On Self-Denial

While many sayings of Jesus bring great comfort to our souls, some can deeply disturb us. Luke records one such saying.

And [Jesus] said to all, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it. For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself?”

Luke 9:23-25

Jesus’s words here call to mind similar texts throughout Scripture. Paul calls believers to be living sacrifices, for example, and the author of Hebrews speaks of enduring in the struggle against sin (Romans 12:1-2; Hebrews 12). But what does it mean to deny ourselves? What does it mean to take up the cross? What does following Jesus really entail?

I don’t think denying ourselves means we self-flagellate, depriving ourselves needlessly of joys that God gives. The Lord created a world filled with good things, things that fill us with wonder as we partake. Food, drink, fellowship, art, sport, work, travel—we can enjoy all these and more with thanksgiving. “So,” Paul writes, “whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31). True, we live in a world broken by sin, and we feel in our own bodies the effects of the break. Good things may be twisted, good desires corrupted, good gifts turned to vices. But so long as we do not sin in our partaking, we may partake in worship.

At times, however, we must deny ourselves for the sake of Christ. Sometimes, we deny ourselves the enjoyment of some good thing in order to better serve a fellow Christian (Romans 14; 1 Corinthians 10:23-33). At other times, we deny ourselves the pursuit of our own plans in order to submit to the will of the Lord (Proverbs 19:21; James 4:13-17). In these ways, we act out of love for the Lord and for people.

I find myself tending to think of self-denial as singular instances of action rather than as a lifestyle of surrender. In both of the above cases, for example, I can misread the text to pertain only to specific cases, to particular times and places where I have to give up my choice for that of another. But what if self-denial is more of a lifestyle, a settled conviction that the Lord reigns over every desire, every decision, and every direction of my life? How might that change the day to day journey?

Viewing self-denial as a way of life would change how I view persistent desires. The strength and the persistence of a desire may lead me to assume I am justified in pursing the desire’s fulfillment, but such a conclusion does not necessarily follow. Sin finds its root in our desires, growing toward death as we pursue our desire’s fulfillment apart from the Lord’s provision (James 1:13-18). At times, I’ve prayed for some desires to be taken from me, for me to be granted freedom from the struggle. I don’t believe such prayers are wrong. But the Lord may not answer such prayers for relief. Paul, for example, prayed three times for the thorn in the flesh to be removed, for the harassment he underwent to be withdrawn; but the Lord saw fit to leave the thorn, for his purpose was Paul’s sanctification (2 Corinthians 12:7-10). The Lord uses the struggle, our ongoing self-denial, for good, even if we can’t see or understand his purpose in the midst of the fight.

Viewing self-denial as a way of life would also change how I view allegiance to Christ. Relatively speaking, I have not had to sacrifice to the same extent as many other Christians. I stand amidst a mighty throng of martyrs and missionaries, of those who chose Christ over family, friends, health, safety, and life itself. Though all Christians bear crosses, some do seem to have a heavier weight, a fiercer struggle. And when the call of Christ requires your all, when devotion to the Lord means a greater denial than you ever realized you could make, you wonder if Christ is worth it. Ultimately, that’s the question we must answer: is Christ worthy of the greatest extent of self-denial? If pressed, will I surrender my deepest desires, my ties to family and friends, and my comforts and securities in this world for the sake of this Jewish teacher? Is he worth it? Jesus claims that he is: “whoever loses his life for my sake will save it” (Luke 9:24). He even raises a challenge to those of us who doubt: “For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself?” (Luke 9:25). More than that, he walked the road before us, suffering on our behalf to save us from slavery to sin and death. His cross was heavier than any he calls us to bear. He can sympathize with us (Hebrews 4:14-16). But he doesn’t just sympathize with us; he changes us for good (2 Corinthians 5:17).

Admittedly, we could embrace our desires, follow our dreams, and live according to our plans. That option remains on the table. But what do we really gain, especially if we lose ourselves in the process? Furthermore, who has the Lord ever cheated? Who has the Lord ever failed? Who has come to the end of a life of faithful service and concluded, “The Lord was not enough”? If God has promised to provide for our needs as we seek his kingdom and righteousness (Matthew 6), then, though we may feel a lack of some good thing, we will have all we truly need. He knows best, and his love and faithfulness have already been sufficiently proven (Romans 5:1-11; Romans 8).

Self-denial, if understood as a way of life, will require far more than we may be comfortable surrendering. And I think that’s part of the point. Jesus didn’t downplay the seriousness of the path of the kingdom because he knew the gain far outweighed the losses. Paul understood this point well, forsaking any earthly gain and rejoicing in any present weakness for the joy of knowing Christ (Philippians 3; 2 Corinthians 12). The twelve disciples faced persecution and death for their allegiance to Christ, and they rejoiced. The people of God are a people of peace, peace that surpasses any counterfeit offered by sin. So we need not fear self-denial for the sake of Christ. We may mourn the losses we experience in this life, but we may bear our crosses with joy. We are the followers of the Son of God, those called from death to life, those made sons and daughters of the King. Let us not fear the loss of this world; we stand to gain our souls.


Photo by Nadine Shaabana on Unsplash

Unfriend Me

I’m troubled by a trend on social media.

Granted, there’s a lot to be troubled by today. This year continues to provide us with a multitude of reasons for anxiety. Disquiet and division abound as the world around us changes.

In many cases, the issues that arise raise good questions and can become opportunities for healthy conversations and needed changes. Such issues can also foster bitter disagreements and vitriolic statements. And this is to be expected. Whether the topic is racism or Covid-19, the subjects we discuss and the outworking of those subjects affect all of us in some way, and our emotions can quickly get involved in such cases.

Regularly, however, I see some individuals taking a surprising position on social media as they state their positions. Though the exact verbiage may vary, the posts often boil down to something like the following statements. “If you affirm ____,” they write, “please unfollow me.” “If you care more about ____ than ____, then consider our friendship over.” The sentiment seems to be an ultimatum: either agree with me or unfriend me.

I’m troubled by this trend for a few reasons. First, the statement seems impractical. If a person believes he or she holds truth that others fail to see, then division seems to lessen the probability of the one in error to learn or grow. Maybe the individual believes the shock value of the statement will awaken the wayward soul from intellectual slumber, but such a result seems unlikely. Second, the statement seems unloving. Such posts appear to make friendship contingent on agreement, for disagreement on a particular issue becomes grounds for division. Again, however, how does such division help those presumably in error? Does it not simply leave them in their ignorance? Third, the statement seems to promote echo chambers. By seeking separation from contradictory voices, individuals lose a valuable part of any discussion: the other position. One’s own views are safer when kept from challenges, but are they healthier?

I understand that such divisions do not occur over small matters. I doubt anyone is asking for separation over ice cream preferences or movie choices. Rather, the posts I’ve seen often pertain to matters of significant weight in culture. But is division justified on such matters? I’m not so sure.

Division isn’t foreign to the church. Paul gives instructions for dealing with divisive people in Titus 3:10-11, and Jesus gives instructions for dealing with the unrepentant within the walls of the church in Matthew 18:15-17. In both cases, however, the change in relationship occurs after multiple warnings to turn from sinful behavior, not on the basis of disagreement alone. Further, the goal appears to be restoration, not ultimate division, as Paul seems to demonstrate in his discussion of the man caught in adultery in 1 and 2 Corinthians. True, Proverbs seems to urge us to choose our friends wisely, but even then the deciding factors pertain to unrighteousness in the community and to its effects on oneself, not on contrasting perspectives on cultural movements.

I admit I may be missing something. There may exist good, biblical reasons for breaking fellowship in the minds of those who make the posts I’ve seen, and, if there are, I welcome correction of my misunderstanding. But I don’t currently see it. Instead, I see a trend that I fear may simply further division and cripple communication rather than helpfully contributing to the important conversations of our day. We face a number of complex issues worthy of critical thought and robust conversations. Perhaps asking for division over disagreements here is unwise.


Photo by George Pagan III on Unsplash

Its Full Effect

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O clarifying lack of clarity,
O beauty of this brief bewilderment,
O need that drives me to the firmament,
Grow faith in unfamiliarity.
Let suff’ring sear my sin but not my soul,
The stone-turned-flesh be softened by the flame
And purified of all not for the name,
That what is partial now would be made whole.
Endurance marks the path to character,
And character to unashamèd hope,
Sure of the unseen God by his seen grace.
We know in part, see but a car’cature
Till faith’s perspective (holy periscope)
Becomes our sight and we see face to face.


Photo by Zoltan Tasi on Unsplash

Thanks to Milly for her feedback and suggestions during the writing of this poem.

In Spirit and Truth

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But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.
John 4:23-24

In spirit and truth.

In response to a question about places of worship, Jesus tells a Samaritan woman of a coming shift in perspective. Soon (indeed, sooner than many of the day realized), true worship would no longer be identified with a specific location, neither at Jerusalem (where the Jews worshiped) nor Mount Gerizim (where the Samaritans worshiped). True worshipers would worship in spirit and truth.

But what does it mean to worship in spirit and truth?

Continue reading

Simple and Ordinary

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For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.
1 Corinthians 15:3-5

Christ died for sins, was buried, and was raised on the third day in fulfillment of the word of God. This is the gospel. This is “the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Romans 1:16). This is enough.

Recently, I’ve given more thought to students in the church who don’t know Jesus. As I prepare lessons, I wonder how to help kids see that Jesus is better than anything else in life. I wonder how to connect the dots between what a student knows and what a student believes. I want lives to be changed, not just heads to be filled. So I try to use good illustrations and plan better lessons and answer questions well, yet I still feel like I’m missing something. I’m still unable to open a student’s ears to truth.

I find a similar difficulty in writing. I often approach the blog with a desire to be profound or novel in some way. I want to say something meaningful, something worth pondering or repeating. I want to stir up a love and a reverence for the Lord. So I consider phrases and consult editors and attempt to use pointed words, yet I still feel like I’m missing something. I’m still unable to open the reader’s eyes to truth.

I sometimes feel my words are too simple or too ordinary to get the work done, yet I forget that the effectiveness of the gospel isn’t contingent upon my eloquence or profundity. No quality or quantity of speaking or writing can make deaf ears hear or blind eyes see. The Holy Spirit, on the other hand, can do both. He works through human words to awaken souls to life, empowering the gospel message as it is spoken or written. And while profundity and eloquence and wit can serve us well, Paul argues that the gospel message is enough on its own to change lives. He writes,

And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.
1 Corinthians 2:1-5

While Paul did at times delve into deeper matters – and was not always easy to understand, according to 2 Peter 3:15-16 – he reminds the Corinthians that the gospel by itself is sufficient for the work. The Spirit moves through the simple message to transform lives for eternity. So we need not worry as we share the message of Christ with others. Words that may seem simple and ordinary to us still have the power to shake loose the shackles of darkness and to bring life to the dead. The gospel is enough for that student, it’s enough for that post, and it’s enough for you and me.


Photo by Green Chameleon on Unsplash

Thanks to Maci and Cortney for reading over this post in the editing process.