Is Christianity About Denying Yourself or About Being Happy?

woman wearing grey long sleeved top photography

Jesus said that his desire was that we would have his joy in us, and that our joy would be complete (John 15:11). He also told his disciples that if anyone wants to come after him, that person must deny themselves, take up their cross and follow him (Matthew 16:24).

So, which is it? Is Christianity about being happy, or is Christianity about denying yourself and dying to yourself?

In my previous post, I talked about happiness and whether there is a difference between “joy” and “happiness”. Check that post out here: Does God Want You to Be Happy?

One question I received in response to that post was how self-denial and taking up your cross to follow Jesus fits into this idea of happiness.

A Means to an End

Is self-denial the goal of Christianity, or is it a means to another end?

This is a very important question, as it shapes the way we think about the purpose of following Jesus.

I believe the answer is quite obvious: self-denial is not the end goal of Christianity, it is a means to another end, which is: joy.

In order to experience greater and increasing joy, we must deny ourselves in some areas. After all, it was for the joy that was set before him that Jesus endured the cross. (Hebrews 12:2)

For Jesus, dying on the cross was a means to an end, not the end in itself. The end goal, the purpose of that act of literally dying to himself and taking up his cross, was the joy of redeeming his creation, and everything that would bring in the future.

Likewise, the purpose of denying ourselves – even to the point of taking up our “crosses” and following Jesus is: joy.

Liberating Constraints

This is true in all areas of life; if you indulge every desire you have, you will end up less-happy, not more-happy. Anyone who wants anything practices self-denial, because there are some things they want more than other things.

Real freedom comes from a strategically forfeiting some freedoms in order to gain others. Greater happiness always comes as a result of giving up some pleasures in order to greater pleasures.

Happiness is not the result of the absence of constraints but is found in choosing the right constraints and giving up the right pleasures and freedoms.

For example, if you want to have the freedom and pleasure which comes with having a good income, you will need to sacrifice many other freedoms and pleasures in order to get a good education, improve your skills, or build your business. If you don’t deny many of your impulses to go hang out with friends, spend money, travel, party, etc., you will not succeed in getting your degree, or building your business.

If you want to experience the elation that comes with being a top performer in sports or the arts, you will need to accept many constraints on your life. You may give up the freedom of where you live; you may have a coach who dictates what you will do with your time, what you will eat, etc.

Having children certainly restricts freedom. I have had to do some pretty gross things for my kids which I did not enjoy. More times than I can count, I have had to not do what I wanted to do in order to do things for them. But what has been the result of all this self-denial for my kids? Greater joy than I would have known without having them in my life.

Imagine a person who loves eating anything he wants, but also loves playing with his grandchildren. He goes in to the doctor, and the doctor tells him: “Unless you stop eating those foods you enjoy, you are going to die.” Obviously death would mean not being able to spend any more time with his grandchildren. So he is faced with a choice: which of the things that give him pleasure will he need to forfeit in order to enjoy the other? To deny himself the foods he enjoys will be driven by his desire for the greater joy of spending time with his grandchildren.

This principle can be found in almost every area of our lives: greater joy and happiness is always the result of denying ourselves something in order to gain something better.

Greater Joy

Why would Jesus tell us to deny ourselves? Because he wants us to experience greater joy. Because there is a difference between momentary pleasures and long-lasting elation.

God loves you, and he wants you to experience the true and lasting joy that your heart longs for, and because he loves you he guides and instructs you on how to experience that greater joy.

Trust him, and follow his lead into that greater joy!

Advertisements

“You are Free” vs. “You Must Not”

I recently listened to a podcast episode featuring Lysa Terkeurst of Proverbs 31 Ministries, as she recounted her story of almost losing her marriage to infidelity and then almost losing her life to cancer.

Lysa’s story reminded me of the verse we’ve based our recent study on at White Fields, called Remember the Prophets, which comes from James 5:10 – “My brothers and sisters, remember the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. Take them as examples of patient endurance under suffering.” Lysa struck me as someone who is an example of patient endurance under suffering.

In the interview, Lysa mentioned something interesting: Compare the first words that God spoke to the man and compare them with the first words that the Enemy spoke to the people in reciting God’s message to them:

The first words God ever spoke to man were: “You are free”

And the Lord God commanded the man, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.” (Genesis 2:16-17)

The first words the Enemy spoke when reciting God’s words were: “You must not”

Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?” (Genesis 3:1)

Same Words, Different Emphasis

First of all, the serpent did misquote God by saying that God had commanded them not to eat from any tree in the garden.

But the other thing the serpent did was to change the emphasis or the tone of God’s words to the people.

Whereas God had emphasized their freedom, the serpent emphasized the restriction.

That’s an important difference! Does God give commands? Of course. Does God prohibit some things? Absolutely. But the reason for God’s commands and prohibitions is for our good, to promote our freedom!

God had told them that the reason for the the prohibition (eating from the one tree) was because if they did they would die. Nothing restricts your freedom more than dying! In other words: God’s prohibition was to protect their freedom.

True freedom is often found in submitting to the design for which you were made. For example: A BMW automobile gives you incredible freedom to get around, and do so very quickly! But in order for you to have that freedom, you have to follow a few rules due to the nature of the BMW. For example: it’s not made to go underwater, so if you drive it into a lake, you will lose the freedom the car provides! If you fail to change the oil, fill up the tires with air or put gas in it, you will lose the freedom it provides. All freedom, in other words, depends on following the rules of the design. Therefore the right prohibitions can serve to protect freedom.

The serpent’s emphasis was on the restriction, not the freedom. He painted God as an insecure, petty kill-joy, who was trying to restrict them merely for the sake of restricting them. Many people view God in this way today as well.

“For Our Good Always”

This past Sunday, in studying through Hosea (listen to that message here: Hosea: Living Out the Gospel) we talked about how God’s commandments are for our good. As I often say:

Sin isn’t bad because it’s forbidden, sin is forbidden because it’s bad.

In other words: When God tells us to do something, or not to do something, it is because He loves us and wants the best for us.

In Deuteronomy 6:24, in describing the God’s law, Moses describes it in this way: God’s law, which was for our good always… 

The emphasis is on our good and our freedom. The idea that God is petty and arbitrarily restrictive is wrong, and leads us to question God – as the serpent led the first people to do.

Consider this great quote from Charles Spurgeon:

When I thought God was hard, I found it easy to sin. But when I found God so kind, so good, so over-flowing with compassion, I smote upon my breast to think that I could have ever rebelled against one who loved me so, and sought my good.

When you clearly see who God is and understand His love for you, it makes you want to do what He says, because you know it’s for your good.

As Paul wrote to Titus: For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people. It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age while we wait for the blessed hope—the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ. (Titus 2:11-13)

Did you see that? It is the grace of God that teaches us to reject ungodliness! May we see God’s grace and love in his instructions to us.

The Hijacked Mind (and How to Be Free)

I don’t usually feel much sympathy for cockroaches, but I recently found out about a strange parasite that attacks beetles, grasshoppers and cockroaches.

250px-spinochordodes_in_meconema

Spinochordodes tellinii (S.T.) is a parasitic worm. Once it enters its host, it lives quietly and peacefully inside of them as it develops and grows. Once the S.T. has grown into maturity, it hijacks the mind of its host and causes them to commit suicide by compelling them to find water and cast themselves into it and drown.

The S.T., which by this point has grown to be larger than the host when stretched out, emerges, leaving their host dead in the water, and swims away to find a mate and reproduce.

You can read more about it here: Parasites Brainwash Grasshoppers into Death Dive

The way this parasite functions is similar to the way that sin works in our lives.

We have been studying the Epistle to the Romans on Sunday Mornings at White Fields. (Click here to see those messages) This Sunday we will be looking at Romans chapter 6, which tells us that sin is not something we can merely dabble in, but that our sins actually enslave us.

The only way to be free, we are told, is paradoxically by becoming “slaves of God.”

The paradox of freedom is that freedom from God enslaves us, but serving God frees us.

This is why, when God told Pharaoh through Moses to let his people go, he didn’t merely say, “Let my people go,” (as Charlton Heston incorrectly portrayed), the message was always actually, “Let my people go that they may serve me.” (For more on this, check out: The Setting for Salvation, a study of Exodus chapter 1)

In other words: freedom from the slavery they were in was not found in just coming out of slavery and then doing whatever they wanted. Why? Because it only would have been a matter of time before they would have been captured and enslaved by someone else. The only way for them to experience true freedom was for them to serve a new master who could, and would, truly liberate them and cause them to thrive.

As Bob Dylan sang, “You’re gonna have to serve somebody. It may be the devil or it may be the Lord, but you’re gonna have to serve somebody.”

In Romans 6, we are told that we will either be slaves to sin or slaves to righteousness. The thing about sin is that it acts a lot like the Spinochordodes tellinii: it seems innocuous at first, but as it grows and matures, it will enslave you and ultimately destroy you.
The good news is: there is one who is greater than the greatest parasite: Jesus Christ, who took our sin and conquered the great enemy, so that we might be free. He sets us free from the great hijacker of our minds, hearts and souls.

Jesus told his disciples: “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you.” (John 15:13-15)

And yet, the followers of Jesus would refer to themselves as “bondservants of Jesus.” A bondservant was a slave by choice; it was a slave who had been granted their freedom, and yet chose to serve their master, because of their love for their master and desire to remain with them. (See: Free to Be a Slave)

To be a Christian is to be set free from bondage to sin, and to become a bondservant of God, because of Jesus.

I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12:1-2)

A 7 Year-Old, Bible Verses and Freedom of Speech

This week in Palmdale, California a school not only forbid a boy from sharing Bible verses with his classmates, but forbid him from bringing Bible verses into the school, and finally sent the Los Angeles county sherif to his house to tell him to stop handing them out after school and off of school premises as well.

Here is a link to an article in the Washington Post about the events.

Here are some highlights from the article:

The student, identified as “C,” would regularly read aloud the Bible verses that his mother, Christina Zavala, would pack away in his lunch. The verses became so popular that other students started asking the boy for their own verses. Ms. Zavala then started providing additional Bible verses for her son’s friends that included short stories for context.

“However, when one little girl said ‘teacher — this is the most beautiful story I’ve ever seen,’ ‘separation of church and state’ was the response, and the notes were banned from lunchtime distribution,” the Liberty Counsel said. “C was told that the school gate was the only location at which he could give the Bible verses to his friends, and only after the bell rang.”

The group said Ms. Zavala and her son complied with the order and started handing out the verses after school at the gate in late April. The activity became increasingly popular, with at least 15 students showing up every day. On May 9, Principal Melanie Pagliaro reportedly approached C’s father, Jaime Zavala, and demanded he and the boy move completely off school property and onto the public sidewalk. The family immediately complied, the Liberty Counsel said.

Later that day, a Los Angeles Deputy Sheriff reportedly arrived at the Zavalas’ home to tell the boy to stop sharing the notes, because “someone might be offended,” the Liberty Counsel said. It was then that the family decided to seek legal help.

My favorite part of the story is what the little girl said: “Teacher, this is the most beautiful story I’ve ever seen.”

I couldn’t agree more. In fact, that statement, from the lips of an innocent child brings tears to my eyes. The story of Jesus, God’s love for us, is the most beautiful story the world has ever known.

I also love the part about how 15 kids would gather daily to receive Bible stories.

What a shame when such a thing is banned out of fear that someone might be offended by it. What a shame that there are so many things pushed on our children which do offend me, but often no action is taken in the name of freedom of expression.

This little boy and his mom planted some seeds in this community. Let’s pray they bear much fruit and that the litigation from the Liberty Counsel succeeds and sets a precedent which allows for freedom of expressing in sharing the Gospel.

 

 

Advent Meditations: 4 – Set Free

manger-cross-3

Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery. – Hebrews 2:14-15

Last night I was at the hospital with the family and close friends of a woman who was passing on from this life. She was a wonderful wife, mother and friend, and she will be dearly missed.

But although she has passed from this life, she is not dead – she is alive and we will see her again.

That is the hope of the Gospel, and she and her husband believe and embrace the Gospel.

The verse above sums up the significance of Christmas more succinctly and clearly than almost any other passage in the Bible: because we, God’s children, are flesh and blood, HE took on flesh and blood, that through his death, he might destroy death and the devil and set us free from bondage to the fear of death.

The reason Jesus was born was so he could die. God became a man, because as God he could not die, but as a man he could. Therefore, he had to become human. Good Friday is the reason for Christmas.

Because of his death, we are set free from the power of death, and therefore we can be free of the fear of death. Our ultimate security has an immediate affect on our lives. The happy ending takes away the slavery to fear in the here and now.

When you no longer fear the last and greatest enemy: death, then you are truly free to live a bold, courageous life of pursuing things that really matter and giving of yourself radically in a way that makes a difference in the lives of others and the world, because you have nothing to lose.

Live in that freedom today.