Jesus said “Whoever saves His life will lose it, but whoever loses His life for my sake and the gospel’s will find it.” This has several applications. When a person first accepts Christ, they lose their old life and find their new life in Jesus Christ. When a Christian dies physically, they find their new life with Him in Heaven. But in this case, it means that if we give up our plans for our lives- if we let go of all that we want to do- and give it all to God for Him to use, we will find the life that He has for us- the life that God intended for us to have from the very beginning! If we can simply stop clinging to the ways of our old life and of the world, and drop all that, and pick up God’s plans, then we will finally be able to serve Him the way He intends us to! And our impact on the Kingdom of God can be great, and our rewards in Heaven can be great- all it takes is for us to forsake our old path and follow God!
Jesus also said “Whoever wishes to come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” We must deny ourselves- that’s what we just concluded. But the second step is a little scarier- we must take up our cross. We need to remember, the Christian life isn’t a rose garden- it’s a battle. Things aren’t all going to be rainbows and lollipops for us. In fact, the Christian fight is often much more difficult than living the way the world would have us live. But what point is there to worldly life? What do we accomplish? Nothing! If we live for the flesh and for the world, we accomplish very little for God, and deep down, we will never feel satisfied with our work. But if we are willing to take up that cross, to stand through the pain, and follow Him, then think what we can do! If we as Christians were to really get fired up for God and go into the world serving Him, loving His people and showing them His loving sacrifice, think what a revolution it would cause! It just takes one spark to start a fire- we can be that spark! We simply have to be willing to lose our misconceptions about our own lives.
So how do we do this? The words sound great, sure, but how do we really apply them? How can we actually, physically take up our crosses? How can we really deny ourselves and give up our lives for Him? Easy! It’s all about our relationships- first and foremost, our relationship with God.
All we need to do is stay close with God! We need to keep that partnership close and treasure it! We can’t just leave it all to God and fail to do our part to serve Him. And we can’t try to go out there and change the world on our own. We need to keep in fellowship with the Holy Spirit. If we can stay constantly close with Him, then the rest will be easy!
So what are the steps to accomplishing this? Well, first, we need to pray. And I don’t mean pray before every meal and before we go to bed. I mean reallypray. Pray the way that God intended- really carry on a conversation with Him. How do we pray this way? Easy- stop viewing it as a one-sided conversation! It’s not sending God a letter- it’s getting on the phone with Him! It’s “real-time” conversation- and He really does talk to us! If you just take a little time, right now if you want to, and really experience a chat with God, that alone will really improve your relationship with Him! He doesn’t speak to you us out loud, like we do in our earthly conversations- but He really does answer us. And it isn’t like a reply that shows up in your inbox two weeks later- He really talks to us in real time, and if you learn to listen the right way, you can really feel His answers. You can’t complain about God not answering your prayers, because if you don’t think you got a reply, it’s because you weren’t listening to Him.
Think about this- in your real-life relationships, which ones are closest? Well, there are people whom you don’t even know, but you’ve talked to. Say you comment about the length of the check-out line at the grocery store to the cashier, and he laughs and gives some reply about the time of day. You don’t know that person at all. You’ve never even carried on a conversation. But you’ve said your piece, and they’ve said theirs, and you’re each going to move on with your own lives. Then there are your acquaintances- people you’ve met, and maybe chatted with a few times, but don’t really know personally.
And then there are your real friends. These are people you know well, people you’ve had many conversations with, many of them personal. These are people you can share anything with, who love you for who you are. These are the people that you are really close with.
What kind of relationship do you have with God? Are you in a clerk-and-customer relationship with Him? Is He just that God you ran into that one time when you were really struggling, but that you haven’t really thought about since? Or maybe, like a lot of Christians, you’ve reached acquaintance standing. You know who He is and what He does, but you don’t really know Him deeply- you don’t spend enough time with Him for that.
Or maybe you’ve finally found yourself to be God’s friend. Maybe you’ve spent long hours talking with Him. You don’t just know “of” Him anymore- you know Him. You’re truly good friends with God. That’s great! If you really have that intimate relationship with your savior, I congratulate you.
But remember, all relationships can be improved. There is no reason to be ashamed if you have a less-than-perfect relationship with God- because nobody has a perfect one! No matter how close anyone is to God, they can always grow closer.
Another big part of growing closer to God is spending time in His Word. Reading the Bible! God has sent you a letter- you have your own personal letter from God! Isn’t that amazing? So why do we so often neglect to even read that letter? The Bible is the direct Word of God- you’d be amazed how much closer to God you’ll feel if you just spend more time reading it! If you stop viewing time in the Word as a chore and start viewing it as a privilege, you’re well on your way. If you just force yourself to take 15 minutes a day to read the Bible and keep that up for at least a month, you’ll soon find that 15 minutes isn’t nearly enough! Once you’ve developed that appetite for God’s Word, you won’t be able to get enough. Because when you read His Word, you can just feel Him sitting next to you, reading over your shoulder.
Another huge part of improving that relationship with God is obeying Him. Jesus said “You are my friend if you obey my commands.” If you really want to be close with God, then you’ll obey Him! It’s the natural response to loving someone- you want to show them that. After spending more time in prayer and in His Word, then the next step is to really obey and serve Him.
This is the tricky step. Prayer and reading the Bible, though sometimes difficult habits to pick up, are not physically difficult things to do. But obeying Him can sometimes be very hard. Our flesh desperately wants to live the way the world lives- and the world around us is desperate to drag us in. We as Christians need to stand strong for our faith and obey Him! It can be so hard at times, but like these other two, once you’ve chosen the path of righteousness enough times, sin will really begin to lose its grip. If you’ve got that close relationship with God, then it makes it so much easier to live for Him- why would you rebel against one whom you love so much?
Again, none of this is going to be easy, especially at first. But if you can just stick to it, stand strong through the storm at the beginning, then it will become so much easier. Once you’ve built up the foundation of that relationship, then the rest is smooth(ish) flying. Granted, there will still be a ton of speed bumps. God promises us that we will suffer for him. But this is not a disadvantage- it is a massive privilege! Imagine, being able to sacrifice your preferences and comforts for the one who made the ultimate sacrifice for you!
Now remember, all of us as Christians are at different stages in the building of this relationship. Some have barely begun the foundation, while others are building it into a skyscraper- but none is better than another. God’s love is the same for everyone, and no matter how close you are to God, God still loves that new believer who’s still struggling with the ways of their old life just as much. So rather than making it a contest, build each other up! We’re the body of Christ, and part of being a member of the body is assisting other members of the body in their walk. Christianity is help up by love, and love is supported by a network of relationships- first with God, and then with your brothers and sisters in Christ. It’s all about relationships. Though our relationship with God is our top priority, our relationships with our brothers and sisters in Christ are the next most vital part of our Christian walk. Because a faith that’s all about love is, by necessity, also rooted and grounded in relationships.
Do you realize yet that relationships, especially with God but also with brothers and sisters in Him, are the manifestation of the love that we have seen is at the core of Christianity? Love can’t exist without a recipient, and that’s why it’s imperative that we actively love both God and people. Love needs to be at the core of our lives, because it is at the center of our faith. And because of this, we find that for a Christian, it’s all about relationships.