Let me start off by saying I hate religion. I can’t stand it. The legalistic aspects of working for a god to love me has never quite seemed appealing.
But I do love Jesus. Following Jesus is a day-by-day and step-by-step journey that simply requires you to let God love you. This means that Jesus is not the leader of some insane religious movement, but instead the primary example of what it means to maintain a completely joyful and full life.
For 18 years, I was a very religious person: I read my bible every now and then, mumbled recited prayers before I went to bed, and attended church twice a week. Oh, and I had bible verses written on my basketball shoes—tell me I didn’t love Jesus!
But looking back, I really didn’t.
I said I loved Jesus—and even believed I did—because it was something I grew up with. My parents raised me in it, so it was something I felt like I had to be a part of. It’s like the Republican who hates Obama because they’ve grown up hearing how ‘evil’ Democrats are (and I can make that joke because I’m a Republican).
Halfway through my senior year of high school, I began to feel empty. Meaningless. Depressed. Life held no joy for me and waking up in the morning had become a burden. I was becoming so emotionally unstable that I had to carefully review my every move so that I wouldn’t fall back into a state of sadness.
It was rough. Life was happening and I had no answer on how to control it.
That’s when I turned to Jesus. I had heard for years and years how the Lord could help me in times of despair, so I figured it was worth a shot.
Around mid-2013, I began to follow Jesus Christ for real and claim Him as my Savior. It was then that I began to experience a true transformation that religion could never do for me.
And now, I’d like to share the truth of what it means to follow Jesus. And how beautifully painful it is.
The Truth About Desires
Growing up in church, I heard a lot about Jesus’ power in changing hearts and making sinful desires completely disappear.
And I found that was true—for, well, about fifteen minutes.
After deciding that I would let Jesus take control of my life, I noticed all of my struggles and unhealthy desires were gone. I was on such a euphoric ‘Jesus high’ that I was convinced that I would never struggle again.
Pornography? Girl, put a shirt on.
That was how I felt for the first fifteen minutes after accepting Jesus—but as soon as minute sixteen hit, I began to feel those desires coming back.
And that’s when confusion started to hit hard.
“God, I just proclaimed you as Lord of my life—why are these desires still here? I’ve heard testimony upon testimony of people being set free from their struggles!”
Now, I have no doubt that God can make our evil desires disappear immediately upon conversion. He’s God; if He wants to do it, He can.
But in my experience, I’ve noticed that God usually doesn’t just take away our struggles. He often allows us to endure them so He can show us how much bigger He is.
I’ve seen drug addicts confess their sins and lose all desire to continue in addiction; but I’ve also seen long-time Christians continue to struggle with cocaine and heroin.
Jesus Cannot Leave You the Same
There is still an unbelievable hope though for the person who cannot seem to shake off their hardships.
When you confess with all your heart that you want Jesus as your Savior, you will not stay the same. It’s impossible.
What I quickly realized upon conversion was that my life was a freaking mess. I had problems I had always known about—lust, jealousy, selfishness—but I also had deeply rooted sins that I didn’t even know existed inside of me—pride, idolatry, fear.
And that’s when I started to grasp the concept that God had a lot of work to do in me. I learned that God cannot allow us to have sin in our lives if we are to follow Him, because He is perfectly holy and cannot be in the presence of sin (1 John 3:9; 1 Peter 1:16).
As Trip Lee puts it in one of his songs, “Then he remembered that God simply can’t stomach, our wicked sin and He disciplines [us] to break us of it.”
The moment I decided to follow Jesus wholeheartedly, He began a process to uproot and destroy all trace of sin in my life. And He’s done it through often painful and unbearable situations. Every Christ-follower has and undoubtedly will have long ‘seasons’ (as us Christians love to say) where we feel like the pain will never end and there’s nothing we can do about it.
The cool thing though is that God is using those dry, dark seasons to shape us into the image of Christ. He often ordains painful experiences so that we can learn to trust in Him and eventually annihilate all sin inside of us.
Idolatry and the Cost of Following Jesus
Luke 14:25-27 may be one of the scariest passages in all of Jesus’ teachings:
“Large crowds were traveling with Jesus, and turning to them he said: ‘If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple. And whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.’”
Now, Jesus is not saying here that we should literally hate our families or ourselves. He’s not saying that we should go home and completely ignore our parents (although I know we would all like to at some point…love you mom).
But what He’s actually saying is that we need to deny ourselves—we need to be willing to sacrifice all we have and only follow Jesus.
So why is this so scary?
It’s because this scripture will always hurt. It will always require the sacrifice of something in our lives that we hold onto so dearly, and that will inevitably bring pain and, at times, extreme and prolonged sadness.
This means that, as a believer, God may ask you to let go of something. Whatever we hold onto too tightly and value above God is considered an idol, and when we “deny ourselves”, Jesus will always tear down those idols in our lives to make room for Himself at the center of our hearts.
God may ask you to leave your comfort zones.
God may ask you to move from your home you love so much.
God may ask you to sacrifice a relationship or a friendship.
And all of those hurt.
It’s easy to say, “God, whatever you ask of me to get rid of, it’s gone.” But when He tells you to stop pursuing a dream you’ve had for so long, then it’s not so simple.
It’s devastating. Despairing. To part ways with something that you’ve worked hard towards and built up will 99.99% of the time leave your soul in agony.
At this point, most people begin to ask, “Why would I follow Jesus if this is what it leads to? Getting rid of things I love and going through unbelievable pain? Yeah, I’ll pass.”
And that’s a reasonable answer. I can’t say it’s not because I’ve been there hundreds of times:
“Is Jesus really worth sacrificing that? Is He really worth it?”
The only response to these questions that I have found comfort in is that Jesus loves you. And when you allow Him to be King of your life, He doesn’t just ‘take’ things to make you miserable; He removes idols so that you may experience Him fully, and therefore find complete, unimaginable joy.
Idols, no matter what shape or form they are in, will never satisfy you. They will fill you only for a moment then leave you emptier each time you return to them. God will remove these idols because He loves you, and because He wants you to have true, everlasting satisfaction in Him.
And I can’t lie; it’s going to hurt. But you have to realize that Jesus is worth the pain.
No Pain, No Gain
To truly follow Jesus is to completely deny yourself and allow only God to reign on the throne of your heart. When you come to know and accept Him as your savior, you’re in for a ride—the most worthwhile ride of your life.
Jesus cannot and will not leave you the same. While we see our desires as harmless and fun, He sees them as they truly are: life-sucking and destructive. And that’s why He so graciously breaks us of sin.
Because He loves us. Because He wants what’s best for us.
Expect pain when following Jesus. Expect trying situations and soul-shattering experiences that arise from leaving behind the worldly things we have become so attached to.
Pain is inevitable in this life—so why not accept the pain that will bring you to joy? If we choose to remain the same, we only suppress dissatisfaction and learn to live with the pain, which leads to more pain; but if we choose to allow Jesus to change us, we learn to endure through seasons of pain which lead to complete satisfaction.
The choice is yours.
Following Jesus will always be painful—but it will always be worth it.
Picture by Nicklaus Hart.