Tuesday, June 20, 2017

The Life-Giving Gift of Self-Denial ~ Part 1

In my journey through the gospel of Mark I have had some delays that have provided much greater opportunity to prepare my own heart for the journey. This has brought me to consider, The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God”,[1] in light of, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.”[2]

The primary focus is on this: how is it that the good news of the gospel is experienced only through the denial of self?

This isn’t so much a question for theological or doctrinal discussion, but an expression of longing to know how self-denial really works in the grace-through-faith gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.[3] It is also of huge significance that denying ourselves opens the door to experiencing the greatest love, joy, and peace, that anyone could ever know, meaning that we are fully conscious of such loving, joyful, and peaceful experiences of life.

With that in mind, here is the first half of giving closer consideration to what Jesus meant with his plumbline statement that we can only truly come after him when we deny ourselves, take up our cross every day, and follow him wherever he leads.

“If anyone would come after me,”
  • “If” = everyone must see this, that no one automatically comes after Jesus. No one is born coming after Jesus. Everyone Jesus came to, John the Baptist included, had to receive this invitation, that there is an “if” presented to us, and none of us are doing this unless we do it as described. In other words, no one is doing this unless they are doing this
  • “anyone” = without exception. There are not many denominational varieties of ways to follow Jesus. There simply is no variation in this. What Jesus says here about coming after him is the same for anyone and everyone. People could not turn Jesus’ instructions into their own variation with one man getting into the boat when Jesus said to do so, while another waiting until his parents had passed away before he joined Jesus in what he was doing.[4] Paul could not have a variation of following the Messiah that allowed him to pick which Messiah he would follow, which he would reject, and how he would mix that with his own religious activities. Everyone who follows Jesus must follow him in this specific way
  • “would” = do this in practice instead of just in doctrine, or ideal, or philosophy, or theological discussion, or critical commentary, or anything else that allows for talk without activity. We are not hearers and talkers of the word alone, but those who put works to our faith.[5] Jesus’ true disciples are not talk, but power.[6] It is the man who would follow Jesus who is a disciple rather than the one who says he will do so one day given enough time to get his life in order. “Would” is such a solid word of experiential activity rather than nebulous thoughts and ideas and dreams. Words about our devotion to Christ mean nothing; it is what Jesus finds us doing that matters
  • “come” = Jesus has come to the world with the love of God, and with the grand work of redemption by which lost sheep can be found, sinners can be saved, the dead raised, and slaves delivered out of the domain of darkness and transferred into the kingdom of God’s beloved Son.[7] But once he comes into the world with this gift, and declares to us that the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand,[8] all who will experience the life of this kingdom must come to him.[9] There is not one person Jesus comes to in order to affirm us in what we are already doing. Jesus comes close enough for us to know he is near, and then calls us to come to him for liberation from our sin and condemnation
  • “after” = we are not like happy little puppies who follow their master by running ahead and always checking back to see if the master is still there. The very nature of relationship between Jesus our Messiah and us who belong to him is that he comes first and we come after. He is leading the way and we follow. He is providing the redemption and we are receiving it. He is fulfilling all righteousness in himself and we are coming after him in order to experience that same righteousness by grace through faith. We can only understand relationship to Jesus Christ as a people who come after him, always looking to where he already is, and what he is already doing
  • “me” = this is final and unchangeable. This is a singular person. It is Jesus Christ, Jesus of Nazareth, Son of God, Immanuel, God with us, Prince of Peace, image and word and radiance of God. Jesus is not inviting us to options, or into a club in which we get to pick the variations we want included. This is not a story we get to decide how it ends based on which pages we include. Jesus makes everything about our focus on him because he is our Creator, the center of all things, the giver of life, and we can only have and experience life in relationship with him. We do not get life from relationship to Christianity, or to the right denomination; we get life from relationship to Jesus Christ, and so we must know what it means to be in relationship with him, to have a life described as coming after him.
“let him deny himself”
  •  “let” = to take us from the idea of coming after Jesus to the reality of coming after Jesus there is something we must let happen. It is not enough to agree with the idea of it; we must let it be exactly as described. We must humble ourselves before the mighty hand of God so we receive what is from him instead of only believing about it, or deciding our own way of handling it. This is the difference between the sinners who submitted to John’s baptism in preparation for the Messiah and the religious elite who would not submit. Some “let” the humility move them to submission; others did not let their pride fall before the gracious work of the gospel
  • “him” = the individual person. While people often did come to Jesus in group settings, it was something decided by each person. No one can humble another person. Each one must let the work of the gospel do its same powerful work in him or her. We cannot think we are coming after Jesus just because our parents are coming after Jesus, or our pastor is coming after Jesus, or the founder of our denomination was coming after Jesus a long, long time ago. Only when the individual person lets something happen in his or her life does this become a reality for them
  • “deny” = as one who has experienced what it feels like to be denied by a loved one or friend, I can see what it means to deny ourselves in Jesus’ instruction. To deny is to cut off relationship with someone. When Peter denied Jesus three times he simply gave a testimony that he did not have any relationship with Jesus whatsoever. In one way he was lying, for he had a very close relationship with Jesus; in another way, he was speaking of what was true in that part of his life, that he had discovered a deep part of himself that had no relationship with Jesus, and so was willing to deny him in order to preserve his life. However, without digressing further, to deny requires a cutting-off of one relationship in order to have another. It is unavoidable. There is no way around this. We cannot think that Jesus will let us bring this particular entity into our relationship with him. We cannot bring the gods of Egypt, and Canaan, into the Promised Land. If he is the one we are coming after, we must deny a particular former allegiance in order to enter into relationship with Jesus Christ our Lord
  • “himself” = the greatest enemy of our souls. While we are under condemnation for our sin, and the evil one is constantly plotting our demise, the chief enemy of our souls is our own self in its determination to do everything independent of God. For that reason, in order to follow and experience Jesus, we must deny our own selves the right to lead the way. We cannot follow Jesus when our own selves are demanding our complete submission. Only as we deny ourselves the right to lead can we find the greater joy of following Jesus Christ as he leads us in the perfection of his will.

Watch for part two when it comes!

© 2017 Monte Vigh ~ Box 517, Merritt, BC, V1K 1B8 ~
Unless otherwise noted, Scriptures are from the English Standard Version (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers.)

[1] Mark 1:1
[2] Luke 9:23
[3] While we will journey through the gospel as revealed by Jesus Christ prior to and including his crucifixion and resurrection, everything is in context of what we know is revealed in the rest of New Testament Scripture. Ephesians 2:8-10 describes what must be woven through all our understanding of what is taught in the four gospels, that the gospel saves us by grace through faith, and then leads us into the good works we can only do as those who are born again by the grace of God without any good works of our own to help our new birth along.
[4] Matthew 8:18-23. In this account, Jesus told his disciples to get into the boat. A follower would have simply done so. However, one of the men asked if he could first stay home until his parents had died and then come and follow him. Jesus’ answer was clear that his instruction to get in the boat superseded this issue of self-interest. It is noteworthy that, once the conversation was over, Matthew writes, “And when he got into the boat, his disciples followed him” (vs 23).
[5] James 1:22
[6] I Corinthians 4:20
[7] Colossians 1:13-14
[8] Mark 1:15
[9] Cf Matthew 11:28-30

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Discovering Self-Denial

I can still remember the day that my van had broken down on the way to Horseshoe Bay. I was able to get a ride as far as the ferry terminal, but then ended up waiting for many hours until a man from our home church ministry on Vancouver Island was able to meet me and take me and my stuff across.

During that extended wait, guarding my inordinately large collection of bags and totes, I spent most of my time reading a book about how men grow up.[1] The author, Jim Wilder, takes readers on a journey through the stages of development but with the distinctive focus on how this relates to boys becoming men.

Throughout the book it was intriguing to me that Wilder had such a positive response from men by identifying that most of us are still stuck in the infant and child levels of maturity. At first I wondered how many men would find that insulting, but quickly saw how admitting to where we are really starting from is a message of hope because it shows us how to grow up honestly instead of pretending to be something we are not and never growing up at all.[2]

On that particular outdoor reading session I came across an explanation of what it means to deny ourselves, take up our cross daily, and follow Jesus Christ,[3] that exposed some significant wrong thinking on this teaching, and opened my heart to so much hope and healing I didn’t know I was lacking.

My wrong thinking was that I had understood denying myself to mean denying my personhood, how I am doing, what’s going on with me on the inside, what I am really like. I thought that denying myself meant suppressing real things about me so I could put on a brave front, pretend nothing was wrong, and charge into spiritual battle without any regard for how it was impacting me.

What I had never noticed was that this false form of self-denial required a dependence on my self to make it happen. How did I make sure I didn’t leak out real feelings in my relationship with God? By suppressing them. How did I carry on after traumatic experiences as if nothing happened? By relying on myself to hide the condition of my soul.

The truly deceptive thing was that the whole while I thought I was denying myself I was really depending on myself to handle hurts, and wounds, and brokenness in order to keep them out of my relationship with God. I thought that was the self I was supposed to deny, the one that was broken and wounded, and so I had to rely on myself to keep the real me from knowing how to come to Jesus.

What gave me so much hope in this discovery was that it liberated me to rely on Jesus to handle everything that was broken and wounded within me. Instead of the lie that I was okay, and that I could handle everything myself so I could be there for Jesus as a soldier of the cross, I discovered that I could admit to what was true about me, deny my ability to handle it, and take up the redemptive work of Jesus Christ as the full provision for everything that was wrong with me, wounds included.

This regularly comes up in both my relationship with God and people. Will I rely on myself to be the good Christian who tries to do everything right without any attachment to the true condition of my soul? Or will I humble myself before the mighty hand of God as the only one who can handle what is wrong with me?

What God is working on quite constantly is to get me to admit my true soul- condition, deny any of my sarky efforts to handle it in my own strength,[4] turn to him through the redemptive work of Jesus Christ on the cross, and follow Jesus where he leads me, including through whatever painful feelings and humbling weaknesses are still in me because I am not yet fully like him. As I deny my sark/flesh in its efforts to handle my life, I am then able to admit to everything in my life knowing that it is God who will carry on to completion his good work of conforming me to the image and likeness of his Son.

[1] The Complete Guide to Living with Men, E. James Wilder, Shephard's House, Inc., 2004
[2] This too was a revelation for me, that pretending to be something we are not keeps us from maturing since we are never relating to God out of the true condition of our souls. Only when we come to God in brokenness, admitting the true condition of our souls, can God engage us in his work of leading us to maturity in his Son.
[3] Luke 9:23
[4] I believe that Romans 7 and 8 are an expanded explanation of what Jesus meant by denying ourselves (denying the flesh as the means of making ourselves right with God), taking up our cross daily (everything to do with what Jesus accomplished through his redemptive work on the cross), and now following Jesus by setting our minds on the Spirit. In all of this, we are free to fully acknowledge how we are doing, but we no longer depend on ourselves to handle those things. Instead, we cry out, “Abba! Father!” and come to God with everything, depending on him as the only one who can restore us to the image and likeness of his Son. 

Friday, June 16, 2017

Referencing to God

I love the word “referencing”. It is what children do constantly when their attachment light is working properly.[1] They keep looking up from their play to see if we see them because they want to know they are important. It is built into us, that need to feel like little children who are under the watch care of parents who are thinking of us way beyond what children can know. As children, all we want to see is that, whenever we reference to our parents or caregivers, we see them noticing us and what we are doing.

I think it is fair to say that, when people are not referencing it is because their attachment light is broken, and they have given up checking to see if anyone is noticing them since their early experiences of referencing consistently showed parents who did not see them or attach to them. Solution: turn the attachment light off and quit referencing. Problem solved.

On the other hand, those children who are constantly referencing in an insecure and desperate way, with their attachment light always on, are doing so for the same reason, that early childhood experiences of referencing showed them that the adults in their lives didn’t see them, and so they keep their attachment light on constantly in the hope that, should anyone finally show them any interest, they won’t miss it.

What became clear to me this morning, at least in a deeper way, is that the Bible is the expression of a Father who is working to get his attachment-lights-are-broken children to notice him so we will begin referencing to him first instead of giving that first place to anyone or anything else. This would then fill us with the satisfaction of the security and love in relationships that we not only long for, but that Father himself put into us as part of making us like him.[2]

When I consider it like that, that the Bible is a Father’s initiation of attachment and dialogue between him and his children, and that his children are either attachment-light-always-off and simply cannot see that he is watching over us as no parent has ever done, or they are attachment-light-always-on towards people because they cannot conceive that, if people have never wanted to attach to them, why would a holy God desire to do so, I then see this element of the Father/parent who has a world of love for his children that the children do not know about, and in their immaturity cannot know about without him showing it, and so he constantly speaks of it, and interrupts our lives in order to get our attention. He has to!

This really brought out that our role as parents and caregivers is one in which we know so much more than the children, but the children are immature and imagine that the world is all about them and they have their whole world figured out even better than any adults in their lives. So, because the adults know the big picture, it is the adults who do the work of attaching to the children, and the children then blossom under the loving care of adults who do for them what they can’t even imagine that they need.

I think of children I have met who are so broken in their attachments, or so defiant in their self-interest, and adults have given them attachment relationship that they never asked for, and did not know they need. I have consistently seen these children feel so good about this adult-initiated attachment that they begin referencing to their care-givers because they now want our attention on them, at least when they are hurt, or doing something really special and fun and want to know that we see them.

All that to say that when I read the verses I have been pondering in Jeremiah 31[3] as the expression of a Father who knows everything and is constantly seeking attachment with us so we will reference to him first instead of anyone or anything else, I find that it is so much bigger than us that it is our ultimate safety. If we would only stop idolizing the people and things of life, and receive what is initiated by God, we would find our hearts coming home to what we have really wanted all along but could not know because our childish immaturity couldn’t see that far around us.

I am reminded of God’s initiating invitation: “Delight yourself in the LORD, and he will give you the desires of your heart.”[4] That isn’t just a statement out of the air that tells us something that is true. It is a Father initiating attachment to his children who do not know this, and so he keeps expressing to us what we can’t know, that if we would only delight ourselves in him instead of everything else besides him, we would then experience the satisfaction of our deepest desires and longings.

So, when God speaks through Jeremiah to tell his people that they are his “dear son”, his “darling child”, the one his heart yearns for,[5] the one he has loved “with an everlasting love”,[6] it is all a Father’s initiation of things his beloved child cannot know (hence the child’s constant attachment to idols), and so the Father publishes this declaration in signposts and advertisements and billboards all around his children, calling them to what HE knows is best for us.

Just this week one of our daycare children was playing in the backyard and we noticed that she was constantly referencing to us with the biggest grin on her face that we have seen on her. It was so free, and spontaneous, and real, that it simply stood out that she was telling us how safe, and secure, and loved, we have made her feel. Lately she has been constantly expressing her love for us in words, and coming for hugs, and it is not because she has matured so much that she has decided for herself that she is going to be this world-conscious person who just loves everyone around her. Rather, it is a child who has responded to things we have initiated with her so far beyond her knowledge of how adult care-givers consider the care of children, and she is simply expressing the fruit of our initiation of love for her.

The lesson seems to be that when we keep our eyes on the positive things Father is doing to attach to us, and we allow our hearts to read his word and watch for his work like children who are allowing our attachment lights to reference to him because we are feeling the hope of his everlasting love towards us, we will then discover even more of the satisfaction that is ours because Father has orchestrated our return to him for the fullest experience of the desires of our hearts.

Which reminds me of another expression Jesus initiated in his attachment to us in order to draw us to attach to him as branches abiding in the vine. He concluded his loving expression of desire for this kind of relationship with us by saying, “These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.”[7]

Today it is really standing out that the whole Bible is God’s, “these things I have spoken to you,” the initiation of a Father attaching to his children, but with that “that”, or “so that” we may experience the life he is giving us and respond with constant attachment to him. Something like, “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.”[8] When Jesus initiates his life in us, we then attach to him as sheep who follow their shepherd wherever he leads simply because the voice of strangers has lost all its appeal. We have found him for whom our heart has longed. Or, should I say, we have been found by him for whom our heart has longed.

© 2017 Monte Vigh ~ Box 517, Merritt, BC, V1K 1B8 ~
Unless otherwise noted, Scriptures are from the English Standard Version (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers.)

[1] I have come to love the term “attachment light” as well, thanks to Jim Wilder of the Life Model group. It is a metaphor to illustrate how our God-given desire for attachment to God and people (fellowship, hearts knit together in love, one heart and mind, unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace, etc) seeks to show its love to those who are sharing that love. A healthy attachment light turns on in relation to attachment possibilities with others. When our attachment light is broken because of repeated rejection of our attempts to attach to others (often perceiving the same from God), some people turn their attachment light off so that they don’t continuously hurt themselves with further experiences of rejection, while others keep their attachment light permanently on in the hope-springs-eternal belief that one day they will find somebody desiring attachment and they can’t bear the thought of missing that once-in-a-lifetime experience by leaving their attachment light off. Again, this is a metaphor, illustration, perhaps even a parable, but it has done wonders to help me understand myself, and what I see in others.
[2] It is absolutely necessary to our understanding of who we are as human beings, and why broken relationships affect us so painfully, that we appreciate how God created us in HIS image, the image of the Triune God who is in constant love-relationship with one another (Genesis 1:26-27). Our greatest fulfillment in joy is when we are attached to both God and his children at the same time. However, this attaching is full of so many heart-breaking stories of disappointment with God and his church that many people live with the hopelessness and attach to whatever people or things gives them a pseudo-experience of some kind of good feelings. Even in churches where everyone appears to get along for the common good of the institution, people are often attached to the role they play, or the people who form their core group, or their long history of being good people, rather than the heavenly Father they would follow through anything no matter the cost.
[3] As I have been praying through Mark 1:1-8 in its introduction to the gospel, there was a surprising connection to Jeremiah 31:1-40, revolving around God referring to his people as “my dear son”, and, “my darling child” (vs 20). This was one of the signposts that got my attention on the way God has initiated everything in our lives, even before he began creation, and this is to be a huge ministry to us who long for a Father who would be just like that.
[4] Psalm 37:4
[5] Jeremiah 31:20
[6] Jeremiah 31:3
[7] John 15:11 (context: John 15:1-11)
[8] John 10:10