will be deceived to follow the broad road leading to Hell.  Could it be Jesus requires much more of a commitment than we ever thought possible? When you weigh carrying such a cross on a scale compared to the wonders of Heaven His children will inherit, our self denial is actually a very small price to pay. Do you live with an eternal perspective?

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