Jesus said... "If anyone wishes to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me."
You remember how to play Simon-Says, don't you? It's probably been a few years. It's the children's game where a leader gives verbal commands that are to be followed if and only if they are preceded by an explicit statement of permission bearing the warrant of mighty Simon himself. Non-"Simon-Says" commands are worthless, and following them only gets you in trouble.
Aside from being fun (for a few minutes anyway), the game also helps kids work on motor skills, coordination, listening skills, manners, and respecting authority. But shhhh... don't tell them that.
I'm not convinced the game's so popular these days, as everyone's more interested in raising leaders than followers anymore, but I digress.
Let's just look closely at the three actions in the verse above, which begins not with "Simon Says," but rather "Then Jesus said..."
1) Turn Around ("let him deny himself..."). This is what denying one's self is all about. Repentance. Seeing things God's way. Going from darkness to light. Playing the fool for God. Even the notion of playing a child's game is apropos here, as we must not use our own adult human knowledge and wisdom to accomplish this step, but instead we die to self and come willingly in faith like a child.
2) Bend Over, Stand Up ("take up his cross..."). When you pick up the cross, you have to set down other burdens, the other things that you tend to think define "you." Taking up your cross does not equal the burden of being you, your identity. You are indeed unique, but each day you should take on something new from Christ that makes you more like Him.
3) Go Forward ("...and follow Me"). Following = sacrificial living. It's advancement toward a Kingdom goal. In Matthew 8:1 we find that when Jesus "had come down from the mountain, great multitudes followed Him." He had just finished teaching them; they had received instruction from one who had no place to lay his head and was feeding thousands on mere loaves and fishes. Moving forward in the Kingdom can only involve putting others in front of self. Is it really all that foreign to us? People sacrifice all the time to climb ladders in their career and for other personal goals. Why not sacrifice without the ladders?
Intersecting Faith & Life: Is this verse, are these three instructions, hard, or easy? The answer depends on perspective. Quitting smoking looks easy to the non-smoker, but the smoker must take it one minute, one day, one step at a time. Losing weight is a manageable goal for most, but if the focus is on losing 60 pounds in the first day the dieter is fighting a losing battle. Make it your goal to Turn Around, Bend Over/Stand Up, and Go Forward one day this week and see where playing "Jesus Said" takes you.