Finding Room for Discipleship in Contemporary Culture

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“Then Jesus told his disciples, ‘If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.’” Mt. 16:24 (ESV)

It is incumbent upon disciples of Jesus that they deny themselves. This self-denial is not an end in itself but a means to freely love and serve others in Jesus’ name. Thus, there must be no pride in self-denial, although we may gain further assurance that he is ours and we are his. Anyone who loves Christ will obey his teaching. (Jn. 14:23a) Four areas of our lives help us enter more deeply into spiritual communion with the Lord, enabling us to serve others more freely, more selflessly, in his name.  They are Sabbath-keeping, prayer, fasting and tithing.

Sabbath-keeping and the Challenge to our Sense of Time: When Jewish people wish each other a peaceful Sabbath, or “Shabbat Shalom,” they are saying, “may your wholeness and personal peace be restored as you cease from doing common work today.”  The late essayist and cultural Zionist thinker Ahad Ha’am wisely remarked, “More than the Jewish People have kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept the Jews.”[1] By God’s grace we are kept from the tyranny of the urgent and recreated in heart, soul, mind, and strength.  We take refuge and rest in Christ, the Lord of the Sabbath. Even as the Jews were delivered from slavery in Egypt, we are delivered from the penalty and power of sin through Christ. God has sanctified and set apart Sabbath as a precious gift. We both remember and observe Sabbath, without judging how someone else does this. We remember the reasons for Sabbath given in Exodus and Deuteronomy: (1) because God rested after creating the heavens and the Earth; and, (2) because God freed his people from slavery in Egypt. We are freed from concerns over deadlines, schedules, responsibilities and work commitments that occupy us during the work week. In observing Sabbath, we cease being productive in the common sense, taking the risk, by faith, that God will provide.  Furthermore, we seek wholeness and personal peace by resting in him, trusting in his finished work. In calling the Sabbath a delight, a disciple of Jesus denies himself.

Prayer and the Challenge to our Sense of Autonomy: Richard Burr, in his book, Developing your Secret Closet of Prayer, writes the following: “A dynamic praying church must be built from the inside out, employing all four levels of prayer: the secret closet, the family altar, small group praying and finally, the congregational setting.”[2]  Jesus condemns Pharisaical prayers made in public for show.  In the Sermon on the Mount, he says, “And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward.”  (Mt. 6:5) As in Sabbath-keeping, the motivation of the heart is crucial.  Is the goal to be seen by others or to lead with a servant’s heart, that a community of believers may together approach humbly the throne of grace?  Building congregational prayer “from the inside out” means believers will have denied themselves, seeking God first in the privacy of their “secret closet.”  Thus, in the following verse, Jesus says, “But you, when you pray, enter into your closet, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret, shall reward you openly.” (Mt. 6:6)  Arthur Pink, in his essay on Private Prayer, observes the following: “Eight times in the space of this verse, is the pronoun used in the singular number and second person—a thing unique in all Scripture—as though to emphasize the indispensability, importance and value of private prayer.

Fasting and the Challenge to Self-Sufficiency: In contrasting the true believer with the hypocritical Pharisee, Jesus notes that the Pharisee would call attention to himself that he was fasting, often with unkempt hair and a somber, sullen look.  The point of denying yourself is not so that you may appear better to God or neighbor, but so you may follow the example of Christ and deepen your communion with him.  Additionally, it is the experience of many while fasting that they become more sensitive to and concerned about the poor, hungry and marginalized.  Private fasting is a spiritual discipline, one way of denying yourself, carrying the cross and growing closer to Christ. The motivation for fasting isn’t to make you proud of your self-control or to achieve a performance-based measure of your devotion to God or impress others with your spiritual progress.  Rather, it is to share in Christ’s sufferings, to move deeper into communion with the Lord, and to empathize more fervently with others who have no choice but to be hungry.   So the attitude with which you fast is what really counts.

Tithing and the Challenge of Community: Lastly, in giving to meet the needs of others, Christ warns against sinful pride and boasting, saying, “So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” (Mt. 6:2-4) Jesus warns us not to give in order to be thought well of by others.  When we give, we need to examine our motives.  It is acceptable to feel blessed of God for sharing generously with his people; it is quite a different matter to seek—even demand—recognition “with trumpets”, as it were.  According to the writer to the Hebrews, “without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.” (Heb. 11:6) In the Sermon on the Mount, Christ warns against seeking praise of men rather than of God, saying they “have received their reward in full”; thus, they have not truly denied themselves, have not taken up their cross, nor have they followed Jesus.

In the words of John Piper, “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him.”  Sabbath-keeping, prayer, fasting and tithing challenge our sense of time, autonomy, self-sufficiency and community. May God grant us grace to be worthy followers of Jesus.

[1] Ahad Ha’am, penname for Asher Zvi Hirsch Ginsberg, is widely known as the author of this phrase. He meant by this that the regulation of time through Sabbath practice gave the Jewish people the chance to regroup and thus sustain their Jewish identity. The same might be said of the Christian Sabbath, Sunday.

[2] Richard Burr, Developing your Secret Closet of Prayer (Camp Hill, PA: Wingspread; New Edition, 2008).