In a world of self-indulgence, instant gratification, and “love-thyself” positivity, Jesus’ call to discipleship sounds wildly ungracious: “Hate your self, lose your life.” What?! How could a loving God be so cruel? You’re wise if you realize these words deserve some explanation.
But first, let’s be clear that Jesus didn’t come to rubber stamp your life as is. People often say, “God loves you just the way you are,” perhaps giving a nod to John 3:16 or something. But this statement is false as it’s often intended – meaning Jesus accepts and affirms your natural, innate intuitions, choices, and lifestyle. He doesn’t. In fact, he negates all those things, tells you to die to them, and calls you to something infinitely better.
So let’s understand what self-denial is and what it isn’t – and why it must be a habitual practice of those who follow Jesus.
First, self-denial means shifting your identity. This is clearly what Jesus meant in Luke 9:23-24 where he says, “Deny yourself, lose your life.” He wasn’t talking about self-harm. In fact, he wasn’t talking about your biological life at all; he was talking about your psyche – or, as we’d say today, your self or your identity.
Your sense of self, self-worth, or validation – these are all a part of what your identity entails. It’s the thing(s) in your life that give(s) you meaning, purpose, a sense of success, or simply the feeling, “I know I’m doing ok, because I have this thing.” Often, your identity is wrapped up in things like:
- Your vocation, work, or work ethic.
- Your personal brand or persona.
- Your accomplishments.
- Your possessions or wealth.
- Your performance of a particular standard or role.
- Your expressive individualism or “you being you.”
- Your network, people, or tribe.
- Your trauma or perpetual victimhood.
Whatever you find your identity in, here’s the caution: Whatever defines you controls you.
- If you find your sense of worth in money, you’ll always be pursuing money.
- If you find your sense of worth in an ideology, you’ll always be blind to its flaws.
- If you find your sense of worth in your trauma, you’ll continue to blame it for everything.
- If you find your sense of worth in anything other than Jesus, you’ll never be free.
So, positively, seek your identity in Jesus. Seek your worth not in what you have, or what you do, or what you desire, but in the One who has you. Discover who he says you are – by sheer grace and because he loves you.
Second, self-denial means shifting our allegiance. This is what Jesus was telling his traditional, honor-shame culture, when he said, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.”
In Eastern culture, this “hate” Jesus speaks of wasn’t an emotionally-driven malice. It simply meant having a strong preference for one thing over another. Jesus was calling his disciples to shift their primary loyalty from other people and things to him – their Lord and Savior.
Who or what are you most loyal to? Who or what gets your first and fundamental allegiance?
- Your parents, spouse, or kids.
- Your ethnicity, people, or race.
- Your political party or ideological tribe.
- A circle of peers whose affirmation you crave.
- Your own intuitions, opinions, and perspectives.
- A future version of yourself you’re trying desperately to create.
Again, note this caution: Whatever you’re loyal to will have expectations of you. It’ll make demands on you. If you’re trying to be loyal to Jesus plus someone else, you’ll often find yourself torn between competing expectations. This is why, positively, you must make a complete shift in your allegiance to say, “Jesus, I’m following you and I’m fully committed to your way first and foremost. There is no close second in my life.”
Thirdly, self-denial means shifting our priorities. Many of the people Jesus encountered feigned some interest in following him “if,” or “when,” or “as long as.” They wanted to go and do other things first, and then follow Jesus when and if it was convenient. What they revealed is that their real master was the thing that came first.
What is that for you? What do you prioritize with your time, your money, your relationships, and the balance of your life?
- Making money?
- Having a good reputation?
- Providing for your kids?
- Having lots of fun?
- Living comfortably?
There’s nothing wrong with any of these things, per se, but do you see how easily they could interfere with following Jesus? How can you follow Jesus on the way of the cross if your real priority is wealth, comfort, and the American Dream? You can’t. You’ll be compromised, at best.
Following Jesus means giving Jesus first place in your schedule, first place in your budget, first place in your vocation and work, first place in your relationships, first place in your daily habits, and so on. As you discipline your heart and mind to prioritize Jesus, you’ll hear your own thoughts and language shift. Instead of telling Jesus you’ll follow him after you . . . whatever, you start thinking – and saying! – “I’ll follow you, period.”
The sermon associated with this post goes on to outline The Paradox of Self-denial and The Practice of Self-denial. Though there isn’t room for that here, consider one specific practice of self-denial that was common in the life of Jesus and the early Church: fasting.
Fasting is the voluntary denial of a physical appetite in order to focus on and feed a spiritual appetite. For example, you may deny yourself food for a period of time in order to ask God for something that’s more valuable than food. (Remembering that Jesus said, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.”)
The reality is our eternal, spiritual needs are far greater than our temporal, physical needs, but we often fail to see and experience the truth of that in everyday life. So experiencing physical hunger is a great way to remind ourselves to hunger and thirst for more of God. The simple self-denial that leads to stomach growls and hunger pangs can you lead you to ask, “Does my appetite for God and for following the way of Jesus match what I’m experiencing right now?”
Start somewhere. Don’t just deny yourself for the sake of denying yourself. But deny yourself for the sake of enjoying more of Christ. And see how he shows up.