As I shared on Monday, I’ve finally gotten around to answering your blog survey questions from last year. On Monday, I answered questions about the rapture and the second coming of Christ.
Another question from the survey was, “Can you give some advice on equipping church planters?”
Another was, “When you discern that God has called you to ministry, what advice do you have with respect to that calling?”
Still another question was, “I read your book Finding Organic Church about apostolic ministry and I believe that I may be called to that ministry. What would you say is the most important quality in someone who has that calling?”
To my mind, all three questions have the same answer.
So I thought the best way to address them was to publish (for the first time) a transcript of a message I delivered to a group of hungry Christians that were attempting to live in community over a decade ago.
I gave an expanded version of this same message in 2009 at the Reimaging Church Conference in Toronto, Canada.
That said, my answer to all three questions is answered in this transcribed message. You may want to print it out and read it off line as it’s a bit long.
Having an Instinct for the Cross
Living with other Christians in community is one of the most glorious experiences a Christian can know. But it doesn’t work, it never has worked, and it never will work unless you embrace the cross.
Living with the saints in heaven will be glory; living with the saints on earth is another story.
To dwell above with saints we love ‘tis grace and glory; to dwell below with saints we know . . . that’s another story.
I’ve spoken on the cross of Jesus Christ countless times. But when I speak on “bearing the cross,” I’m not talking about the Lord’s atoning death for us.
I’m rather speaking about the principle of the cross . . . the principle of dying to oneself.
The cross has to do with denying our fallen soul life, or what some theologians call “the self life.” This is your basic nature of self-interest, self-perseverance, and self-defense.
In Luke 9:23-24, Jesus is speaking about the denial of our fallen nature saying,
And he said to them all, If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me. For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: but whosoever will lose his life for my sake, the same shall save it.
Paul also referred to the cross in 1 Corinthians 15:31 and 2 Corinthians 4:8-12.
These texts are not speaking of salvation. They are speaking about picking up a cross, carrying that cross daily, and following Christ in the denial of oneself.
Brothers and sisters, there’s a cross for all of us.
And God calls each of us to bear the cross of Christ.
Thus whenever your ego is touched, whenever your pride is exposed, whenever your weaknesses are pointed out, the cross is ready to do its deep work.
And you can either fight against it or die upon it.
A Personal Reference
Forgive the personal reference, but when I was 20 years old, many of my peers — and those older than me — would tell me that God had gifted me in unusual ways. I didn’t realize at the time that this meant that God would have to break me in some major ways so that I would be truly useful for His service.
So I was an unbroken vessel . . . just like most Christians in their early 20s. (Unfortunately, many gifted people remain unbroken throughout most of their lives because they repeatedly resist the cross when it comes into their lives.)
However, God in His mercy brought the cross into my life in ways that I could have never anticipated . . . and the result was utter devastation to my self life. I became a different person on all fronts.
Consequently, the lessons I’m sharing with you in this message have come out of the anvil of much suffering, much breaking, and much pain. They have come out of an experience of the cross in my own life.
In that connection, I feel that one should never speak on this dimension of the cross unless they themselves have had a steady diet of all its darkness and horrendous depths. If not, what they share will only be bloodless theory and have little impact on people’s lives.
10 Insights About the Cross
1) A person cannot teach you how to recognize the cross in your life. God must show you. It’s a matter of spiritual instinct.
2) The ears of God’s people tend to be deaf to the cross. We don’t like to hear about it.
3) The cross is the easiest thing in the world to forget. So we need to be reminded of it.
4) You will never know the Lord you’re supposed to know outside of a head-on collision with His cross.
5) Authentic body life never works the way you want it to. It’s a railroad track to the cross.
6) The instrument of the cross is very often our fellow brethren in Christ.
7) You cannot crucify yourself. You can drive one nail into one hand, but the other hand will be free. So the cross is God’s wonderful design.
8) God will create a tailor-made cross for you. Jesus is a carpenter, so He knows how to build them. And very often, the cross will be served to you freely by your brothers and sisters with whom you fellowship.
9) The more gifted you are, the more the cross is needed in your life to break your tendency to rely on yourself, to manipulate, and to exalt yourself in subtle ways.
10) In community, your blind spots will eventually get exposed. True body life is a house of mirrors. The Lord will not destroy the Lord within you, but He’ll seek to destroy everything else. This is especially true if He has called you to His work.
Lessons on the Cross from the Old Testament
The Altar. In the tabernacle of Moses, the altar is the first piece of furniture you came to before you got to God’s house.
The altar is the place of death. It’s the place of sacrifice and the loss of a life. The altar always precedes the house.
Therefore, in order for God’s house to be built, it requires someone who has known the cross in their experience and died upon it. Everyone who builds God’s house in the New Testament was a person who was shattered and devastated by the cross.
For God’s house to be maintained, the living stones who make it up must also accept a steady diet of the cross. They must learn to deny themselves, to give themselves to the exposing work of the Spirit to break and sift them, and to refuse to fight against it.
Church splits take place because some aren’t willing to bear the cross. They will start maligning certain people when their feelings are hurt or they are offended. Thus the carnage produced by unbroken, self-centered vessels is great.
The Temple of Solomon. Solomon’s temple was made up of stones. But there was no mortar to glue them together. Rather, the stones were held together by friction.
That meant that each stone had to be cut, chiseled, sanded, and shaped to fit the others perfectly.
The words of Paul and Peter about being “built together” come to mind. Being built together with other believers requires the chiseling and cutting work of the cross.
Remember, Calvary preceded Pentecost.
Calvary is the place of the cross; Pentecost is where the church is born.
The cross precedes the church. And it’s maintained by the cross.
Romans 6 is all about the cross. And it precedes Romans 12, which is all about the church.
So in the center of the ekklesia . . . in the dead middle of Christian community . . . there is a cross that bids each of us to die.
In community, after the honeymoon period ends, you will find the cross in spades.
I’ve described body life many times as a wedding of glory and gore. The glory precedes the gore at first, then the gore precedes the greater glory.
The cross has many corners. And it never comes in the package you want.
The Problem of Hurt Feelings
Let me tell you the way that many Christians live their lives.
When (not if) they get their feelings hurt, they make decisions . . . sometimes rash and self-serving decisions . . . based on their bruised feelings.
They form their opinions, their reactions, and their attitudes around their feelings when those feelings have been injured.
And so they run from the cross.
What does this do? It delays their transformation on the one hand, and brings devastation to other people’s lives on the other.
Hence, the most toxic people on the planet are those who will lash out against those who they believe have hurt their feelings.
(Insertion: See my post, Scratch a Christian and You’ll Find Out What They’re Made Of where I described this last year. Now back to the original message.)
We have ways of wiggling out of the cross that would drive a battery of mental professionals nutty.
But the Lord gains the most ground in us when we’re looking down from a cross.
Mark it down: If there is ever a time in your life to deny yourself and lose, it’s when you feel someone has hurt your feelings.
It’s when someone corrects you in Christ, but you don’t wish to receive the correction or don’t understand it.
It’s when someone strongly disagrees with you.
It’s when you correct someone in Christ, and they not only reject it, but they retaliate by trying to defame you.
It’s when someone hates you out of jealousy, and with malice in their hearts, spreads vicious lies about you.
It’s when someone doesn’t meet your expectations.
Each case is when the cross seeks to do its deepest work in your life.
Christians who take offense resist the cross.
(Insertion: See my post from 2009 Living Without Offense and from 2012 The Forgotten Beatitude, where the case is made that those who are involved in ministry cannot afford the luxury of being offended. Now back to the original message.)
Christians who retaliate to protect their own reputations and self interests, not caring about the damage they bring into the lives of others, know nothing of the cross.
The reaction of the flesh is always to defend, to justify, to get angry, to lash out, to retaliate.
Sometimes it’s done in passive aggressive ways. And it’s virtually always justified by “religious talk” under the cloak of “God told me.”
The flesh will never sacrifice itself or absorb the blows. It will instead be quick to sacrifice others on the altar of one’s feelings.
The flesh always seeks to protect one’s ego and reputation in the eyes of others and at the expense of others.
Those who do not know the cross cannot tolerate loss, suffering, or correction. They cannot remain silent, as the Lord Jesus was silent under pressure.
They cannot wait on the Lord nor submit to His light. They will rather allow themselves to react in the flesh, and they will even call their reaction “being led by the Spirit.”
But this is deception.
These reactions are the fruit of an unbroken person who has made themselves the priority, refusing to take the high road which is what the spirit of the Lamb will always lead us to do.
Brethren, you can waste the Lord’s transformation in your life by fighting the cross.
The cross of Christ bids us to die, to lose, to surrender. The flesh will do everything it can to stay alive and protect itself.
To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps . . . When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly.
According to Peter, following in Jesus’ footsteps means that when we are wrongly accused or rightly corrected, we will not insult, retaliate, or make threats.
Instead, we will entrust the matter into the Lord’s hands.
To make this personal . . .
If you defend yourself, God will not defend you.
If you justify yourself, God will not justify you.
All those who know the Lord deeply understand these lessons.
Jesus Christ cannot gain much ground in your life unless you are willing to lose.
Whosoever will lose his life for my sake, the same shall save it.
The fruit of such loss is less of you and more of Him.
In addition, if you bail out of those relationships that you find difficult on your flesh, then the cross will follow you through someone else, somewhere else. You can’t run away from it. It will find you out.
The eleven disciples ran at break-neck speed when they saw the cross emerging on that hill. They headed for the hills while the women stayed with Jesus.
Our flesh seeks to do the same whenever the cross emerges in our lives.
A Temptation for Friends
I’ve watched this all my life. When the Lord brings the cross into someone’s life, one of the temptations is for the undiscerning is to erect a ladder and try to pull the person down from the wood.
Others will climb on the cross and seek to put padding behind the person’s head and legs.
When God has brought the cross into someone’s life, you must allow Him to do His deep work in their lives without interfering. I’m not talking about comforting a person who has truly been abused or victimized; I’m speaking of a person who is resisting the cross and justifying themselves at the expense of others.
When friends seek to console a person who is trying to escape the cross, especially after they have been corrected in Christ, it only prolongs that person’s death-to-self and it usually ends up turning other people into “enemies.”
The result is that God’s enemy has been given an open door to malign people and division and carnage as the result.
(Insertion: I gave an example of this in my own life where I believed someone’s account who had played the victim. When I heard the other side of the story, I was embarrassed. I was in effect helping someone resist the cross and didn’t know it. The story is in Hearing One Side of Story from 2012. Now back to the message.)
What To Expect When You Bear the Cross
You can expect that no one will throw roses on your grave.
No one will pin a medal on your chest for how valiantly you lost and died.
In fact, few people will even notice.
The angels will, however.
And the Lord Jesus Christ said “pick up your cross daily and follow Me.”
Whenever someone speaks on the cross like this, there’s usually someone who reacts saying, “Well, I’m being physically and verbally abused, does bearing the cross mean that God wants me to continue to be a door mat?”
Absolutely not. That’s not what I’m speaking about. In fact, for you, the cross may very well mean separating yourself from the abuser and perhaps (if it applies) getting the authorities involved.
The cross may also mean correcting someone who is hurting others or who has a blind spot that’s injurious to people. This often constitutes a cross because all lovers of Jesus absolutely despise the task of correcting others. It comes at a heavy cost, because an unbroken person will retaliate when being corrected in Christ.
The Probing Voice of God
The voice of the Lord not only probes our actions, but it also probes our attitudes and reactions.
And the voice of the Lord often comes to us through members of His Body.
If you desire for God to use you in His work, He will deal ruthlessly with those areas of your life that you’re blind to, but that other members of the body who know you can see clearly.
And His voice will be uttered by your brothers and sisters.
When it is, it finds us out.
If you are in the flesh . . . you will react.
If you are in the Spirit . . . you will not react.
Instead, you will be like a sponge, asking questions to understand what part of your life needs the blinding light of God to expose and transform.
The way a person responds when they are corrected reveals volumes about their character.
When a little pressure is applied, it exposes who were really are.
At the slightest correction from another believer, the unbroken are quick to defend themselves and their actions.
By contrast, a person who knows the cross will take all forms of correction to heart. They will exhibit a teachable spirit.
It doesn’t break their jaw to admit they did wrong, and they will be very quick to repent and apologize at the slightest word of correction.
Long lasting ministry comes out of being broken bread and poured-out wine. That’s written in the bloodstream of God’s universe.
The good news is there is always a resurrection on the other side of every cross. However, you will not know the power of Christ’s resurrection until you’ve first licked the wood of the cross and known the fellowship of His sufferings.
If church history has taught us anything, it is this: If God has called you to build His house, then you must have an instinct for the cross. If not, He will remove His hand from your life (not of salvation, but of favor and anointing). You will go forth in your own energy and your own power to the detriment of His people and His kingdom.
You will sacrifice others to try to save yourself, your work, and your reputation.
I want to close this message by reading some profound words by Watchman Nee on the cross:
What does it mean to go to the Cross to die to the self life?
When you can receive correction and reproof from one of less stature than yourself and can humbly submit inwardly as well as outwardly, finding no rebellion or resentment rising up within your heart, that is dying to self.
When your good is evil spoken of, when your wishes are crossed, your advice disregarded, your opinion ridiculed, and you refuse to let anger rise in your heart, or even defend yourself, but take it all in patient loving silence, that is dying to self.
When you never care to refer to yourself in conversation, or to record your own good works, or itch after commendation, when you can truly love to be unknown, that is dying to self.
When you are forgotten, or neglected, or purposely set at naught, and you don’t sting and hurt with the insult or the oversight, but your heart is happy, being counted worthy to suffer for Christ, that is dying to self.
Are you dead yet?