Disciplines That Free: Dying to Live
[Shared with the people of Friendship Church, April 6, 2003]
When I was growing up, the school day ended at 3:30. It took about a half-hour for me to walk home and dinner usually happened at our house at about 5:00. My parents had a rule: No after-school snacking. They had a simple reason for this edict. “It’ll spoil your dinner,” they told me. Whether this was true or not, it seems that both my body and mind have bought into the idea. To this day, I crack my wife and kids up because, even though my mom and dad aren’t around to tell me “No,” I try to avoid any snacking before we sit down for dinner. But you know what? This little bit of self-denial seems to work for me. Even though I have a little bit of a spare tire around my middle, I think I’d be a lot bigger and a lot less healthy if I snacked before dinner time.
It’s true that there are times when we may have to give up short-term pleasure in order to realize long-term gains. The student who puts in an extra half-hour to make certain that he understands the geometry law is likely to do well on the test. The athlete who runs another mile or spends a little more time in the weight room will perform better on the field, the court, or the track. The person of faith who takes a few more minutes each day to read the Scripture or pray gains greater peace, more guidance from God, and is sure to bring God’s power to bear on more concerns they pray about.
Self discipline of any kind is rare because it’s so hard and it’s so hard because we’re confused about the meaning of freedom. Ask the average person what freedom is and they’ll tell you something like, “Freedom is being able to do whatever you want, whenever you want.” But let’s think about that for a moment. Let’s imagine a teenage boy whose hormones are popping. He might think that freedom consists of being able to have sex with any girl he wants, any time he wants. But if he exercises that kind of “freedom,” it won’t be long before he becomes a kind of monster, a sexist creep who thinks that members of the opposite sex exist only for his own pleasure. Should he cause a young woman to become pregnant, he’s unlikely to want to take any responsibility for it; after all, he may reason, he was just having fun. Then, of course, there’s the danger he poses to himself. There are the obvious things like STDs (sexually transmitted diseases): AIDS, venereal disease, and so on. There are even psychological dangers that result from two people who treat an intimate sharing of self, which is what God intends for sex to be, as if it were just a momentary joyride; broken hearts often result. Freedom isn’t being able to do what one wants any time one wants to do it.
Real freedom resides in being so free of the shallow values of this dying world that we’re able to reach toward our God-given potential as human beings! Real freedom allows us to live as God designed us to live and to choose that freedom each day. Real freedom means understanding that life in this world is a fleeting thing that can be taken from us without a moment’s notice. Freedom belongs to those who understand that this life is a short prelude to the life for which we were really designed, eternal life. And each of us is presented with a choice. We can live as though this life is all there is, grabbing for every reward this dying planet can offer. Or, we can choose to use this life to prepare for eternity with the God we know through Jesus Christ. The Bible says some interesting things about this choice:
[In Joshua, we find:] choose this day whom you will serve, whether the [false] gods [of] your ancestors...but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord. [Joshua 24:15]
[In the New Testament book of First Corinthians, we’re reminded] If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.[First Corinthians 15:19]
[And speaking of the many times he suffered—from stoning to shipwreck, from beatings to imprisonments—that he had endured because of his faith in Jesus Christ, the apostle Paul, who would give his life for Christ, writes in the New Testament book of Romans] I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. [Romans 8:18]
Living with the God we know through Jesus, gaining the freedom to be the people God created us to be, is such an incredible and undeserved blessing that God calls us to be absolutely willing to turn away from this world’s dead-end ways in order to hold onto the life that Jesus offers to us. Jesus knew all about this. On the night before His death on a cross, He prayed in a place called the garden of Gethsemane and He told God the Father:
Father, if You are willing, remove this cup from Me [in other words, if You will it, make My suffering, cross, and death go away]; [and then Jesus said] yet not My will but Yours be done! [Luke 22:42]
Jesus was willing to die to Himself in order to fulfill His purpose in life: dying for our sins on the cross. Dying to self is what Jesus is talking about in our Bible lesson this morning. You heard and read two other translations of this passage already. Let me read to you the translation of it found in The Message by Eugene Peterson:
[Jesus says] “Listen carefully: Unless a grain of wheat is buried in the ground, dead to the world, it is never any more than a grain of wheat. But if it is buried, it sprouts and reproduces itself many times over. In the same way, anyone who holds onto life just as it is destroys that life. But if you let it go, reckless in your love, you’ll have it forever, real and eternal...”
Jesus, the Savior Who left behind the perfect pleasures of paradise in order to be the perfect sacrifice for our sin on the cross, is calling us to die to selfishness and self-will so that we can take the offer of free, full, and everlasting life that He gives to all with faith in Him! As one preacher, Michael Foss says, "Living right means dying right." We need to be willing to give up the world’s ideas of success in order to become successes on God’s terms.
From the time I was a little boy until my middle twenties, I ate, slept, drank, thought, and dreamed about politics. The first book I remember reading was about the Presidents. The first trading cards I owned came from the back of a Post Toasties box; they were pictures of the Presidents, every one of them through Dwight Eisenhower. My grandfather used to take me to meet local politicos like the Mayor of Columbus, who lived just down the street from us. In high school, I edited the school newspaper’s editorial page. In college, I was involved with campaigns. My first real job was managing a congressional campaign. In my mid-twenties, I was working for the Ohio House of Representatives in Columbus when something unexpected happened to me: in response to His love, I gave my life to Jesus Christ. I thought that with God in my corner, my political aspirations would now know no limits. But then I sensed God calling me to become a pastor. Let me tell you something: I resisted that notion big time! But the more I resisted, the more convinced I became that I had to let my self-directed life die and take God up on the life that He had designed for me. Anyone who knows me knows that I’m not perfect. But anyone who knows me, I think also knows that God made me to be a preacher. This is the life God designed for me!
God has a design for every life. It’s never too early and it’s never too late in life to let the old self die so that we can be all that God made us to be. We need to divest ourselves of self-driven lives, embracing God's purpose and God's design. That’s what Jesus means in our Bible lesson for this morning when He says:
Unless a grain of wheat falls to the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.
People who live with God in the lead get a lot more of everlasting significance accomplished than even the most driven, self-made billionaire.
Now, if the discipline of dying to ourselves and letting God call the shots in our lives seems grim and uninviting, consider some information that comes from a think tank called the Alban Institute:
"Weekly church attendance is associated with a reduction in the incidence of hypertension, increased longevity (on the average up to three years longer) and increased...resistance to infection. [In one study] a consistent pattern of lower systolic and diastolic blood pressures was identified among frequent church-attenders, independent of effects of age, obesity, smoking or social class...The National Institutes of Health have now developed five protective factors against coronary artery disease, the leading one being weekly church attendance...A Connecticut Mutual Life Insurance Survey of the Values of the American People in the 1980s reflected that the single most important variable in health-promoting life-styles was religious affiliation."
When we die to ourselves, we live better here and we live forever with God!
A young man approached a friend of his who had been telling him all about Jesus Christ. “If I follow Jesus,” he wondered, “will I have to give up the things I love?” “No,” the friend replied, “but if you follow Jesus Christ, God will change the things you love.”
The writer and friend of J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis once said, “There are two kinds of people: those who say to God ‘Thy will be done’ and those to whom God says, ‘All right then, have it your way.’”
You and I have been given an awesome freedom by God. We can live for ourselves in this moment and die forever. Or we can die to this world’s claims on us, live for Jesus Christ alone, and so, live with God forever. You know the choice that God wants us to make. I hope and pray it’s the choice we always make!
[The C.S. Lewis quote is cited in chapter 4 of Rick Warren's book, The Purpose-Driven Life. The story of the young man in the last paragraph comes from material provided by The Changing Church forum. The material from the Alban Institute comes from a sermon by Pastor Michael Foss.]