If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. (Mt 16:24)
Growing up in the church, Jesus’ call to deny yourself was a deeply personal challenge. I was being called to put aside my own interests, my own ego, and my own desires in favor of following Jesus and the costly way of the cross. This personal call was supposed to lead me away from my selfish desires toward obedience and Christ-likeness as I followed where Jesus lead instead of walking my own way.
Denying yourself is hard, painful work. I’m not entirely sure how much progress I have made in all these years. Recently, however, my understanding of these verses has expanded. After reading the most recent issue of Comment on Faithful Compromise, I began to wonder whether the call to deny yourself might also be directed to us as churches, not just as individuals.
In her article, “The Grey Area Is Holy Ground: Practicing a Compromising Faith,” Marilyn McEntyre details the challenges and possibility for faithful compromise in a broken world. She illuminates both the mess and the cost of compromise, while also encouraging wise discernment for Christians entering into a world where compromise is not only prudent, but called for. Where should Christians compromise in order to achieve some level of ‘proximate justice’ and where should we refuse to compromise? How can Christians cultivate the virtues and discernment necessary to compromise faithfully?
If you have a chance to pick up a copy of this issue of Comment, I highly recommend it, but there was one question McEntyre posed that I continue to sit with. In discussing Henry Clay and the Missouri Compromise, McEntyre notes,
He [Clay] also understood that compromise always comes at a cost. Calculating that cost is a matter of discernment – a prayerful seeking of the Spirit’s guidance – focused on the questions, “What can I afford to let go of for the sake of what I hope to achieve?”
What can I afford to let go of for the sake of what I hope to achieve? Maybe denying myself is something we need to do together as a church, not just as individuals. Maybe sometimes compromise is faithfulness.
To get a sense of the force of McEntyre’s question, I want to focus on only one particular issue in the church: music. While in many contexts, the ‘worship wars’ have long passed, we still struggle with how to be intergenerational churches in our music. Do we hold fast to the old hymns that have sustained the church for generations? Do we rapidly update our style to accommodate youth and young families? Is there even a way to shape a worship service that every generation in the church will get what they want?
I think the answer to that last question is a firm ‘No.’ And I happen to think this is a blessing. For a church to worship as an intergenerational community, no one ‘wins’ and gets all the music they want. The ‘young people’ don’t win and get only contemporary praise songs and the ‘old people’ don’t win and keep all their hymns. Not only is it inaccurate to divide people into two over-simplified groups, it also misses the point. No one wins because the point isn’t about winning, it’s about faithfully following Jesus. What would it mean to ask McEntyre’s question in this context: What can I afford to let go of [in worship] for the sake of what I hope to achieve [inter-generational worship]?
Can I afford to let go of my own preferences in song selection for the sake of my brother or sister? For the sake of continuing to worship together as a body? Can I let go of my desire to always worship in the way that is most meaningful to me so that the person in the pew next to me might know, love, and worship God more?
Can I deny myself, take up my cross, and follow Jesus?
Denying yourself is deeply personal, but it is also something we do as the church. Faithfully worshipping and following Christ together may require our churches to ask ourselves the bigger questions: What really matters? Why do we exist as a church? How can our church participate in the coming Kingdom of God? How can we help our world have more glimpses of shalom and less of Sheol?
Only when we have asked these questions are we ready to ask, “What can I afford to ask to let go of for the sake of what I hope to achieve?” In answering these questions, I may not get exactly what I want and you may not either. But hopefully as we deny ourselves and take up our crosses, we may find ourselves following Jesus as well.