Jesus said to them: "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me..." (Mark 8:34)
I once walked up Ben Nevis, the highest mountain in Scotland – and indeed in the entire British Isles.
It was summer, and when we set off it was warm and sunny. But by the time we had walked up to the summit, we were facing thick mist and cold temperatures. Fortunately we had pullovers, hats, gloves, fleeces and jackets.
It made us wonder what had happened to a woman we had passed lower down the mountain. She was only lightly-clothed, without a bag, and was wearing white stilettos. I doubt she made it anywhere near the top of Ben Nevis. If that had been her plan, she had come totally ill-equipped for what lay ahead.
And so it is that Jesus warns anyone contemplating becoming his disciple of the tough journey this involves: "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me," he says. "For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it," (Mark 8:34-5).
It's a journey that many western Christians (in contrast to those elsewhere) find difficult to make. Why is this?
We prefer self-fulfilment to self-denial. Jesus encourages us to "deny ourselves". But consumer culture is all about self-gratification and the fulfilment of our desires, and the sexual revolution has encouraged us to believe that morality should often be shaped by how we feel.
Mark Batterson, lead pastor of the National Community Church in Washington DC, says: "The only path to self-fulfilment is self-denial. There is no other way. While self-denial may sound miserable, it's actually wonderful. We simply deny ourselves those things that are temporarily pleasurable but eternally painful. We deny the desires of our flesh. We deny the temptation of sin. We refuse to settle for anything less than the best which is God's good, pleasing, and perfect will."
We prefer to save our lives rather than lose them. Much of western society has become affected by what is known as "risk-lock" – we are so fearful of risk that we avoid it far more than previous generations. This has in turn infected church life, meaning that notions such as self-sacrifice for the gospel have been replaced with the gospel as a source of comfort to be enjoyed at our convenience. It's the way of the cushion rather than the way of the cross.
We prefer to pipe down rather than pipe up. Jesus challenges us in saying that those who are "ashamed of me and my words" will be ashamed when ultimately they face him (v38). But too often we prefer to keep quiet rather than speak up for the gospel, for Christ, or for Christian values.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer left the security of America to return to his home country of Germany and seek the downfall of Hitler. As a result, he was later imprisoned and executed. A few years earlier he had written: "The disciple is not above his master... That is why Luther reckoned suffering among the marks of the true church. If we refuse to take up our cross... we forfeit our fellowship with Christ and have ceased to follow him. But if we lose our lives in his service and carry our cross, we shall find our lives again in the fellowship of the cross with Christ."
Tom Wright, the former Bishop of Durham, challenges us as follows: "Jesus is not leading us on a pleasant afternoon hike, but on a walk into danger and risk. Or did we suppose that the Kingdom of God would mean merely a few minor adjustments in our ordinary lives?"
The Rough Guide to Discipleship is a fortnightly devotional series. David Baker is a former daily newspaper journalist now working as an Anglican minister in Sussex.