“If anyone wishes to follow me, he must deny himself, pick up his cross and follow me.”
How practiced are we in denying ourselves? To abstain from making a purchase, avoid an impulse buy, not watch every football game, and choose not to embrace your “best life”, is very countercultural. Between the values pulled from consumerism and individualism which heavily govern our lives, there is not much room for self denial.
When Jesus made the invitation to follow him there was always a cost involved. There was an invitation to give up your life and deny yourself. What you desire is to be sacrificed. For the rich young ruler it was his wealth. For many it was leaving their occupation. For some it was following before their father died. In all cases, Jesus zeroed in on a desire and made it clear that following him had a cost.
As I have observed reactions in this pandemic, I realize it has exposed our lack of practice in denying ourselves. If we were practiced in it we would not be throwing tantrums when something is taken away from us by someone else. If we were used to saying no to our own desires then when someone else calls us to it, we wouldn’t find it overly difficult. In fact, we could find joy in the act of denying ourselves.
Have you ever thought of the persecuted church in this light? They understand the cost when they choose to follow Jesus. They give up everything in this life to follow him. Everything can and often is taken away from them, yet they still follow and find joy in obedience to God. Have you ever noticed Paul is able to rejoice from prison? He doesn’t even ask people to pray for his release.
It is interesting those we once most revered in the faith were monks that essentially gave up every pleasure of this world and martyrs who gave up their lives. I am not going to get into a discussion here on that extreme but they surely understood there was freedom in letting go of the desires of this world. There was a clarity that came with denial and an openness to the desires that God gives.
If we are able to deny ourselves in obedience to God, then when a situation comes where we need to give something up or something is taken from us (even our “freedoms”), we are content. If we haven’t learned the freedom that comes through self denial it will feel like punishment and we will be filled with grief or anger.
To be honest, if we do not practice self denial we will be prone to the responses of a toddler who throws a temper tantrum in the store when they can’t have the toy they wanted. A good parent knows giving into every desire of your child isn’t good. That’s why you limit screen time and the amount of sugar they consume. I would say many recent posts on social media have resembled a bunch of toddlers at a toy store whose parents just said no.
I expect this behaviour from the world, but not from believers. We should be able to rejoice in denying ourselves. How often do we read the grumblings of the Israelites in the wilderness and think, “Look at the way God is caring for you. Why are you complaining?” And then sports are shut down and we can’t leave the province so we complain just as badly. Self denial helps deliver us from the state of entitlement which was the posture of our old self and into a state of contentment. “It is well with my soul” can only really be understood through learning Jesus is truly enough. That’s why he requires us to deny ourselves the things of this world. Our whole self needs to discover this peace that only comes through the practice of self denial.
I have gone through seasons of my life where I have been convicted about the amount of time I spend focused on things of this world. I remember years ago when I had to give up watching sports for a time, not just because of the amount of time I spent on it, but because it had become an idol in my life. The act of denying myself this thing I loved was necessary to discover what had eternal value.
We all start following Jesus with a set of beliefs, values and desires. The cost of following Jesus is giving those up in surrender to follow Jesus. That is not to say there won’t be some desires that are good and will be encouraged by God, but they are to be laid down regardless. Our walk with Jesus is going to be filled with constant disruptions. Some of these will be from what Jesus requires of us, and some are because of a fallen world with hardened hearts.
We know from the Gospels that when Jesus invites someone to follow him he has them lay down the things of import at the start. This however is just the start of a life learning to deny themselves, not the completion of the sacrifice.
15 Do not love this world nor the things it offers you, for when you love the world, you do not have the love of the Father in you. 16 For the world offers only a craving for physical pleasure, a craving for everything we see, and pride in our achievements and possessions. These are not from the Father, but are from this world. 17 And this world is fading away, along with everything that people crave. But anyone who does what pleases God will live forever.
1 John 2:15-17
When we don’t deny ourselves we get tricked into thinking this world is enough. We begin to live for what happens in the here and now. When we deny ourselves we begin to remember the eternal and begin to experience the peace that comes in living for heaven and not for earth. What comes is a peace in the storm as we become aware this life is but a breath for the purpose of imitating Christ and being transformed into his image.
I posted something on facebook the other day which I think is a good gut check: Nothing exposes our lack of self denial in obedience to God quite like our reaction to prolonged forced withdrawal (AKA long suffering).
I will not ignore the fact some things taken away from us we cannot just roll over on. If the state takes away something commanded by God it cannot be a healthy form of denial but will steal us away from him. We see this in the early church as well as in the persecuted church where they must discern where obedience to God is at odds with obedience to the authorities of this world.
When denial is not a voluntary act and something is taken away from us, we panic because our eyes are fixed on this world. When we are used to denying ourselves, we still need to surrender to God and possibly mourn, but it is a practiced habit and a place of peace, not internal chaos.
Denying ourselves is a practice for us until the day when our only desires are those which God has. The life of a believer is one in which we should ever be getting closer to this but will never attain until Jesus returns or calls us home. I long for that day, but know that while I am here I must continue to surrender my desires and practice the discipline of denying myself.