A paradox is a statement that seems to contradict itself, but actually proves true. Jesus uses such a statement in Luke 9:23-24 to explain the necessity of self-denial for those who would follow him:
And he said to all, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.”
Jesus requires a radical condition for his followers: to enjoy the crown of life, we must first endure the cross of death. Not many would respond enthusiastically to this counter-intuitive claim. While it’s tempting to think that Jesus is speaking only to some elite class of cross-bearing disciples, the words “anyone” and “whoever” don’t allow for any exceptions. This is the call for all who claim the name of Christ: Deny yourself. Take up your cross each day. Lose your life if you want to save it! This way of thinking does not come naturally, does it?
The Unnatural Cost of Following Christ
It is in our nature to protect and preserve our lives and livelihoods at all costs. By nature, we insulate ourselves against pain, hardship, and loss. It’s why we buy insurance or put a little extra money aside in “emergency funds.” It’s why we look at crime rates in neighborhoods before buying a house and settling our family in a given community. It’s why we lock our doors at night. And that natural inclination is not inherently bad. Jesus says, “whoever loses his life for my sake” (Lk. 9:24), so we are called to sacrifice on account of Christ, not carelessness. Yet, Jesus’ radical call does stretch us to think beyond our natural instinct to selfishly pursue comfort and avoid sacrifice.
Jesus’ words “let him deny himself” (Lk. 9:23) make it clear that his followers are to reject mere self-interest (Phil. 2:4). This is an extremely countercultural statement in our world that is naturally saturated with self-absorption. Our culture advises: “do what’s best for you.” But Jesus’ vision for our good and his glory requires us, at least temporarily, to deny ourselves of various comforts for the sake of faithfully following him.
Practically, this may mean giving up good things—like discretionary income or time watching TV—for the sake of helping others in need. It could mean forgoing the security that comes from living in a “good” part of town in order to have a gospel presence in a dangerous neighborhood. It could mean leaving the comfort of our home town, state, or country to share the good news of Jesus with those who haven’t heard. In these situations, self-denial is motivated by a supreme love for God and others, the very heartbeat of what it means to be a Christian (Mk. 12:28-34).
If that’s not hard enough, Jesus goes a step further. Not only must Christians be willing to lose earthly comforts, but we are to pick up our crosses “daily and follow [him]” (Lk. 9:23). That is to say, we must regularly embrace the suffering and loss that may come on account of following Jesus. Submitting to Jesus’ lordship over every sphere of our lives might mean that we lose relationships, social status, career advancement, or certain freedoms. Sustaining the seemingly-impossible commitment to sacrifice comfort and bear a cross takes a supernatural strength.
Thankfully, we serve a God who works in supernatural ways to make the impossible possible. We serve the God who miraculously spoke our vast universe into existence (Gen. 1, Heb. 11:3). This God fulfilled his promise of a miraculous birth to parents well beyond child-bearing age (Gen. 17:15-21, 21:1-7; Heb. 11:11-12). God miraculously delivered his chosen people from servitude to one of the ancient world’s greatest superpowers (Ex. 1-12; 12:33-42) and preserved their lives in a wilderness through humanly-impossible means (Ps. 78:12-16). The list goes on and on throughout Scripture; indeed, all things are possible for Almighty God (Matt. 19:26).
Grasping the magnitude of God’s supernatural power and his faithfulness to completely fulfill his promises gives us courage to heed Jesus’ hard words in Luke 9:23-24. With God’s help, we can joyfully deny ourselves and bear our crosses daily. This is a truly supernatural view of self-denial, suffering, and loss.
Whether you are giving up good things or going through bad times for the sake of Jesus, you are not alone in doing so. Church history includes a long list of Christians who, by God’s grace, willingly suffered for the sake of Christ.
In the earliest days of the church, Christians suffered public insult and the seizure of their property (Heb. 10:32-34). There is historical evidence that some willfully sold themselves into slavery to free others or feed the poor with the proceeds!  By God’s grace, early Christians endured persecution with joy, knowing that they had a better, abiding possession (Heb. 10:34).
The list goes on. Polycarp was publicly executed for his commitment to Christ as Lord. Medieval Christians like Francis of Assisi committed themselves to lives of poverty and preaching the gospel in obedience to Matthew 10:5-15. English Reformers Hugh Latimer, Nicholas Ridley, and Thomas Cranmer were executed for their commitment to the gospel. Moravian missionaries Johann Leonhard Dober and David Nitschmann were willing to become slaves in order to preach the gospel to African slaves on the islands of St. Thomas and St. Croix. Adoniram Judson suffered decades of family loss and physical pain to share the gospel and translate the Bible for the people of Burma. American missionary Jim Elliot and four of his companions were killed in an attempt to evangelize the Huaorani people of Ecuador. These Christians stand in a long line of people who lost much for the sake of Christ.
Whether you are moving your family into an undesirable neighborhood to be a gospel witness, alienating yourself from unbelieving friends and family by your new-found faith, leaving behind a well-paying job to pursue vocational ministry, or suffering public reproach for your faith, you are in good company with history’s long line of self-deniers and cross-bearers. And of course, Jesus has never asked anything of his followers that he himself has not already done.
The Gospel Pattern of Salvation Through Loss
Jesus’ death and resurrection embody the radical call of self-denial and suffering (Lk. 9:23) while illustrating the gospel pattern of loss before gain (Lk. 9:24). The cross precedes the crown, and paradoxically, life comes through death.
Imagine the paradoxical headlines if Jesus’ life and ministry were published in today’s news! All Powerful God Takes Helpless, Human Form – All-Knowing Man Exercises Perfect Humility – Master Serves His Servants – Sinless Savior Stands Trial for Sin – Miraculous Healer Is Mortally Wounded – Dead Man Brings Others Life!
Though these headlines might seem absurd, the truth of the gospel promises us life through Jesus’ loss of his own. And no matter what earthly losses we may experience for his sake, our lives will ultimately be saved for all of eternity (Rom. 8:16-17, 35-39). Our faithful sacrifices for Christ will not go unrewarded, for there is an imperishable crown of life (1 Cor. 9:24-25) waiting for those who bear the cross of Christ! Today’s loss is eternity’s glorious gain.