You choose the one you think is hardest to obey.

“Be holy in all your conduct” (I Peter 1:15). He expands it by saying, “since it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy’” (16, quoted from Leviticus 11:44). In other words, “Be like God.” Okay, I’ll give it my best shot.

“Do not be anxious about anything” (Philippians 4:6). Anything?  I get tripped up, and before I even realize it, I am worrying. I learned it early in life. So did you. We did it five thousand times by the time we were ten. How do I unlearn what is so much a part of my life? I know how to worry without even thinking.

“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice” (Philippians 4:1). I could handle, “Rejoice in the Lord sometimes.” “Always” takes it to the unattainable. Not always sure I want to rejoice always. Don’t I need a little time once in a while to be grouchy? “Always” is totally unreasonable. (Maybe that’s why it’s in the Book).

“Be imitators of God, as beloved children” (Ephesians 5:1). Right! I can imitate my father, who was a gentle man. I can imitate my mother who was always gracious to people. But to imitate the Creator, that’s a tough one. He is kind to people who curse in His face. He waters their garden and shines the sun on their backyard party.

Did I omit one of your favorite impossibilities? How about, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23). Really? “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44). Yeah, right! The opposite of our natural inclination. Here’s a tough one: “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). Try that out for a day.  Or “Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!” (Psalm 27:14). Waiting is easy–when we want to.

Here’s the point:  Every command is impossible. Would God command us to do something that we don’t need Him to accomplish? Then He would be teaching us independence rather than submission. James said powerfully, “Submit to God.” The only way we can keep His commands is by submitting ourselves to Him and relying on the strength of the Spirit within. They cannot happen apart from the powerful working of the indwelling Holy Spirit.

The Christian life is a supernatural life. It is simply not doable in the natural. No other religion incorporates grace. They are all “do it yourself” religions. Christianity demands the divine. Sad that sometimes people get the idea that we are supposed to pull this off by will power. How frustrating can you get! It’s laughable; go ahead–be like God. These commands run absolutely opposite our human inclination. But our good God reproduces Himself in us, enabling us to obey and do the impossible. Call it grace–from start to finish!


That’s meant for medieval mystics. They had no earthly possessions, ate a meager diet, and  had none of the pleasures we know about. “Deny yourself” fits their mentality better than ours. We have family and work relationships. We honor one another and expect to be treated in kind. When that does not happen, a bell goes off. Someone is crossing a line. I have a right to be listened to, valued for my contribution.

Picture Jesus on his way to the cross, being devalued, ridiculed, spit up, whipped, mocked. He had said to would-be followers, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.” We easily criticize the millennials for their entitlement mentality. We often embrace the same outlook if we are disrespected, ignored, or criticized, as if we deserve better treatment. Jesus didn’t.

To go the way of the cross is to embrace pain and maybe mistreatment. It means to be overlooked when you thought you would be admired. Those who learn how to accept this road as normal Christianity are the holiest people on earth–and therefore the happiest. Joy comes most fully to those who don’t aim for it, who learn to choose short-term pain for long-term gain, who don’t say they deserve more than what Jesus got, who know they are aliens here and at home in the new earth, who embrace Peter’s word that we rejoice in the coming kingdom, “though now for a little while you may have to suffer various trials” (I Peter 1:6). Marriage problems escalate because we thought it was going to be easier than this.

Self-denial is not only meant for desert monks but for contagious Christians. It’s for people who desire a marriage twenty degrees above average, who would like to transform their workplace from a smog-infested atmosphere of negativism into a pleasant environment for friends.

People who don’t know how to deny themselves

.are taking themselves too seriously

.ride the up and down roller coaster of living by their circumstances

.take up offenses on a regular basis


People who have learned to deny themselves

.are hard to offend

.don’t feel entitled to having things go their way

.consider a hard day a really good day


It took the disciples several years to get it. Once they got it, they lived that way–and died that way. Thank God for their examples of how to really live. Andrew, our oldest, named his son Elliot to remind his family that “he is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose.” People who deny themselves stick out, like Phil and Margaret, Karen’s parents, who have lived this way most of their life. Rubbed off on Karen, and by God’s good grace it is finding expression in our kids. I told them, “Serve. Don’t expect to be served. When you go to your friend’s, do the dishes. Servants have responsibilities, not rights. Accept your responsibilities without claiming your rights, and happiness sneaks up on you.” So go ahead–deny yourself!