Last week, I had a conversation with my doctor as part of a routine follow-up (just one of the perks of surviving another birthday). I am proud to say that all my numbers are improving, thanks to a nutritional plan that he recommended I follow. Part of the conversation included my continued craving for the doughnut I had been denying myself. The doctor then stated, “Don’t think about these things as things that you are denying yourself of enjoying; instead, think of all the things you are providing for yourself by your restraint.” As I think about what he said, I remember that I would rather enjoy cardiac health and longer life than three minutes of refined sugar and saturated fat, however delightful those three minutes may be.
I am a big proponent of delayed gratification (the practice of foregoing instant, but temporary, pleasure with the hope of receiving a permanent, and greater, blessing). There is a problem that I see as I exercise discretion through delayed gratification: I tend to focus on what I am refusing and neglect to fix my gaze on what I am gaining. I know that I am skipping dessert when everyone else is indulging; what I need to know is that these tiny steps of obedience are enabling me to spend time with my theoretical four-year-old granddaughter drinking imaginary tea at her make-believe soiree. These are the thoughts that make baked goods (even the always delicious hermits) resistible.
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 (NIV)
Yesterday, as I celebrated my birthday, I spent a few moments reflecting on my past 53 years and all the things I wish I had accomplished by now. I spent time ruing some of the choices of my youth (refusing to limit my spending in order to afford some savings, allowing myself to take shortcuts which lessened both my workload and my stamina) and regretted the nevers of my middle-age (never owning my own home, never travelling to Europe). These moments of reflection upon my dalliances with instant gratification have not discouraged me; they increase my resolve to engage in the sacrifices I must make to seize the future God desires for me.
So, as get up early to spend some time in Bible reading, I pray that I will not focus on the sleep that I am missing but rather upon the deep well of scripture that I am drilling for the day of spiritual dryness. As I spend time in concerted prayer, I pray that I will not dwell on the television show I am missing but rather the conversations with God and the concerns for others that I am finding. As I limit my daily caloric intake, I pray that I will not fixate on the dietary restrictions but rather the increased days that discipline will add to my life.
The only way I can remain ‘on track’ for the long haul is not by thinking about each painful step, but by thinking of the finish line. May we all finish strong the race set before us through self-denial and seeking the greater joy.
There are fascinating details surrounding the final hours of Jesus’ earthly ministry. It is comforting to know that the impending suffering of our Savior did not cause a panic in His heart: His matter-of -fact planning of the Passover, His peaceful interactions with the disciples (including His betrayer) and His willful arrest on bogus charges. It is also comforting to know that His concern was not on His future alone, but also for the future of those He loved. Above all, it is comforting to know that Jesus prayed for those around Him when His hour of darkness had arrived.
As the Lord and His followers made their way from Passover meal in the upper room to the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus has a conversation with Peter. Jesus told Peter that the enemy wanted His destruction, but Jesus also told him that He has prayed that Peter’s faith would not fail. Jesus told him that he’d deny knowing Him three times before daybreak. Jesus finally promised Peter that he would be restored and, in turn, strengthen the others. And it all happened just as Jesus predicted – Peter did, in fact, cave into the pressure of the situation and deny the Lord three times, the last denial to a young servant girl.
Then he went out to the gateway, where another servant girl saw him and said to the people there, “This fellow was with Jesus of Nazareth.” He denied it again, with an oath: “I don’t know the man!” Matthew 26:71-72
What would make a burly fisherman like Peter cower before a kid? What would make a grown man lie to a child just hours after being told he would? Was it self-preservation, a ruse to escape the same fate as Jesus? Was it fear, a deceptive word to avoid suspicion? It is impossible to know what was going through Peter’s mind as he fielded questions and followed Christ from a safe distance. It is possible to relate to Peter’s experience: we all have times when the risk of confrontation supersedes our core beliefs and common sense.
I am not good with confrontation: there have been times that a restaurant server gave me something other than what I ordered and said nothing, that I have listened to a long list of inaccurate statements and offered no corrections, that neighbors have taken my parking space or celebrated too late too loudly and I have suffered silently. I’d like to frame my inaction as a virtue – patience or tolerance – but this behavior ought to be more properly defined as something less noble. It may be better framed as cowardice or insecurity. I’d like to think that that I would stand tall when facing the big challenges. It is something that I am continually working on.
Like Peter, I am grateful that Jesus knows my heart, knows my need, knows my weaknesses, and intercedes for me. Like Peter, I am susceptible to denial in casual conversations and to cowardice when it comes to the things of faith. Like Peter, I have been restored and equipped for service in building the kingdom and strengthening the saints. It is good to have weekends like this to remind people like us that Jesus came to save sinners like me.