The weather was gorgeous, it was a Friday, and we didn’t have to go into work today because Nat wasn’t feeling very good. I decided to take this opportunity to travel down to Raisethorp, a small town filled with little shops, and spend the majority of the morning there. I needed to buy new shoes; my flats weren’t cutting it anymore. The other RJ’ers didn’t want to be around me when I took those flats off, so I figured it was about time I bought a new pair. I put on my nice Tave sandals, stuck my iPod in my ears, and started the 30 minute walk to Raisethorp.
When I arrived, I spent about an hour at the Muskaan Internet Café, where I checked my Facebook and e-mails. After my hour was up, I went down a little further on Raisethorp and found the cutest little shoe shop. The people who worked there were very nice people, and when I explained to them the type of shoe I was looking for, they were on it in a heartbeat. I then realized a problem: I didn’t know what shoe size I was in South Africa. So after I picked out the kind of shoe I wanted, we spent about 15 minutes figuring out what size I was. (I’m a 7 in SA, by the way. And by being a 7, I didn’t feel like I had such big feet anymore compared to being a 9/almost 10 in the states. That’s the last time you’ll call my shoes “boats”, Alyssa Cable.)
After my big shoe adventure, I was feeling pretty hungry. I settled for some Debonair’s, this really great pizza place. I got a hot vegetarian sub; my absolute favorite item on their menu. As I’m sitting there starting to eat my amazingly delicious sub, my peripheral vision catches three young boys in tattered clothing and no shoes sitting outside. I look at my sub, and I look at them. I give out a sigh, think about how I’ll go and grab some milk tart at the area bakery to eat since I’m giving up this amazing food, pray over the sub, go outside, and hand it to them.
I’m going to pause for a moment right here.
Luke 9:23 is a powerful verse.
If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.
So if we’re looking at slogans for followers of Christ, it could be accurately captured this way:
Come and Die.
Hey, it gets your attention. Not really the kind of slogan that draws people in though. Honestly, it kind of sounds like something from a horror movie. And get this: the symbol for followers of Christ really isn’t any better. It’s a cross. An instrument of torture and death is the image that represents followers of Jesus.
You’d think that Jesus would pick another symbol. Like, why not a dove, or a shepherd’s staff, or a rainbow? Why choose two bloody beams nailed together?
We’ve tried to make the most of this symbol. We wear it as jewelry and use it as decorations or ornaments on our Christmas tree. But to those hearing these words in Luke 9, the invitation to take up a cross would’ve been both offensive and repulsive. For the Jews, the cross was the means of execution that the Romans used. It was a symbol of the Roman’s power and strength.
The cross was a symbol of humiliation. The Romans had numerous ways of executing someone and executing them very cheaply. People would be executed by fire, stone, sword, or even given poison to drink. Crucifixion, on the other hand, required 4 soldiers and a centurion to oversee. It was much more expensive than any of the other ways to execute someone. So why crucifixion? They would use it when they wanted to publicly humiliate the person being crucified. They wanted to make a public statement that this person is nothing and has no power.
The Bible says in Philippians 2 that followers are to have the same attitude as Jesus who made himself NOTHING.
Here is Jesus. He is the Creator, the Savior, and the King of Kings. And now the one who had everything, made himself nothing. He, who had the world at His feet, chose to come and wash the feet of the world. If we are going to follow Him, it means humbly taking up a cross and making ourselves nothing.
The cross was a symbol of suffering. You can’t carry a cross without suffering. There is no comfortable way to carry a cross; it doesn’t matter how you position it. Sometimes, people think that the pain and suffering in their lives is an indication that they must not really be following Jesus. I mean, if they are really following Him, wouldn’t things seem to go pretty smoothly for them? The biblical reality is that when people say yes to following Jesus, they are agreeing to carry a cross, and at times, it’s going to be pretty painful.
Blessed are you when men hate you, when they exclude you and insult you and reject your name as evil, because of the Son of Man.
2 Timothy 3:12
Everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.
For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for him.
The Bible tells us multiple times that following Christ is hard, painful, and we WILL suffer. If we truly want to follow Jesus, there’s no way around that.
Ultimately, the cross was a symbol of death. Jesus invites followers to die to themselves. We die to our own desires, our pursuits, and our plans. When we become followers of Jesus, that is the end of us. Jesus takes the most despised and rejected symbol of his time and says, “If you want to follow me, take this up.” He invites us to die.
Jesus makes it clear that following him means taking up your cross and dying to yourself. That’s what a follower is committing to. Unfortunately, many churches today have decided that this message is too uncomfortable and the cross is to offensive when looking at it in a follower’s point of view. As a result, there are many fans who call themselves followers, but they’re not carrying a cross.
History and the Bible tells us that many of those who followed Jesus while He was here on earth, His own disciples actually, not only died to themselves, but ended up dying for their faith. Matthew was killed by a sword in Ethiopia. Mark died in Alexandria, Egypt, after being dragged by horses through the streets until he was dead. Luke was hanged in Greece. Peter was crucified upside down. Thomas was stabbed with a spear in India during a missionary trip. Jude, the brother of Jesus, was killed with arrows when he refused to deny his faith in Christ. James was beheaded in Jerusalem. A decision to follow Jesus is a decision to die to yourself.
C.S. Lewis puts it this way:
Christ says, “Give me all. I don’t want so much of your time and so much of your money and so much of your work: I want you. I have not come to torment your natural self, but to kill it. No half-measures are any good. I don’t want to cut off a branch here and a branch there. I want to have the whole tree down. I don’t want to drill the tooth, or crown it, or stop it, but to have it out.”
We never choose to make ourselves less. We fight and claw our way to the top. If we find ourselves in a lower position, it’s only because we were forced into that position. We never willingly give up our title. But when the King of Kings died on a hill called Calvary, it was an example for us to follow.
I’m going to use Kyle Idleman, author of Not A Fan, and his example of what it means to die daily. Think of your life as a 100 dollar bill. Most of us think of dying to ourselves as this one big moment where we hand over our 100 dollar bill, or when we get saved. That moment of salvation is the most important moment of your life, but to see following Jesus as a one-time decision is like saying after your wedding, “Now that I’m married, it’s back to life as usual.” There is more to being a husband or wife than a wedding ceremony. Instead of thinking of our lives as a 100 dollar bill that we give to God and that’s the end of it, we give our 100 dollar bill to God and He accepts it but says, “This is mine, but I want you to cash it in for pennies and give one penny back to me each day.” It’s a daily death.
What does it look like to die every day? Well, it may mean spending your lunch hour serving food to the homeless at the shelter down the street from your office. It may mean that next time you’re talking with your neighbor, instead of playing it safe and keeping comfortable, you bring Jesus into the conversation. Dying to yourself may mean changing your vacation plans, and instead of taking your family to Disney this year, you take them to the Dominican Republic and volunteer in the feeding centers where hundreds of kids come each day for their only meal. It may mean walking by that empty room in your house and asking God if there is an orphan child in another country that should be sleeping in that bed. Dying to yourself may mean that you selflessly love a spouse who has cheated you out of the marriage you so desperately wanted.
Honestly, it’s only by dying daily that we are even able to follow Jesus. There are many people who get frustrated in their efforts to follow Jesus. They’re trying as hard as they can and they just don’t understand why they have such a hard time, or why they’re so inconsistent.
In 1 Corinthians 15:31, Paul says:
I die daily.
That’s the hardest part about carrying your cross…it’s so daily. Each morning by the grace of Jesus, we are all invited to take up a cross and die. That’s the only way we’ll follow Him that day. Every morning, we crawl back on the altar and die to ourselves. That’s Jesus’ invitation in Luke 9:23, but check out what He says in the very next verse:
For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it.
It’s only by dying to ourselves that we truly find life. When we finally let go of our lives, we find real life in Christ. In 1 Corinthians 1:18, Paul wrote:
For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.
Dying to yourself doesn’t make sense for the fan, but the follower understands that dying is the secret of really living. That’s why we sing about the wonderful cross.
Now let’s rewind for a second. I handed those boys my sub, not really with a great attitude. I walked over to the bakery, and bought 3 milk tarts. Why 3? I had no idea…until I stepped back outside and realized that those 3 boys were still sitting there. I slowly walked over to the steps to sit down and eat my milk tarts, knowing all along that I bought those 3 milk tarts for a reason; knowing I should be giving it to those 3 boys. On my way to sit down, I passed a young man sitting on a crate. I walked past him towards the steps.
I sat down and started eating my milk tart. One was gone; then two. I got up from where I was sitting. I looked around for the boys, but they were gone. I silently prayed, “God, I want to deny myself.” I walked over to the man sitting on the crate, handed him my last milk tart, and walked away.
As I turned to walk away, I didn’t know why but I was in tears. I started walking back up the hill towards my house, when I felt a strong pull to turn around and go talk to that man. I kept saying in my head “God, no. He’s going to think I’m weird or something. I did my good deed for the day. I’m not going back.” And then I felt the Lord. I’m not sure I could’ve felt Him any stronger in a public place than I did right then. And He said “Abby, deny yourself. Go.” And I found myself turning around and walking straight towards that man.
Emilio is 19 years old, and he’s homeless. His mom died, and his dad lives somewhere in Johannesburg. After his mom passed away, he moved in with his grandma. She passed away about 2 years ago. Emilio has been on the streets for 2 years. I sat down right beside him, and we talked for a little bit. The stares I got from people as they walked past were stares of confusion. I could just read their faces; “Why is that girl sitting on the ground talking to that man?” But for some reason, sitting here with Emilio felt right to me. I asked him what he was doing here, and he replied with, “Begging.”
Can we just take a moment to reflect on that word? Begging. Here was this young 19 year old man, in dirty clothing, sitting on a crate. I can tell you right now from experience of being an 18 year old, we as young adults never want to stoop down to the level of helplessness. It’s like there’s something ingrained in our brains that say, “We will never stoop as low as the person who is begging for help. We are much more proud than that.” And here sits Emilio; begging. He knew he was helpless. He had nowhere else to turn to, he had nowhere to go. He told a random person who simply asked him what he was doing something that most people would honestly never admit to doing; begging. Then the more I thought about it, the more Emilio showed me what I should be doing every day. You see, Emilio knew he was helpless, and he admitted that to me on the spot. Why are we as Christians too proud to admit when we’re helpless; that we are begging and we’re on our knees before the Savior of the world, broken and lost and empty and hurt. Emilio painted the most beautiful picture for me. Now here’s another crazy thing:
From the hour that I had been in that square, he didn’t ask one person for money or for food. He was sitting there in his torn clothes; humbly sitting there. For this being South Africa, that’s a HUGE deal. There are always people everywhere, coming up to your cars or to you on the streets just begging you for money. But Emilio; he was different. It reminded me a lot about our lives as followers of Christ. We boast and brag and sometimes over exaggerate about how much we love God, when honestly, our actions don’t show that at all. We aren’t humble about our actions or service, and when we do something we think is pretty awesome, we feel like the whole world needs to know so they can admire our every move. And then here’s Emilio, simply waiting. He didn’t call out to anyone on the street saying he was poor, he didn’t move to anyone’s car and tap on their window asking for money. He was simply sitting there, waiting. Honestly, he was the most humble person I’ve ever met. I yearn to have a faith that is humble in the way that Emilio is humble.
I’m not sure what compelled me to do this, but I can tell you right now that it was not by my own doing. I never give money to strangers…ever. But I reached into my wallet, and pulled out all the rand I had left. I held it out to him, smiled, and said, “I want you to have this. I know it doesn’t seem like it, but things will be alright. I’ll be praying for you.” Words can’t even begin to describe his face. I could tell that he wasn’t expecting this. He didn’t accept the money at first until I held it out to him again. He took it, smiled so big, and said, “This means so much, thank you so much. You’ll be in my thoughts. Thank you so much.” And as I walked away, I found a corner street, sat down, and cried. I wasn’t crying because I gave away my money, I was crying because I couldn’t imagine how I would’ve felt if I told God no when He told me to go back. I was crying because I was free. I was crying because I met someone who, even though we never spoke one word about Jesus, showed me what it’s like to be a follower without saying A WORD. Honestly, let’s be real here: there is NOTHING more beautiful.
It is a DAILY struggle to take up our cross and follow Jesus Christ. We have to die daily to who we are, what we want to become, everything about us. Guys, IT’S NOT ABOUT US ANYMORE. I’m not telling you this story to make me look good, because frankly, I’m embarrassed of the way I acted in the beginning. Why couldn’t I just have had a willing heart when I first felt pulled to give those boys my sub? Because I was struggling to deny myself. I was hungry, I wanted to eat; but I knew I would get milk tarts later on so giving up my sub wasn’t a big deal to me. I’d just go get more food later. Then, randomly buying 3 milk tarts: why not 1, or 2, or 4? Why exactly 3? Because there were 3 boys out there; hungry. And when I was selfishly eating those 2 milk tarts, God pulled on my heart. When I realized those boys were gone, I walked over to the man I had passed earlier and gave one to him. So why didn’t I make conversation with him in the beginning? Why did I walk away from him? Maybe it’s because I didn’t want to be seen in public talking to someone who was clearly in desperate need of help; who was someone that people were looking at with disgust; who was someone people were just walking past not giving any second thought to. It’s when I started on my way home that I realized something: who do I think I am? The King of Kings made himself NOTHING and died to set me free; to give me a life that I don’t even deserve. And when I felt the presence of God in and around me, I knew I needed to go back. So I did. I took up my cross, and I denied myself. I died to who I was.
Some people don’t really understand this whole “dying to yourself” thing; I’ll be honest by saying that I didn’t understand it until today. It’s hard, it’s painful, and it’s a weird emotion; but it is BEAUTIFUL. I have never ever in my entire life felt more amazing than when I denied who I was, died to everything inside of me, and gave up. I totally surrendered to Jesus Christ today, and He used me. He used me to feed 3 boys who probably won’t have supper tonight. He used me to bring hope to a man around my age who felt that there really was no hope for him. He used me to provide a young girl with a good pair of shoes to wear. (Yes mom, I gave her the sandals you bought me. I’ll reimburse you if you want.) And I’m not saying this for my credit; all glory goes to God. Because I can promise you that NONE of those things happened with my doing; it was all Jesus Christ.
Jesus invites us to come and die DAILY. It’s not a onetime thing; it’s an everyday thing. We think that such a decision would make us miserable. Is that what it means to follow Jesus; to be miserable? We wake up every morning and commit to misery. But when we die to ourselves and completely surrender to Him, there is a surprising side effect to dying; we discover true life. In a twist of irony, we find that giving up our lives gives us the life we so desperately wanted all along. It is so worth it.
Meeting Emilio was no coincidence. He didn’t just randomly happen to be there that day. I fully and firmly believe that God placed him right there on that exact street corner at exactly the same time I was there for a reason. My dream is to meet Emilio again; maybe on that same street corner, maybe in a shop where he has a job, or maybe in church. Wherever I see him, I want to thank him; thank him for helping me realize that dying to myself and surrendering to Jesus was the best decision I’ve ever made.
After I typed the previous paragraph, I ended up meeting Emilio again the very next day on the same street corner. This time, we talked about Jesus. He told me that he was in fact a Christian. I asked him a question that I knew I would even have a rough time answering, but I was so curious to hear what he had to say: “Emilio, with everything that you’ve been through, how do you know God is still there?” He chuckled at my question and said, “You know, sometimes I have a hard time knowing He’s there. But then I think back to everything He’s done for me; how He’s kept me alive on certain nights when I didn’t think I would make it. And I know He will never leave me, no matter how bad things are.” The whole time he was talking, that smile never left his face.
Anya and Nat came down to Raisethorp that same day, and they met Emilio as well. We all sat down and talked with him, and he really seemed to enjoy our company. The stares we got from people were quite amusing and awesome, to say the least. We were making people feel uncomfortable; seriously, let’s be real here: that’s like the highest level of achievement ever. No sarcasm intended.
The day after that, Anya and I walked down and brought him some muffins. At first, we didn’t see him, and then out of nowhere he comes running towards us and says, “Friends! I’m here! I didn’t think you were going to come today.” I smiled and said, “Emilio, we’ll come and see you as often as we’re able to.” He smiled, accepted the muffin, and started to eat.
Day after day, we continued to go and see Emilio. We couldn’t provide him with a new home. We couldn’t provide him with a job. We couldn’t provide him with anything that would actually get him back on his feet again. But one thing we could provide him with was love. To any person in Emilio’s situation, that doesn’t seem like a lot. But for some reason, to him, it meant the WORLD. A new house or a job couldn’t give Emilio what he really wanted; and that’s a family. I never thought in a million years that I would become so close to someone who was homeless; who was begging on the streets day after day for the past 2 years just to get by. But in the few days I’ve known Emilio, he’s taught me more about what it really means to follow Jesus than any person I’ve known. It means being willing to go before God completely broken. It means begging. It means having faith that even though you don’t know if you’ll make it through tonight, God will pull you through. It means being humble. It means surrendering all you have and all you are. I not only have a new friend…I have a brother.
I want to make one thing straight; this story isn’t about me. It isn’t about what I did. It’s about what Jesus did through me when I surrendered myself and gave up. I gave up on keeping an image I was trying so hard to maintain. I gave up putting myself first. I gave up and finally denied myself, picked up my cross, and followed my King. And it was by surrendering all of who I was and all of who I was striving to be that Jesus took this place in my heart, moved me, changed me, and took my hand while I walked and sat down beside Emilio.
Jesus invites you to come after Him, pick up your cross, and die to yourself. Are you ready?
*Special thanks goes to Kyle Idleman for helping me find the right words to say.