Luke 9:23-25 tells us, "Then he said to them all: If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it. What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit his very self?
Two sins that can really mar my days, if I let them, are pride and selfishness. Along with fear (which probably has its roots in pride and selfishness), these are at the heart of my sinful nature -- of what I am without God's holy and loving influence in my life. These things can affect every aspect of my life, but, like most deep character sins, they can show up most vividly in who I am at home.
So, I rejoice that God, through Christ, has freed us from our sins. Each day presents a new opportunity for me to turn from pride and selfishness and to grow in love. Each day presents every one of us with opportunities to put away our selfish nature and to live the full and abundant life that Christ gives us.
As we embrace what our Lord accomplished for us through his atoning death on the cross and through his resurrection, He invites us to take up our own cross and to walk with Him. Popular language speaks of a "cross to bear" in terms of a trial or a burden, but, truly, the cross was an instrument of death.
For many Christians throughout history and even now, taking up the cross literally, and even quickly, led or leads to death by persecution. We should always be prepared to die for Christ's sake; we equally must be prepared to walk many, many days with the Lord before He calls us home. We may die a peaceful, natural death or might possibly even still be alive when the Lord returns.
So, if the Lord chooses that we do live many days, what does it mean, then, to take up our cross daily? I think it means to daily die to our old self and to daily choose the new life that Christ made possible through His crucifixion and resurrection. In dying to self, we exchange our dreams for the Lord's dreams, our plans for His plans, our will for His will, our sins for His righteousness, and our desire to be in control for His reign.
I think taking up our cross also means being willing to sacrifice so that others might be saved. Though only Christ can be the atoning sacrifice for someone's sin, we can point others to Christ. Paul was an example of someone who joyfully sacrificed much that others might know the Lord. He said to the Philippians, "But even if I am being poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrifice and service of your faith, I rejoice and share my joy with you all."
The cross we take up is painful, as death always is. It goes against our instinct to think that losing our life for Christ is how we find our true life. In our natural selves, we do fight to hold on to our lives. But, we must remember that the cross was followed by the resurrection.
In the Lord's hand, our cross is an instrument of mercy. As we daily pick up our cross and walk with Christ, God molds us more and more into the perfect image of his Son, who was tempted as we are and yet never gave way to sins like pride and selfishness. God matures in us the new life that He gives us when we believe in Christ, repent of sin and turn to Christ as our Savior and Lord, and are baptized. (Matthew 18:18-20; Acts 2:38) He enables us to die to sin and to live for righteousness, something that we are unable to do on our own.
As Titus 2 tells us, "For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ,who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works."
J. R. Miller has some thoughts on dying to self and yielding to Christ as Lord of our lives:
"There is no blue sky in the picture, of which SELF is the center. There are no stars shining overhead. It begins and ends in a little patch of dusty floor, with gray walls surrounding it and shutting it in. But when SELF decreases—and Christ increases, then the picture is enlarged and takes in all of heaven's over-arching beauty. Then the stars shine down into its night and sunshine bathes its day.
Then the life of friction and worry is changed into quietness and peace. When the glory of Christ streams over this little, cramped, fretted, broken life of ours—peace comes, and the love of Christ brightens every spot and sweetens all bitterness. Trials are easy to bear when self is small—and Christ is large.
We are apt to grow weary of the bitter, sorrowful struggle that goes on in our hearts, evermore, between the old nature and the new nature, between the old self and the new Christ. It seems sometimes as if it never would be ended. It seems, too, at times, as if we were making no progress in the struggle, as if there were no decreasing of self—and no increasing of Christ. We find the old evil things unconquered still, after years of battling—the old envies and jealousies, the old tempers, the old greed, the old irritabilities, the old doubt and fear and unbelief. Will there never be release from this conflict?
Yes, if only we live patiently and bravely, in faith and love and loyalty, SELF will decrease—and Christ will increase until he fills our whole life. If we reach up ever toward the light—our past of failure and unworthiness will be left behind and we shall grow into the fullness of the stature of Christ! The new will conquer and expel the old—until it becomes "None of self—and all of Christ!""