In my last blog post, “The Power of Propaganda,” I mentioned a very important book published in 2010 titled, “When A Nation Forgets God: 7 Lessons We Must Learn From Nazi Germany,” by Dr. Erwin Lutzer, senior pastor of Moody Church in Chicago. I focused primarily on Chapter 4 which is titled, “Propaganda Can Change a Nation.” However, there is so much crucial information in this book that I simply could not touch on most of it in a blog post. I highly recommend this book for those who are concerned about the direction our nation has taken over the past several decades.
I’ve been a Christian most of my life since the day I accepted Jesus Christ as my Savior when I was ten years old at my home church back in Iowa. Now that I am 63, I’ve witness major changes in the church over the past several decades. Today we have a church that very much celebrates success, money, and materialism, and it is thought of as being “normal” if things (like careers) just keep getting better and better with bigger salaries and more prestige. Our lifestyles mirror our culture more then they mirror our Christianity. And social media has added to this intense focus on self and success. Sometimes I think that if I have to view one more “selfie” taken by anyone on Facebook I’m going to cry. This intense focus on self would be laughable if it wasn’t so tragically common among us. And in the process, those of us who consider ourselves to be Christian miss the reality of what genuine Christianity is all about. Even much of what passes as modern Christian music today focuses on self and feeling good, and often is full of words that are just plain bad theology. It’s often filled with “feel good” pop psychology. And we have replaced feelings for facts and made feelings what we go by in judging so much that we think, do, and say.
There is a surface type of Christianity that blankets our culture that is about an inch deep, and most folks don’t have any issues with it as it basically has little meaning or substance to it. And it certainly isn’t the type to cause waves. And for people who claim to believe in Jesus Christ, what exactly do they believe? I’m not sure anymore that we (e.g., those of us who call ourselves Christian) even believe what is actually required of us when we read (and if we read) verses where Jesus clearly stated the following to those who claim to follow him:
Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” ~Matthew 16:24
Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” ~Mark 8:34
Then he said to them all: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.” ~Luke 9:23
“And whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” ~Luke 14:27
Denying ourselves is something we don’t do well here in America. In fact, if anyone comes along stating otherwise or challenging our materialistic lifestyles, we have no problem mocking them openly with disdaining looks or callous words. After all, it doesn’t fit into our image of “Positive Christianity” (Hitler actually coined the term–see link here) that is so prolific “from sea to shining sea.” And if we don’t look and act the part of “success” (we want fancy titles to impress others along with bigger salaries to go along with it) that is so prevalent in the eyes of our culture, we think there must be something wrong. Even housewives aren’t housewives anymore. They are “domestic engineers.” So who are we trying to impress? Mostly ourselves, I think. And we crave everything the culture craves, and we have turned Christianity in America into a multi-billion dollar business. And, apparently, we’d all like to be on that bandwagon.
In answer to the question, “What did Jesus mean when he said, ‘Take up your cross and following me‘”?, GotQuestions.org gives a straightforward answer:
Let’s begin with what Jesus didn’t mean. Many people interpret “cross” as some burden they must carry in their lives: a strained relationship, a thankless job, a physical illness. With self-pitying pride, they say, “That’s my cross I have to carry.” Such an interpretation is not what Jesus meant when He said, “Take up your cross and follow Me.”
When Jesus carried His cross up Golgotha to be crucified, no one was thinking of the cross as symbolic of a burden to carry. To a person in the first-century, the cross meant one thing and one thing only: death by the most painful and humiliating means human beings could develop.
Two thousand years later, Christians view the cross as a cherished symbol of atonement, forgiveness, grace, and love. But in Jesus’ day, the cross represented nothing but torturous death. Because the Romans forced convicted criminals to carry their own crosses to the place of crucifixion, bearing a cross meant carrying their own execution device while facing ridicule along the way to death.
Therefore, “Take up your cross and follow Me” means being willing to die in order to follow Jesus. This is called “dying to self.” It’s a call to absolute surrender. After each time Jesus commanded cross bearing, He said, “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?” (Luke 9:24-25). Although the call is tough, the reward is matchless.
Wherever Jesus went, He drew crowds. Although these multitudes often followed Him as Messiah, their view of who the Messiah really was—and what He would do—was distorted. They thought the Christ would usher in the restored kingdom. They believed He would free them from the oppressive rule of their Roman occupiers. Even Christ’s own inner circle of disciples thought the kingdom was coming soon (Luke 19:11). When Jesus began teaching that He was going to die at the hands of the Jewish leaders and their Gentile overlords (Luke 9:22), His popularity sank. Many of the shocked followers rejected Him. Truly, they were not able to put to death their own ideas, plans, and desires, and exchange them for His.
Following Jesus is easy when life runs smoothly; our true commitment to Him is revealed during trials. Jesus assured us that trials will come to His followers (John 16:33). Discipleship demands sacrifice, and Jesus never hid that cost.
In Luke 9:57-62, three people seemed willing to follow Jesus. When Jesus questioned them further, their commitment was half-hearted at best. They failed to count the cost of following Him. None was willing to take up his cross and crucify upon it his own interests.
Therefore, Jesus appeared to dissuade them. How different from the typical Gospel presentation! How many people would respond to an altar call that went, “Come follow Jesus, and you may face the loss of friends, family, reputation, career, and possibly even your life”? The number of false converts would likely decrease! Such a call is what Jesus meant when He said, “Take up your cross and follow Me.”
If you wonder if you are ready to take up your cross, consider these questions:
• Are you willing to follow Jesus if it means losing some of your closest friends?
• Are you willing to follow Jesus if it means alienation from your family?
• Are you willing to follow Jesus if it means the loss of your reputation?
• Are you willing to follow Jesus if it means losing your job?
• Are you willing to follow Jesus if it means losing your life?
In some places of the world, these consequences are reality. But notice the questions are phrased, “Are you willing?” Following Jesus doesn’t necessarily mean all these things will happen to you, but are you willing to take up your cross? If there comes a point in your life where you are faced with a choice—Jesus or the comforts of this life—which will you choose?
Commitment to Christ means taking up your cross daily, giving up your hopes, dreams, possessions, even your very life if need be for the cause of Christ. Only if you willingly take up your cross may you be called His disciple (Luke 14:27). The reward is worth the price. Jesus followed His call of death to self (“Take up your cross and follow Me”) with the gift of life in Christ: “For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it” (Matthew 16:25-26). (Quote source here.)
We have too often replaced the cross with a dollar sign and the image of success. We don’t admit it but our lifestyles and how we treat others proves it out. Actions do speak louder than words, or singing worship songs in church on Sunday morning. The proof is in how we live every moment of everyday. And if we don’t really understand just what the cross means in our lives, we will put on a good show with all of the substitutes we have replaced it with. And that is exactly what the Pharisees did back in Jesus’ day–they put on a good show for others and craved the attention they received, too.
In the last chapter of Dr. Lutzer’s book (Chapter 7 titled, “We Must Exalt the Cross in the Gathering Darkness,”) I want to share his closing words to us. It is critical that we understand what he is saying to us:
Here in America we have what many believe is a new phenomenon in the history of the church. In previous eras we have seen the Gospel neglected or even mocked by religious liberals and nominal Christians–that is to be expected. What is different today is that the message of the cross is being ignored even by those who claim to be saved by its message. At the very time when the Gospel must be proclaimed most clearly, we are hearing muffled voices even from some of the great evangelical pulpits of our land. Christian books flood our markets that have little to do with the heart of the Christian message.
Here are a few substitutes for the message of the Gospel that I have observed:
- God wants you to experience physical healing.
- God wants you to be healthy and wealthy too.
- Jesus will help you be a better businessman, parent, entrepreneur, etc.
- God wants you to cheerily face life by knowing “God is for you”–whether you’ve repented of sin or not.
- God’s will for you is good nutrition, physical exercise, and in general, living the good life.
- The message of Christianity is community–not the cross.
In the evangelical community, psychology is substituted for theology and cheap grace has replaced what Bonhoeffer described as “costly grace.” In short, we have lost our intellectual and spiritual center and replaced it with consumerism, self-help, and the quest for personal advantage. We are self-absorbed rather than God-absorbed. And we can see the results.
A Final Glimpse of Germany
The most discerning analysis that I’ve read about the failure of the church in Nazi Germany was given by an evangelical pastor who preached a moving sermon to his weary congregation. His words should cause us to stop and ponder their relevance to us in America.
In April 1945, amid the ruins of a defeated Germany, Helmut Thielicke, a German theologian and pastor, spoke movingly to his congregation in Stuttgart about the meaning of all that had happened. In a message that surely must have left his congregation spellbound, he, in effect, said that the nation got what it deserved because it had “repudiated forgiveness and kicked down the cross of the Lord.”
In his powerful critique of what had gone wrong in a nation that was “Christian,” Thielicke said that the cross of Christ has been neglected and thus the church was blinded to Germany’s militarism. The church had overlooked its greatest danger, namely, that in gaining the whole world it might “lose its own soul.” The heart of the matter, he said, was this: “Denying God and casting down the cross is never a merely private decision that concerns only my own inner life and my personal salvation, but this denial immediately brings the most brutal consequences for the whole of historical life and especially for our own people. ‘God is not mocked.’ The history of the world can tell us terrible tales based on that text.”
In history, he says, the invisible is mightier than the visible. Anybody who still had not grasped that Germany with its program “was wrecked precisely on this dangerous rock called ‘God’ and nothing else has no eyes to see. Because he sees only individual catastrophes he no longer sees the basic, cardinal catastrophe behind them all.”
Finally, he reminded his listeners that “the worship of success is generally the form of idol worship the devil cultivates most assiduously . . . We could observe in the first years after 1933 the almost suggestive compulsion that emanates from great successes and how under the influence of these successes even Christians stopped asking in whose name and at what price they were achieved. Success is the greatest narcotic of all.”
Casting down the cross of Christ! Intoxicated with success! Substituting the temporary for the permanent! Thus was the church and the entire country crushed, crushed on the rock called God, “who is not mocked.” Destroyed for being blinded by the pride of nationalism instead of being humbled by its great need for repentance. The church stood with pride, but it would not bow in humility. The church neglected the cross and had to live with the consequences.
It’s Our Turn
The Christian church has suffered throughout the centuries, and now it appears as if it is our turn. Like the early apostles, we will find that our commitment to share the Gospel will run counter to the laws of the land. We must ask ourselves: At what point do we have to because lawbreakers rather than betray our faith? At what price are we willing to take the cross into the world and identify with our Savior? How do we both love the people of the world and yet oppose the agenda of those who would crush the Gospel?
These are questions well beyond the scope of this chapter. But I believe it is time that we all began to live for eternity–not time, and for Christ–not ourselves. We must realize that our public effectiveness is largely based on our private relationship with God. The American church participates in many of the same sins as the world. Our passion for God is smothered, and our vision is marred. “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God,” said Christ (Matthew 5:8).
When we come to the foot of the cross, it is there that we area finally broken; it is there that we learn to reach out to our confused and hurting world. The cross breaks down the barrier between us and the whole human race. Then we will no longer see ourselves as fighting the ACLU, the media, or the politicians. We must rid ourselves of the mentality that says, in effect, “If we just cleared all of them out, all would be well.” Not so. As Os Guinness said, the problem with this view is “that there is no problem in the wider culture that you cannot see in spades in the Christian Church. The rot is in us, and not simply out there. And Christians are making a great mistake by turning everything into culture wars. It’s a much deeper crisis.”
At last we come to the heart of the matter: the cross reminds us that the battle is not so much between church and state as it is within our own hearts. If Christ has all of us, if the cross stands above politics and the world as Bonhoeffer has reminded us, we shall overcome regardless of the cost.
As Christians we can welcome an assault on our freedoms as long as we see this conflict as an opportunity to bear an authentic witness for Christ. Without trivializing the great horror of what took place in Germany, it is nevertheless a fact that without suffering we would never have heard of a Neimoller or a Bonhoeffer or a Corrie ten Boom. Nor would we have read about thousands of courageous pastors, mothers, and fathers who kept living for God at great personal cost without any visible compensation in this life. Without suffering, God would not have seen their faith, which to Him is “more precious than gold” (1 Peter 1:7).
We must be confident that Christ will set the record straight. Those who are faithful to Him and His cross will be rewarded with “joy unspeakable and full of glory” (1 Peter 1:7-9). All rival crosses will be exposed and judged, and every knee shall bow and “every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:10-11).
Until then, God is glorified by our steadfastness. If we suffer faithfully, the cross will be exalted in the world. Bonhoeffer was right when he said “that it is before that cross and not before us that the world trembles.”
(The above is taken from “When A Nation Forgets God: 7 Lessons We Must Learn From Nazi Germany” (2010) by Dr. Erwin Lutzer, pp. 136-141.)
He who has ears to hear . . .
Let him hear . . . .
YouTube Video: “Gotta Serve Somebody” (Bob Dylan’s song) sung by Natalie Cole: