One day when large groups of people were walking along with him, Jesus turned and told them, "Anyone who comes to me but refuses to let go of father, mother, spouse, children, brothers, sisters—yes, even one's own self!—can't be my disciple. Anyone who won't shoulder his own cross and follow behind me can't be my disciple.
"Is there anyone here who, planning to build a new house, doesn't first sit down and figure the cost so you'll know if you can complete it? If you only get the foundation laid and then run out of money, you're going to look pretty foolish. Everyone passing by will poke fun at you: 'He started something he couldn't finish.'
"Or can you imagine a king going into battle against another king without first deciding whether it is possible with his ten thousand troops to face the twenty thousand troops of the other? And if he decides he can't, won't he send an emissary and work out a truce?
"Simply put, if you're not willing to take what is dearest to you, whether plans or people, and kiss it good-bye, you can't be my disciple.
"Salt is excellent. But if the salt goes flat, it's useless, good for nothing.
"Are you listening to this? Really listening?"
If we are honest with ourselves this is one of the hardest passages in the Bible. It may be the most difficult of Jesus’ teachings. This idea of needing to let go of father, mother, sister, brother, and self is terribly difficult. Depending on your field of expertise this might be called differentiating or moving to adulthood. Every religious and spiritual tradition has some form of this teaching. There is something necessary and important about moving from over identification with one’s parents and family of origin. This family of origin is more than just the nuclear family, it’s all those voices of our home environment. We have to intentionally make a move beyond them.
As we read the stories of the Scriptures we see Abraham, Moses, and Jesus all leaving home. They all have to leave the safety of their homes to find their true selves. Leaving home is not just leaving family it is also leaving your old self behind to find your true self. Our identity is shaped by the voices that speak into our lives. We take those voices and shape ourselves. They feed our ego or we create layers of self-protection.
For us to move towards spiritual maturity we have to let the old self die. This is hard and it is painful. There is no way around it. To find our truest self, one that is rooted in the image of God, there is a death that is required. The death of our old self, our old ways, our old mind sets, our old self-protections. To truly live, we must first die.
This doesn’t mean that we have to create enmity between ourselves and others. In reality we find ourselves able to more fully love when we have done the work to put off the old self and take on the new.
Paul writes, “Now we look inside, and what we see is that anyone united with the Messiah gets a fresh start, is created new. The old life is gone; a new life burgeons! Look at it!”
Richard Rohr perceptively writes about this move, “Your false self is your role, title, and personal image that is largely a creation of your own mind and attachments. It will and must die in exact correlation to how much you want the Real (italics original, p 85 in Falling Upward).”
Jesus is coming at the false self that we each create. To live life as a new creation in Christ is to put to death the old self and its old ways. This is the work of “shouldering” our own cross each day. There is a necessary suffering, as Rohr calls it, in growing in spiritual maturity. Taking off the old self and putting on the new is painful.
I can think of no better image than C.S. Lewis describing this process in the saving of Eustace from The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Eustace had become a dragon by finding and falling asleep on a Dragon’s hoard. From reading the story we know this reality was in his heart all along. We, just like Eustace, need the false self removed.
“Then the lion said — but I don’t know if it spoke — You will have to let me undress you. I was afraid of his claws, I can tell you, but I was pretty nearly desperate now. So I just lay flat down on my back to let him do it.
“The very first tear he made was so deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart. And when he began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse than anything I’ve ever felt. The only thing that made me able to bear it was jut the pleasure of feeling the stuff peel off. You know — if you’ve ever picked the scab of a sore place. It hurts like billy-oh but it is such fun to see it coming away.”
“I know exactly what you mean,” said Edmund.
“Well, he peeled the beastly stuff right off – just as I thought I’d done it myself the other three times, only they hadn’t hurt – and there it was lying on the grass, only ever so much thicker, and darker, and more knobbly-looking than the others had been. And there was I smooth and soft as a peeled switch and smaller than I had been. Then he caught hold of me – I didn’t like that much for I was very tender underneath now that I’d no skin on — and threw me into the water. It smarted like anything but only for a moment. After that it became perfectly delicious and as soon as I started swimming and splashing I found that all the pain had gone from my arm. And then I saw why. I’d turned into a boy again. . . .”