And He was saying to them all, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow Me.” Luke 9:23 NASB
Deny himself – Abraham Heschel completed A Passion for the Truth just days before he died. In that book he compares the impact and influence of Kierkegaard and Rebbe Menachem Mendel of Kotzk (the Kotzker). Both men dealt seriously with the insidious nature of human self-interest, although they had very different conclusions. Both, however, agreed that “the inexhaustible intransigence of self-interest bore the poison that destroyed individuality and freedom.” If Heschel had been a Messianic believer, he might have discovered that Yeshua dealt seriously with the same corruption – so seriously that Yeshua exhibits a depth of spiritual understanding and a commitment to transformation of human behavior found only in the most lauded rabbis. Two thousand years before Kierkegaard attacked Christianity for its form without godliness, and two thousand years before the Kotzker Rebbe decried the ritual practices of Judaism without an experience of the awe of YHWH, Yeshua called His followers to a path that few have chosen – a path of liberation through death to self-interest.
Oswald Chambers called it “abandonment to God.” We recognize those who have truly put aside their agendas in the service of the Lord only when they are accidentally revealed in their humility. Not one of them prances across the stage. Were it not for God’s grace, we would never know they lived. We experience the blessings they produce, often without any awareness of their presence.
What characterizes the man or woman who has truly denied self? Kierkegaard and the Kotzker agree. Such people are tangibly aware of their utter dependence on God. They find self-reliance revolting as a form of idolatrous conceit. Such men and women despair of the state of human kind. Compromise is unconscionable. Drift is anathema. Only the grace of God can keep them alive when they look deeply within and without. They recognize the enormous gap between holiness and heroism. For them, God is either of supreme importance or of no importance at all. There is no middle-ground. For them, life is a response to the awesome mystery of redemption and the amazing benevolence of God’s request for obedience. The only question of significance is, “What does God demand of me?”
Yeshua answers this question, but His answer is terrible, demanding, almost compassionless. “Deny yourself and take up your cross.” Who is able to do such a thing? Certainly not the man or woman who is concerned with the consequences of such a commitment! And certainly not the man or woman who worries about his or her failure to keep the Torah! Yeshua knew, long before Kierkegaard and the Kotzker, that the essential battle of human beings is found in the interior of the heart, and without the power of God, that is a heart of darkness. But it doesn’t need to be.
Yeshua recognizes that self-reliance is a prison, a very deceptive one. It appears as an angel of light but in truth it is the epitome of bondage. Essentially, self-reliance attempts to replace God’s sovereignty by denying His ownership of all of life. Self-reliance asserts that ownership is under our control. Self-reliance would remake Man in our own image. In this re-creation of humanity, self-esteem and the approval of others becomes an essential ingredient of human well-being. Perhaps this is why those who truly deny themselves are invisible to the world, unknown to all but the Spirit as they distribute the blessings of their Creator. Self-esteem can easily become the opiate of the people. It undermines all that makes us human, replacing the bridge between heaven and earth with the arrogance of carpe diem, a destiny within my own hand.
The man or woman who takes up the cross knows differently. “We live in spite of peril. Our very existence is a refusal of surrender to normalcy, to security and comfort.” And normalcy is found everywhere, even within the “Body.” To take up the cross is to live in the tension of redemptive reordering. It is to willingly obey when the path ahead is dark and cloudy. It is to put aside our fears and fear the Lord. It is to allow the Spirit to take possession of our hearts so that we share in the agony of God.
Carrying the cross is invisible but it leaves its marks nonetheless. Perhaps you know that weight of glory. Perhaps.
Topical Index: cross, deny, Luke 9:23, Kotzker
 Abraham Heschel, A Passion for the Truth, p. 87.
 Abraham Heschel, I Asked for Wonder, p. 133.