Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul?” — Matthew 16.24-26
The first way to live a religious life is to dedicate yourself to a community of observance, generosity, grace, hope, repentance, and discipline. The second, when we speak of religion pejoratively, is to leverage religious practice for personal gain (prosperity gospel), pride and judgment of others (moralism), or self salvation (legalism).
Jesus’ calling to deny one’s self is given not to the irreligious, but the religious. Will we, the faithful, stop trying to leverage our faith to get what we want? Thomas à Kempis explains:
Jesus has many lovers of His heavenly kingdom, but few bearers of His cross. He has many seekers of consolation, but few of tribulation. He finds many companions at His feasting, but few at His fasting. All desire to rejoice in Him; few are willing to endure anything for Him.
Many follow Jesus as far as the breaking of bread, but few to the drinking of the cup of His passion. Many reverence His miracles, but few will follow the shame of His cross. Many love Jesus as long as no adversaries befall them.
Nearly every great Christian mind has written on this struggle. Religious people in every generation, it seems, have been good at justifying the wide and comfortable road. Søren Kierkegaard believed our dedication to self-preservation is masked in any theological conversation that doesn’t bring us back to the cost of true discipleship:
The matter is quite simple. The Bible is very easy to understand. But we Christians are a bunch of scheming swindlers. We pretend to be unable to understand it because we know very well that the minute we understand we are obliged to act accordingly.
Take any words in the New Testament and forget everything except pledging yourself to act accordingly. My God, you will say, if I do that my whole life will be ruined. How would I ever get on in the world?
Dreadful it is to fall into the hands of the living God. Yes, it is even dreadful to be alone with the New Testament.