Shopping for your Cross

Choices

It is 7:00 a.m. on Christmas Eve and I am on duty at my secular employment. I realize that today is the last shopping day before Christmas and the malls will be extremely crowded as last-minute shoppers frantically endeavour to complete their shopping chores.

For me, shopping is not my ‘cup of tea,’ but at the request of my wife, I had gone the previous day to purchase an aftershave lotion for a friend. Believe it or not, after visiting three stores and spending over one hour at the mall, I left without purchasing even a single item.

The reason for my unsuccessful venture was due to the wide variety of aftershave lotions to choose from. I just could not make up my mind as to  which lotion was appropriate and wished that there were fewer selections available.  But whether it be cosmetics, electronics, toys, music, clothing or any other consumer related item, there is an inexhaustible variety on the market. Making what would otherwise be a simple choice, a task in itself.

As I pondered this reality, I realized that the option to choose goes way beyond the tangible necessities of life and extends into many other areas such as fashion, entertainment, sports, health, politics and last but most critical, our religion.

Living in a nation where democracy influences almost every element of our daily lives, freedom of choice appears to be the order of the day.  However, even though one has the privilege to choose and the freedom to do so, it must be clearly understood that all choices, whether good or bad, have consequences, especially those that relate to our social and religious lifestyle.

Importance of Choice

Freedom of choice is a wonderful privilege — that is, if one is mature enough to make profitable choices.

Take for example, our choice of food.  If one chooses to eat food that is unhealthy and loaded with saturated fats and bad cholesterol, then that individual can positively anticipate the development of heart disease as well as other related sicknesses.

As a pastor, I am often confronted by individuals in a prayer line seeking healing from illnesses resulting from unhealthy eating habits.  The question I ask myself is: would God heal such individuals when He knows that they will not give up their bad eating choices?  Shouldn’t the children of God be responsible enough to recognize their bodies as the temples of God and treat them with respect as such?

In considering these simple facts, it is imperative that we further educate ourselves in areas relating to a healthy lifestyle and then diligently pursue the same.  Of course, like millions of other North Americans, we may choose to ignore the accumulated statistics on healthy living and die in presumptuous ignorance of diseases that could have otherwise been prevented.

The choice to ignore the warning amber lights in life is ours to make.  It is important that we constantly remind ourselves that every choice we make in life has consequences — some good, some bad.

In his letters to the churches of Galatia, the Apostle Paul stated, “Be not deceived; God is not mocked: for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.  For he that soweth to the flesh shall of the flesh reap corruption; but he that soweth to the Spirit shall of the Spirit reap life everlasting.” (Gal. 6:7-8).

Shopping for a Church

To shop for aftershave lotion is a minor task when compared to the concept of shopping for a church.  The scripture exhorts us to seek until we find, and as such, one should carefully search for a church that will enhance one’s spiritual development. This choice is important and may determine one’s eternal destiny.

In other words, before one can even start looking for a church, one must first understand what God’s requirements for a church are.  i.e. its order, doctrine, ministry, spirit and most important of all, its purpose.

I am personally convinced that not every building with a steeple on top is viewed by God as a church. If this is true, then choosing a church becomes an even more critical decision to make.  To successfully accomplish this it is necessary to understand God’s thought pattern and then endeavour to adapt.

Consider for a moment the examples set forth in the introductory chapters of the book of Revelation.  God isolated seven churches in all of Asia Minor that He considered worthy of His admonitions.   On the contrary, history describes the entire region being infiltrated by Christianity.  I wonder what our analysis would have been if we were back there and were given the task of making a similar determination?

Reflecting on Biblical history, particularly the days of Christ, should enlighten us to the fact that God did not approve the denominational structure of that era.  Israel was filled with religion but, “There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.”  (John 1:6).  Amidst the prestigious movements of that day, such as the Pharisees and the Sadducees, God sanctioned John the Baptist as the heartbeat of His true church.  It was obvious that almost everything else in religion was apostate.

Not only was John separated from the denominational structures of that day, but Jesus also sanctified Himself and warned His followers against the most predominant religious groups of that time. He said, “beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and of the Sadducees.”  (Mt. 16:6).

In his gospel, the Apostle John records the Lord Jesus praying, not for ecumenical unity, but rather the religious sanctification of His disciples.  Jesus prayed, “Sanctify them through thy truth: thy word is truth… and for their sakes I sanctify myself, that they also might be sanctified through the truth.”  (John 17:17&19).

The blatant fact is that, Jesus did not accept or approve the churches of His day. He described the Pharisees as children of the Devil even though they had the credibility of being the “straitest of sect” in the Jewish religion. (John 8:44, Acts 26:5).

Again in Matthew 23, the Lord disputed with the scribes and Pharisees and emphatically stated that they were hypocrites.  He pointed out that their effort of converting a soul made an individual into a “twofold more the child of hell”.  (Mt. 23:15).  As far as our Lord was concerned, an individual’s service to God would be in futility if that person’s doctrine was incorrect.  He exposed their hypocrisy by saying, “This people draweth nigh unto me with their mouth, and honoureth me with their lips; but their heart is far from me.  But in vain they do worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men.”  (Mt. 15:8-9).

After considering these warnings from the Lord Himself, as well as the endless exhortations from other New Testament writers, it is important that extreme caution and careful consideration be used in one’s choice of a church.  Another appropriate question to ask ourselves at this time is: would God send five ministers into one city working separate from each other and teaching conflicting doctrines?

Is the Body of Christ really mystical and comprised of all the different denominations in Christendom?  Does it really matter to God what His people believe in and how they live their lives?

Again I ask, can our choice of church really determine our spiritual growth and eternal destiny?  I say yes a thousand times!

If you were living two thousand years ago and searching for a church which would you choose?  Would you bypass the flamboyance and prestige of established religion and settle for the unorthodox John the Baptist?  Would you ignore the elite doctors of the law and be baptized by a man dressed in camel’s hair who ate locusts and wild honey?  Again the choice would be yours to make and would determine your eternal destiny.  It may be wise for every one of us to start thinking like God as it relates to spiritual matters.

Choosing a church today becomes even more difficult when we take into account the vast amount of denominations in existence.  But God has not changed and His principles remain the same.  These facts should not be ignored when selecting the right church.

Limited Options

When considering the reality that society influences us on a daily basis with endless options starting from the kind of breakfast we have to the hour of the night that we choose to sleep, one might  conclude that there is little left to fate.  But there are factors in life over which choice is restricted and options unavailable.  One of these predetermined plans of God is the path He chooses for each individual Christian.  It is described in scripture as the “cross” and is a pathway customized for each child of God that will ultimately establish the nature of Christ in that individual’s life.

The Apostle Paul described this process by stating, “And we know that all things [good or bad] work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.  For whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brethren.”  (Rom. 8:28-29).

The end result of the salvation process for the elect is to be “conformed to the image of his Son”, and this means dying to one’s own carnal nature and allowing the nature of Christ to take over.

This process of dying to self is not a ‘trip to the mall’, but a gradual, and ultimately total surrender of the believer’s will to the will of God.  The process is determined by God and in reality the options offer little personal choice.  We either fall voluntarily on the rock and be broken or God allows the rock to fall on us and crush us.  Scripture tells us that, “whosoever shall fall on this stone shall be broken: but on whomsoever it shall fall, it will grind him to powder.”  (Mt. 21:44).

Choosing the Cross

Unlike the options of choice that are given to many in the world, for the Christian these options are limited.  When selecting His disciples, the Lord Jesus described in advance the required sacrifice.  He said, “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.  For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it.”  (Mt. 16:24-25).  In simple language, the Christian must choose to either obey or disobey God.  In obedience, God’s word will become a lamp unto one’s feet and a light unto one’s path. (Ps. 119:105).

Let us note carefully the following steps to true discipleship:

  • Denying of self
  • Death to self
  • A life of servitude to Christ

If I understand anything at all on this subject, it is apparent that a disciple has no choice but to follow his Master.  True discipleship gives little freedom to the children of God to plan and design their own future — even if their plans are religious. It must be clearly understood that man’s will, though religious, must be subdued and God’s will must take preeminence.  As astounding as it may sound, there may be only a few of us, if any, who will submit to God’s will in preference to our desires.

Scripture does not support the idea of children of God choosing what they want to become or selecting their own future.  When one becomes a Christian, Christ becomes the Head and it is He who dictates the future of His body.  He is the potter and the child of God is the clay that is to be moulded and fashioned into His likeness.  Isaiah wrote, “Woe unto him that striveth with his maker!…Shall the clay say to him that fashioneth it, what makest thou?” (Isa. 45:9).

True discipleship restricts a Christian from deciding what vessel they want to be and how they should be used by God.  For preachers, this is an arduous task seeing many are influenced by a desire for prominence and personal gain.

One of the greatest deceptions of the Devil is to convince the Christian that doing religious good works is doing God’s will.  As a result of this thought pattern, many children of God sincerely and sacrificially design their own cross, or spiritually shop around for a cross that will satisfy their religious urges and fantasies.  It is amazing when considering the vast number of Christians who are out of God’s will, sincerely doing their own religious thing.

James exhorted the saints to only make decisions based on what God wanted in preference to what they wanted.  He suggested that gain or personal accomplishments should never influence such decisions.  Rather, they should say, “If the Lord will, we shall live, and do this, or that.”  He further warned that, “to him that knoweth to do good, and doeth it not, to him it is sin.”  (Js. 4:13-17).  To view this scripture in the light of its context, it would appear that anything the Christian does presumptuously out of God’s will is sin.  It may not be blatant sin such as murder or adultery, but rather a gradual act of unintentional disobedience that will ultimately deteriorate into total rebellion.

Is it really possible that a child of God can be engaged in all the mechanics of religion and still be out of God’s will?  Is it possible that one could sacrifice thousands of dollars in missionary endeavours and even die as a martyr, and yet be out of God’s will?

Could all of these sacrifices be the result of Christians taking up their own self-made, custom-designed crosses and abandoning that which God has truly designed for them?  Let us further examine the scriptures on this matter.

In his letter to the church at Corinth, the Apostle Paul indicated that we can have all the available trappings of religion and yet not develop charity.  The reason is that our religious engagements may be a result of our choice and not God’s will.  This means that our sacrifices and commitments may be no different than the penances performed by apostate Christianity and pagan religions.

Paul wrote, “Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels…though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge…though I have all faith…though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor…though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing.” (1 Cor. 13:1-3).

The Apostle Peter stated, “and above all things have fervent charity among yourselves: for charity shall cover the multitude of sins.” (1 Pt. 4:8).

Genuine charity is the apex of Christian maturity and involves much more than giving to the poor or putting on a religious front. Rather, it is the result of a dying to self and submission to the Holy Ghost.  It is the fruit of the Spirit, and can only be accomplished by submitting to the demands of a cross life that God chooses for us.  To have charity is to have the spirit and attitude of our Lord Jesus.  In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus said, “Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven.”  (Mt. 7:21).

The Lord further explained that many will think that prophesying (preaching), casting out evil spirits and involvement in religious endeavours will qualify them for eternal rewards, but this is not so — not if what they are doing is merely according to their own will.

The pursuit of our own religious goals contrary to what God has chosen will in no way develop the mind of Christ, but rather result in a depraved thought-pattern and impaired spiritual judgment.  When confronted by a crisis we will resort to carnal decisions and methods contrary to the spirit of Christ.  Applying the methods and spirit of traditional religion is not necessarily fulfilling the will of God.

Similar to the nation of Israel in the days of Isaiah, we may perform all of the external ceremonies to make us look religious, but in reality, there may be little inward workings of the Holy Ghost in our lives.

The prophet Isaiah described God’s people as lacking spiritual awareness and classified them as being worse than animals.  He said, “The ox knoweth his owner, and the ass his master’s crib: but Israel doth not know, my people doth not consider.”  (Isa. 1:3).

Israel was further described as a “sinful nation” that had “forsaken” God and “gone away backward.”  Isaiah said, “From the sole of the foot even unto the head there is no soundness in it; but wounds, and bruises, and putrifying sores…”  Worst of all, the leaders were described as the “rulers of Sodom” and the nation as the “people of Gomorrah.”  (Isa. 1:6 & 10).  Are we any different today?

The question to ask at this time is, did Israel recognize this tremendous spiritual decline?  It is obvious that they did not, seeing that they were actively engaged in all the physical aspects of their so-called service to God.  This is yet another reminder that mere religious activity is not necessarily God’s will.

Israel’s sacrifices, burnt offerings, and worship were all done mechanically and did not contribute to the development of godly characteristics.  In simple language, they were doing their own thing and did not submit to God’s will.  As a result, there was no denial of self, no inward conversion and no spiritual growth.  Sadly, the once “faithful city” was now a harlot and she did not even know it. (Isa. 1:21).

In his plea for the nation to repent, the prophet Isaiah seems to suggest a denial of self by submitting to the needs of others.  He said, “Learn to do well; seek judgment, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow.”  (v. 17).  Is this not the spirit of Christ?

The very fact that Israel was not performing these basic charitable duties is an indication that they were a people carried away by their own selfish goals and had successfully submitted to their own standards of righteousness.  Their personal goals held priority while death to self was a missing element.

It is important to understand that a self-appointed cross will oftentimes create the appearance of sacrifice and Christian service but will never change the inner man.  It is the cross that God selects for His children that produces true holiness and defeats the working of our carnal nature.

Similar to the Church of Sardis, as described in Revelation 3:1,  a movement may create an enormous impression of godliness, but in reality, that movement may be dead in the eyes of God.  This can happen to anyone who withdraws from God’s divine purpose to pursue their own personal goals.

The ‘health and wealth’ gospel being promoted by many Christian organizations in our day is misleading and has become an obstacle to true discipleship. It eliminates the cross, fortifies pride and establishes self-righteousness.

Again, I wish to emphasize that doing our own will is contrary to doing God’s will and will not bring death to the ‘self life.’  We may even suffer physically for the gospel, yet not attaining that which is intended by God for our spirits.  One may look, speak and even conduct oneself like a Christian but in God’s eyes that individual is just another worker of iniquity.

The cross that God has chosen for the child of God cannot be reconstructed or redesigned.  It is an instrument of death that works contrary to man’s will and yet establishes stability.  It is imperative that we first deny ourselves — that is, take our preconceived plans and desires and put them away even if they appear religious.

The next step is to take up the cross that God has designed for us — that which will bring death to self and our carnal nature, and then, for the rest of our lives here on Earth, follow the Lord.  These are the steps which produce overcomers.

In Matthew 7, the Lord Jesus continued His lesson by showing that when an individual does the will of God, he is like a man who builds his house on a good and strong foundation.  When confronted by the storms of adversity, his faith will not be shaken.  He will manifest the spirit of Jesus in the face of negative circumstances.  He will love his enemies, bless those who persecute him, and endeavour to please the Father in all things.

Self Analysis

In his epistle to the Corinthians, the Apostle Paul admonished the saints to “examine themselves”.  He wrote “examine yourself, whether ye be in the faith;…prove your own selves.  Know ye not your own selves, how that Jesus Christ is in you, except ye be reprobates?”  (2 Cor. 13:15).

I am fully persuaded in my heart that every child of God, saint and preacher alike ought to constantly perform a spiritual self-analysis.  This will determine one’s spiritual growth and stability and may encourage the pursuit of dedication and holiness.

However, to examine ourselves against our own spiritual goals or the standards of established religion is not what Paul had in mind.  In simple language, I think Paul expected the church to search inwardly to determine whether the spirit of the Lord Jesus was in them or whether they were reprobates play-acting as Christians.  What of us?  Are we Christians or reprobates?  Do we respond to situations like Jesus would?  How can we love our enemies if we have a problem even loving our own brothers and sisters?  When reviled or taken advantage of, is our response reflective of  the spirit of our Lord Jesus?  Can we honestly say that we are walking in the footsteps of our Lord and Saviour?

As I examine myself and the majority of God’s children, I have great difficulty finding the spirit of meekness that Jesus manifested.  Too many of us have carried our own custom-made cross rather than the one designed by God for us.  Jesus said, “take my yolk upon you and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls.” (Mt. 11:29).

Your Choice

Now, if you were given the option to select your own cross I wonder what  would be your choice?  Would you choose a life without problems? One that is stress-free and full of material gain? Or would you choose a path of death to self, and like your Lord, suffer constant rejection and sorrow?  If given a choice, would you change the present circumstances in your life?

In describing this dying to self as a result of the cross life, Jesus told Peter, “When thou wast young, thou girdest thyself, and walkedst whither thou wouldest: but when thou shalt be old, thou shalt stretch forth thy hands, and another shall gird thee, and carry thee whither thou wouldest not.” (John 21:18).

The Apostle John sums it up in the book of Revelation, when describing the overcomer.  He wrote, “These are they which follow the Lamb whithersoever he goeth.  These were redeemed from among men, being the firstfruits unto God and to the Lamb.  And in their mouth was found no guile: for they are without fault before the throne of God.”  (Rev. 14:4-5).

Contrary to the normal trend among Christians today, true discipleship eliminates the concept of choosing our own crosses.  We cannot shop for our own crosses, but must accept the ones Christ has chosen for us.