What does it mean to "deny yourself?"
And he said to all, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me." I've been thinking about this whole "deny yourself" thing lately. What did Jesus mean by that statement?
Did He mean escape the world and live in seclusion? Jesus didn't do that. He walked among the masses of humanity and touched the world of men and women. He bent down to pick up and bless children. He touched the diseased flesh of people with leprosy. He restored the lost and broken and and demon possessed and made them whole. He couldn't have done that if he'd stayed in his mother's house in Nazareth and remained a carpenter. He might have influenced his friends and family in that scenario, but He came to reach the world. He came to deny His rights as deity and carry a human wooden cross all the way to a humiliating, horrifying death.
So is He asking us to do the same?
In a sense, yes. Some of us will be called to leave our homes and familiar places to take His message to the world. Some of us will be martyrs for the sake of Christ. Some of us will remain in relative obscurity and minister to one person at a time. But all of us who want to follow Jesus are called to deny ourselves in the process.
In our modern culture, self-denial is an almost foreign concept. We've grown up with the message of self-esteem and the pursuit of our own happiness, whatever the cost. But have you noticed that the pursuit of happiness, to do whatever we want whenever we want it, leaves us feeling kind of empty?
Don't get me wrong. I enjoy the temporary happiness I get from a new outfit or a night out with family or friends. I enjoy vacations and good food and wholesome entertainment. But when I'm hurting inside, buying a new pair of shoes isn't going to fill the hole of grief or pain. It might make me feel better for a moment, but it doesn't last.
And Jesus didn't come to temporarily fix our problems. He came to give us abundant life, life lived to the full! A life that carries on into another world, beyond death into eternity. Life in eternity. Not death.
And yet to those who wanted to follow Him, He said, "deny yourself, take up your cross daily, and follow me." How does that possibly lead to a full life?
I think this is where it gets personal. When it comes to bearing a daily cross, what Jesus is asking of us is to look in the mirror of His Word and see who we really are. He wants to invade our space and live with us, talk and laugh and cry with us. And He wants us to really truly know Him. But to do that, we have to understand who He is and why He came and how He wants to transform our lives into something far beyond what we can imagine.
And it starts with that denial of our self-serving ways. Saying "no" or "wait" to our pleasures.
Maybe I don't indulge in that sensual desire, be it sex or food or simple feasting of the eyes on something that isn't pure. Maybe I don't let my mind wander when someone is talking to me, thinking of the point I want to make. Maybe I really listen to that person and show them I care.
Maybe I say no because saying no is going to make me understand better what it means to carry that cross every day. Maybe saying no to myself will bless someone else who needs it more than I do.
In a sense, that daily cross and self-denial looks a lot like sacrifice.
So what kinds of things does God want us to sacrifice? We are beyond the Old Testament sacrificial system of offering animals on an altar. Jesus was the ultimate sacrifice that replaced all of that.
So what is left to deny, to sacrifice?
Ourselves. Our pride. Our will. Our praise.
It's saying, "Lord, I want to know you. I want to do whatever You have planned for me to do. And I will praise you even in the hard times."
It's easy to offer a sacrifice of praise when times are good. But it's called a sacrifice because it's not so easy to do when life is falling apart--when a loved one dies, when we hear words from the doctor we hadn't thought we'd ever hear, when someone we love doesn't love us back. How do we deny ourselves, our natural emotional reactions, to stop and thank God for His goodness even when life isn't good?
I don't believe Jesus is saying to deny your emotions. We can't stop from feeling. Though we can learn to control how we use those feelings by honestly telling God (and ourselves) that we have them. We offer them to Him in honesty. Lord, I'm really hurting right now and angry about..." He already knows how we feel. He wants to commune with us about those things.
Self-denial doesn't mean self-delusion. It still includes honesty about grief or hurt or joy or pain. What it does include is our will, our selfish desires that shut God out.
To follow Jesus costs something. It cost Jesus death on a wooden cross. Our cross to identify with Him is to give Him our wills, our undivided love, our hope. It's waving the white flag of surrender to accept what He gives to us even if we don't like it. It's denying our right to be self-seeking and instead be Jesus seeking. He promised we would find Him if we seek Him with all of our hearts.
The question is, will we?