I think it’s pretty clear from the gospels that if Jesus did anything, he certainly died for our sins in obedience to God his Father. He did this not because it was fun and thrilling, but because he though it would be effective on our behalf. I’m sure that Jesus would have preferred to go do fun things, have nice vacations, etc. But instead, he chose the suffering and the death. And for those of us who claim to be Christian, we should be careful that we are not living our lives in the constant pursuit of pleasure as well. There is no place for that in Christianity – we need to be about the work of identifying with Jesus’ example of suffering, self-denial, self-sacrifice.
24 Then Jesus said to His disciples, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me.
25 For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it.
26 For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul?
27 For the Son of Man is going to come in the glory of His Father with His angels, and will then repay every man according to his deeds.
12 Whoever exalts himself shall be humbled; and whoever humbles himself shall be exalted.
25 He who loves his life loses it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it to life eternal.
26 If anyone serves Me, he must follow Me; and where I am, there My servant will be also; if anyone serves Me, the Father will honor him.
Our lives are supposed to be about taking up our crosses and following Jesus. Not having fun or pursuing thrills. Sometimes I say that to people I mentor who have been raised in the church, who love to read devotionals and Bible study, who love to go to church. And what I find is that they disagree and think that the purpose of life is to do easy things that make them feel good and that make other people think that they are something special. It is an article of faith for them that you can make a difference for God by choosing the easiest, funnest and most thrilling option throughout your life and that God will work this into an effective life. But Jesus didn’t think like that. In fact, I cannot think of a single case in the Bible where Jesus chose fun and thrills. Jesus chose the cross. He was not trying to have good feelings or to be liked by lots of people. And we are supposed to be following in his steps.
Christian self-sacrifice is all about denying desires and interests which interfere with our ability to follow Jesus. For example, one of my goals is to follow Jesus through charity. So I went into a field that was not easy for me, took jobs that I did not like, and put away investments instead of spending – all so that I would be able to invest in others as a way of imitating the self-denial and self-sacrifice of Jesus, with the goal of making a difference. I am trying to stop looking out for number one, and starting looking out for Jesus. And if I have to do things that I don’t feel like doing, well so much the worse for me. And let me tell you, investing in people who then betray you at the deepest level is no fun. And yet I must keep giving away money to people joyfully, even after this happens. I have to continue to care for others and to deny myself. It is not good for my self-love and self-esteem to be hurt when I invest in others, but it is following Jesus.
So I want to say three things about this based on my own personal experiences.
The first thing to say is that a good spiritual leader is one who leads us to be more like Jesus. And that means helping us be better less interested in fun, less interested in thrills, less interested in travel, less interested in vanity. And so on. For example, if what you are trying to do with your life now is the exact same thing that you were trying to do with your life before you became a Christian, it’s a good sign that you are deceiving yourself that your plan is from God. A good spiritual leader is able to spot when you are wrapping your pre-conversion desire in a cloak of religious language. In my own case, if you ask me to lead you, you’ll find that I’ll push you away from things that do not work to serve God. But there’s more to self-denial than just avoiding fun, there’s self-control. Don’t do stuff just so that you can tell everyone about it on Facebook. An outspoken supporter of intelligent design I know proudly posted that she had been admitted to a prestigious graduate school on her Facebook page, and she lost her academic adviser. We need to have humility, wisdom and self-control if we expect to have an impact for Christ. A good spiritual leader can sense when you are just doing stuff in order to impress other people, and he will tell you not to do that.
The second thing to say is that a bad spiritual leader does not make us more like Jesus. A bad spiritual leader is someone who says yes to other people in order to be liked by them. He is not able to understand what will and will not work – especially in areas where he has no experience. A bad spiritual leader is someone who is more concerned about making a name for himself by using Christianity to become popular and admired. A bad spiritual leader is someone who lacks self-control. Instead of looking around to others to see how he can help them, he looks out for himself and undermines others for his own benefit. Instead of seeking the good of others, he helps himself to good things for his own appetites, and takes away the good things that others need. I also think that in general, a bad spiritual leader is someone who lacks life experience. For example, do not take advice on professional and financial matters from someone who is still a student in her late 20s and who has never worked a paid job. She will not know what you should do financially or professionally.
The final thing I have to say is about the kind of person who rejects a good spiritual mentor and chooses a bad one. I want to advise you to be careful about rejecting people with real experience of following Jesus. That is, people who have actually engaged in acts of self-denial, self-sacrifice, etc. in order to be more like Christ. People who have studied things they did not like. Worked at jobs they did not want to. Given away money to people who did not appreciate it. Mentored people to serve God who were rebellious and emotional. Do not choose people who are easy to control, e.g. – people who are younger or less mature than you are, to be your mentor. Do not choose people who say yes to your desire to feel good or to have fun because they only want to be liked by you. Be careful of choosing advisers who lack maturity and who are easy to manipulate because of their need for attention. It’s better to prefer the people who labor in service to others without wanting attention drawn to themselves. It’s better to prefer the people who tell you no and point you towards self-denial, self-control and self-sacrifice. This is real spiritual leadership – pointing you towards the example of Jesus.
If you look back in your past and see yourself making bad decision after bad decision because you hid things from good spiritual leaders so you could have fun, you know you are vulnerable to doing this. If you know you have sought out the approval of poor inexperienced leaders deliberately, then you ought to know better. You cannot make a bad plan work by pushing away mature spiritual leaders and surrounding yourself with young, immature, emotion-driven advisers. You need to prefer people who tell you the truth about what you are doing, even if it is uncomfortable for you – that is the wise thing to do. Do not seek out advisers who tell you that your feelings are the voice of God speaking to you – that is just telling you what you want to hear. The first part of exercising self-control is not letting your emotions affect strategic decisions.
If you want to read more about self-denial, here’s a lecture to read by Charles Finney.