Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it (Matthew 16:24-25).
I will show him how much he must suffer for my name (Acts 9:16).
Some people will go to almost any length to look good — literally, go to any length.
The Chinese Ministry of Health has issued an official statement that one of the most popular cosmetic surgeries in large Chinese cities poses serious risk of disfigurement. Ministry spokesman Mao Qunan warns that the surgery, which is available in many clinics alongside more conventional cosmetic procedures, "must only be carried out for strict medical reasons and performed in authorized hospitals." At least ten people are reported to have been badly disfigured by the surgery in the past year.
The surgery in question is leg-lengthening. It involves (grab hold of something) breaking the legs and stretching them on a rack. Apparently, height is often listed as a requirement for most jobs and many schools in China. Many employers require a height of 1.65 meters for women and 1.75 meters for men. Height has also become increasingly important to potential mates, as both men and women want taller children. Because of those expectations and ideals, many Chinese are choosing to undergo the painful and potentially disfiguring surgery.
I wonder where the Chinese got the idea that being thought of as attractive, or getting a better job or into a better school, was worth suffering for? I wonder how they could have possibly come to the conclusion that having your body broken, manipulated, rearranged, and altered by a surgeon simply to meet their society's standard of beauty is worth paying for?
That's so ... so ... American.
Really though, despite the fact that we live in a country in which people pay large percentages of their income to have their noses broken and reshaped, or their tummies tucked, or fat sucked out of one part of their body and injected into another, or botulinum toxin injected into their faces, America has hardly cornered the market. Human beings have always practiced the "modifying" of the body to meet certain standards of aesthetic or moral value. Frequently those modifications are painful, and sometimes even horrific.
It seems that human beings all understand that some things are worth suffering to achieve. It's just a question of what matters most.
The media tide that rises around our knees every day carries images and ideals — idols, even — that human beings choose to believe is worth their suffering. If we aren't willing to have surgery, many of us sweat at gyms hoping that a treadmill will transform us into the body type our gods demand. Or we pay ridiculous amounts of money for labels and styles and fabrics that the fashion gods decree are "holy" — or at least popular in Milan and Paris. Many studies suggest that eating disorders among young women and even young men are rising to unprecedented levels. The harsh gods of Beauty and Style even make a claim on what and how we eat.
So we know what it is to suffer for our gods. Strange that we don't seem to be so willing to suffer for our faith.
And Bonhoeffer didn't make that up out of thin air. Jesus equated being a disciple with carrying a cross — and a person only carried a cross to his death. In a great contradiction, he claimed that life is not found in holding on to it with a white-knuckled grip, but in giving it up for him. It's human nature to preserve the self, of course. Quite intelligently, we shy away from stepping out onto limbs that look too thin to support our weight. And yet that's what Jesus asks us to do: take note of the fact that the limb doesn't look like it'll hold us, and then step out onto it anyway, knowing that whether it holds or breaks we're following our Master.
It was onto just such a limb that Jesus invited Paul, then called Saul, to step. The Lord called Saul to leave behind a life of relative ease, comfort, and respect for a bending, swaying branch of constant travel, death threats, poverty, prison, and turmoil. And, no doubt trembling a little, Saul took the step, because what else could he do? Jesus had spoken to him. His Lord had bid Saul to come and die, and so Saul went and died.
If we think that Saul's story is unusual, it's only because we have such a limited idea of what following Jesus involves. It doesn't always make life easier; sometimes it makes life harder. It doesn't always answer all our questions; sometimes it just raises new ones. In this age when churches trip all over themselves to provide more services to their "customers," in the end, following Jesus isn't about consuming services as much as it's about being consumed by service. It's pouring out our lives, offering up our preferences and desires and dreams and hopes in favor of his.
"I will show him how much he must suffer for my name," Jesus said to Ananias about Saul. He could say it about any of us, too. And we need to hear. We need to hear him tell us what he would have us suffer for him, so we can walk into discipleship with eyes wide open. We need to understand that following him means the death of selfishness, greed, lust, and self-determination. It means that we will find ourselves in uncomfortable situations, that we will be asked to do without things we didn't think we could do without, and that we might have to choose between him and people who matter to us. It means that we will have to struggle against some of our own inclinations, and to give up some of our favorite coping mechanisms. It might mean being misunderstood and misrepresented.
But, it's not all about what we give up. It's barely about that at all, in fact. In losing our lives for him, remember, Jesus promises that we will find life. What he asks us to give up, he replaces — with far better alternatives. He gives us new dreams, new hopes — and new certainties. He accepts us, loves us, and gives us reason to live. And then he gives us an eternity to live it.
I promise, I would never pull your leg about that.