‘You deserve it’ or even, ‘Treat yourself – you deserve it’ are common sorts of phrases in the advertising industry. ‘Go on indulge yourself’ is another. The world says that we should take care of number one. Whereas, self-denial means the denial of one’s own interests or needs. It is often linked to self sacrifice, and to forgoing something you want for a higher purpose, or for the good of others. It is restraining your own desires for a better result, or to live a simpler, more organic type of life.
In Christianity, self-denial is setting aside or stopping anything that hinders our walk with the Lord. It is recognising that there are things we do which negatively impact our discipleship journey. Self-denial reminds us that there are difficult choices to be made in following Jesus. Throughout the history of the church, self-denial has been one of the key cornerstones of biblical faith.
Luke 9 is all about the cost of being a disciple, being prepared for ministry, and commissioned into Christ’s service. This reaches its apex in verses 21-27, ‘Jesus warned His disciples not to tell anyone who He was [Peter had just declared Him to be God’s Messiah]. 22“The Son of Man must suffer many terrible things,” He said. “He will be rejected by the elders, the leading priests, and the teachers of religious law. He will be killed, but on the third day He will be raised from the dead.”
23Then He said to the crowd, “If any of you wants to be My follower, you must give up your own way [deny yourself], take up your cross daily, and follow Me. 24If you try to hang on to your life, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for My sake, you will save it. 25And what do you benefit if you gain the whole world but are yourself lost or destroyed? 26If anyone is ashamed of Me and My message, the Son of Man will be ashamed of that person when He returns in His glory and in the glory of the Father and the holy angels.’
In Luke 9, the difference between the world’s definition of self-denial and Christ’s is starkly presented. To hang onto your life, seek to protect your life determining when and where you will choose to follow Jesus, does not work. To be willing to lay it all down for the sake and cause of Christ is at the heart of Jesus’ teaching.
There is nothing we can barter with God for the salvation of our souls. To stand with Christ is to follow the pathway He walked. Following a life of self-interest, of putting yourself first, is tantamount to being ashamed of Jesus and His commission to make disciples.
- Deny yourself – aparneomai – to have no relationship with self, to deliberately forget one’s self, to not focus on one’s own self or your own interests. It carries the idea of giving up your own way and will.
It is letting Christ lead. Peterson puts it this way in The Message, ‘You’re not in the driver’s seat—I am.’ Christ is in the driving seat of our lives. A lady in my home church used to pray, ‘Lord, be thou my pilot through life.’ What a prayer.
So often we want to take back the steering wheel and redirect our lives taking the easier route avoiding suffering, difficulties and challenges. Yet the wise course is to give the steering wheel into the Master’s hands.
- Take up your cross daily – the Amplified adds in brackets, ‘expressing a willingness to endure whatever may come.’ The cross is always the place of death to self-protection or serving our own self-interests.
It is important that Luke adds the word, ‘daily,’ something Matthew and Mark do not in their parallel accounts (Matthew 16:24-27; Mark 8:34-38). This is a choice we have to make each and every single day.
The TPT adds something that is not in the original text, ‘embrace My ‘cross’ as your own.’ Jesus had not yet died and His listeners would not have understood the metaphor if He had used it.
Looking back from our standpoint we can certainly say that there is truth in this; and Paul emphasised the centrality of Christ’s cross to our salvation, life of discipleship and mission, on Christ’s behalf, to the world.
- Jesus’ linked this self-sacrificing, focussed life with being a true disciple. Jesus continually says, ‘follow Me.’ He famously said this twice to Peter as He restored him (John 21:19, 22), after Peter’s denial of Jesus in the courtyard on the night of His arrest. Peter had said that he would deny himself and follow Jesus even to death (John 13:31-38), but fear took over and he denied his Lord. As Jesus spiritually restored him – He reminded of the original call to be His disciple, ‘you follow Me.’
It is one of the impressive things about this passage in Luke 9 – before challenging the people about the true cost of following Him, Jesus informs the disciples of the terrible cost He Himself would have to pay in order to follow God’s way.
When laying out the reality of the challenges and cost of following God’s way, He says, ‘I am going before you preparing the way and setting you an example.’ Jesus wasn’t asking anything of the people that He wasn’t personally willing to do Himself – He walked the pathway that included suffering, rejection, and death, but also gloriously, resurrection.
To follow Jesus is to follow the pathway He Himself has trod. The footsteps we follow are the footsteps of God the Son, God’s Messiah. This idea of a journey or pilgrimage through life is at the heart of the biblical narrative.
The Dictionary of Bible Themes says this about self-denial, ‘The willingness to deny oneself possessions or status, in order to grow in holiness and commitment to God’ (https://www.biblegateway.com/resources/dictionary-of-bible-themes/8475-self-denial). As we live this way we grow in our commitment to Christ, and, as we spend time in His presence, in holiness. The Bible has many references to people who lived this way.
Hebrews 11:25 says that Moses chose ‘instead to suffer mistreatment with the people of God. Moses preferred faith’s certainty above the momentary enjoyment of sin’s pleasures’ (TPT). Paul said to the church at Caesarea, which was trying desperately to stop him going to Jerusalem after Agabus’ prophesy that Paul would be arrested there, ‘“Why do you cry and break my heart with your tears? Don’t you know that I’m prepared not only to be imprisoned but to die in Jerusalem for the sake of the wonder of the name of our Lord Jesus?” (TPT).
- The question is a powerful one, ‘do you want to follow Jesus?’ It is the question that the Gospel still poses. If you want to be Christ’s follower – then this passage tells you what you need to do
- To keep following Jesus when it is difficult, when it is impossible, when it costs too much, when the world rejects us because of the message we live out and preach – is not easy, but is possible
- In order to do so – every day we need to hand the steering wheel of our lives over to the Lord, ‘be thou my pilot,’ take up our cross, and follow Jesus.
- It is embracing our cross – the point where our flesh refuses to die, the place where we die to the life of self and embrace the life of Christ.
- As we fill our lives with His Spirit and word – become single-mindedly committed to the cause of following Jesus – He gives us the grace, love and strength we will need.
- In this world we have no permanent home. We are not to root ourselves in a country – we are to root ourselves in Christ. Our lives may be lived in a particular nation or locale, but it is only the setting for our discipleship journey.
- Selfish interests always take us away from the pathway of Christ, from following in His footsteps. I wonder how many of us are pursuing fulfilment in life through earthly things?
Father, as we wrestle with the cost of self-denial, and seek to follow the pathway Jesus’ walked, fill us with Your Spirit and word, with Your grace, love and strength. I lay my life on the altar today – I hear Your call to do so. This moment I obey. The fields are white unto harvest, Lord, and Your servants are relatively few. Hear am I – fit me for Your worship, service and purposes. In Jesus’ name. Amen