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.


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What is Best

God gave Moses specific instructions regarding sacrifices, priests, relationships, rest, and a number of other subjects, and his instructions are recorded in the book of Leviticus. As you read through the book, you begin to realize something: the Lord requires the best, not merely the comfortable or the convenient.

Take sacrifices, for example. Only specific types of animals are accepted, and acceptable animals often must be without blemish and of a certain age. The people couldn’t simply give God the wounded or small of the flock, the weak or the unwanted; they had to give their best. The same goes for the priesthood. The holiness of the role of priest seems to be illustrated in the high standards God set forth for those who could hold such a role. God’s servants couldn’t behave any way they chose; they were to be, in a way, the best of the people, the model of obedience and holiness.

God’s standards haven’t changed. He still requires the best of us. “You therefore must be perfect,” Jesus said, “as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). He wills our sanctification (1 Thessalonians 4:3), and he remains “the LORD who sanctifies you” (Leviticus 22:32).

Such sanctification is not always convenient or comfortable. Paul chose his words well when he called us to be living sacrifices (Romans 12:1-2). We heed the call to deny ourselves, take up our crosses daily, and follow him (Luke 9:23), a worthy yet difficult calling. Discipline and correction factor regularly into the process (Hebrews 12), as does grace for our failures (1 John 2:1-2). He refines us, molds us, and purifies us, and the process is often painful. He requires the fullness of our hearts, minds, and spirits. He requires the best of us.

It’s encouraging, then, to remember that God not only requires the best from us, but he also does what is best for us. He causes all things to work together for good, holding us in his unfailing love (Romans 8). He knows us intimately (Psalm 139), cares for us deeply (1 Peter 5:7), and gives wisdom for the journey (James 1:5-8). He doesn’t merely do what is convenient or comfortable in our lives. Indeed, his work may feel at times like a wound (consider Paul’s wrestling with the thorn in his flesh in 2 Corinthians 12). But because the Lord is good, we can trust him in all circumstances, all seasons, all stations of life. He will always do what is best. Indeed, he has already done what is best for us by giving us the perfect, spotless lamb to save us, meeting our greatest need and ensuring he will not fail us in our lesser needs (Romans 8, James 1).

So let us offer our best to the Lord, withholding nothing as we learn to love and serve him better. Let us understand that he is worthy of our best, worthy of our very lives. And let us rest in the truth that God loves us and will always do what is best, trusting that “no good thing does he withhold from those who walk uprightly” (Psalm 84:11).

Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths. Be not wise in your own eyes; fear the LORD, and turn away from evil. It will be healing to your flesh and refreshment to your bones.

Proverbs 3:5-8

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In Whatever Situation

Have you ever been discontent with your own discontentment?

Many life experiences can bring about discontentment. Maybe it’s your job situation. You can’t seem to find a position that fits, you aren’t being compensated for the extra work you’ve been given, or you were let go in spite of hopes to continue on. Or maybe it’s your relationship status. The relationship in which you invested has come to an end, or maybe the relationship you now have doesn’t fulfill you like you’d hoped. Or maybe it’s your church. You find division where there should be unity, arrogance where there should be humility, distractions where there should be devotion. You can fill in the blank with almost anything. Discontentment isn’t rare.

A strange thing can occur in some cases, however. As time passes, you may find yourself becoming discontent with your own discontentment. You know the Lord is your provider, that he gives peace and joy in abundance. Yet you can’t seem to shake the feelings of discontentment, and you feel ashamed. You feel as if you should be past this, as if your struggle shouldn’t last so long. You feel weak for still feeling so helpless.

True, we shouldn’t grow content with discontentment. A healthy dissatisfaction with the state of mind is right and good. However, we needn’t hold ourselves to unhealthily high standards. I sometimes feel as if I ought to stifle any emotions that have overstayed their welcome, denying or overlooking any feelings that persist beyond a comfortable time frame. But such an approach is unrealistic. We progress at different paces, adjust to new seasons in various ways, and heal more slowly than we’d like sometimes. Because of this, feelings of discontentment may indeed last longer than we think they should, and such extended seasons can humble us.

Thankfully, the solution to discontentment remains the same: the power of Christ. As Paul expressed by his personal testimonies in 2 Corinthians 12 and Philippians 4, the power of Christ enabled him to face any situation with contentment, even extended suffering. In all seasons, Paul understood that the Lord was his shepherd, his provider, his protector. Faith in this truth freed Paul from looking to anything else as a source of contentment.

Finding contentment in Christ doesn’t necessarily mean seasons will pass more quickly. It won’t make life easier. You’ll still be bummed sometimes, still be hurt sometimes, still struggle to feel okay sometimes. And I think that’s part of the point. As we feel deeply the strangeness of this world, we see clearly its inability to be for us all we’d like it to be. The insufficiency of the world reminds us of the sufficiency of Christ. So look to Christ. No matter the circumstance, look up to the Savior. In your weakness, he is strong.


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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.


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The Grace of Loss

I fear loss. The loss of direction, the loss of security, the loss of peace. When I’m at risk of losing something I value, I quickly grow fearful, uncertain of the future. I don’t like the thought of loss.

Loss is strange. You hold so tightly to something, afraid to let it go, afraid to be without it. But loss is a part of life. As seasons change, you move to new places, meet new people, accept new jobs. As you engage the new, you often lose the old. The comfort of the old regularly gives way to uncertainty as you move forward.

Sometimes, however, loss is a great grace. The fear of loss shows me what I value, often exposing idolatry in my heart. From the loss of a working cell phone to the loss of control over a schedule to greater, deeper losses, loss reveals where my treasure lies.

Loss also drives me to the Lord. As I lose my grip on people and things around me, I’m reminded that all that I fear to lose is found in God, fulfilled in him. Comfort, security, direction, purpose, friendship, love, life—all flow from the Lord, the source of every good and perfect gift (James 1:16-18).

I know this to be true, but I regularly forget it. Loss, then, is a good thing in my life as it reminds me that the grace of God is sufficient (2 Corinthians 12:9). I can’t keep all that I wish I could keep in this life, but I have all I need in him. So I need not fear loss, though I’m sure I still will. The Lord is good, and, should all else be lost, he will remain good.


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Pain, Comfort, and Hope

My theology of pain is deepening.

When I consider pain in relation to theology, my mind often runs to James 1:2-4. There, James calls Christians to “count it all joy” when tests of faith arise, for such tests produce steadfastness leading to maturity. Closely related to James’s words there are Paul’s words in Romans 5:3-5, where Paul traces the process from suffering to endurance to character to hope. In short, God works all things for good, even difficult things (Romans 8:28).

Until recently, my understanding of this process has been somewhat simplistic. Pain arises, faith is tested, and we respond, either passing the test and growing in maturity or failing the test and remaining where we are. In theory, the process shouldn’t take too long.

But what do we do when the season doesn’t end? What happens when uncertainty or sadness or pain last longer than anticipated? What might God be doing in extended periods of difficulty?

I don’t claim to hold every answer to such questions. The answers may well vary based on the specifics of each situation. But I think I’m starting to see a piece of God’s purpose for ongoing seasons of difficulty and discomfort. I think God, in part, uses such times to redirect our hopes.

I’ve noticed, for example, that distress drives me to seek comfort somewhere, often in a person or a place or a thing that makes me feel safe. At times, however, God removes such sources of comfort from my life and, in their absence, leaves me with only my pain and with himself. Then, and perhaps only then, I begin to understand the sufficiency of his grace, his provision, his comfort. By removing my earthly securities, he reveals my over-reliance on them, disciplining me as he leads me to rest in him alone. He lovingly tests my faith to show my faith’s weakness. Then he begins to strengthen it. But the process takes time. As James highlights steadfastness, so Paul highlights endurance, both emphasizing the ongoing nature of the lessons.

It isn’t just that God knows what is best and has a better plan for us than any we can conceive, though those statements are true; it’s that God himself is best. When the Lord’s work includes the death of a dream, the loss of a hope, or the absence of a security, his goal isn’t merely to shift our gaze from a good earthly thing to a better earthly thing; his goal is to get us to shift our gaze to himself. He is the best thing, the source of every good and perfect gift (James 1:16-17), the God of all comfort (2 Corinthians 1:3). Our needs and our desires ultimately find their true fulfillment in him. And our hearts may not learn this lesson quickly. So he makes us wait, working through the suffering and the waiting to produce character and hope. “And hope,” Paul writes, “does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Romans 5:5).

C. S. Lewis wrote of the way the Lord uses pain to show us our weakness as well as to show us the insufficiency of any earthly thing to satisfy us (see his books The Problem of Pain and A Grief Observed). Furthermore, because God is good, he will not stop until his work is finished. Though painful, the work will result in healing. Though extended, the suffering will be proven worthwhile. Through the testing of our faith, the Lord makes us more like Christ and draws us closer to himself, doing us a greater good by far than if he simply granted our wishes or met our demands. His is a work of love, deeper and truer than we may presently understand. So hope in him. Trust in him. And find comfort in him.

Wait for the LORD;
be strong, and let your heart take courage;
wait for the LORD!

Psalm 27:14

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Tension

Life has been strange lately.

Over the last number of months, I’ve met a strange combination of events that have produced a state of tension within my soul. On one hand, I’ve faced more disappointment, disillusionment, and discouragement than I can remember facing before in life. My plans and God’s plans for me did not agree, and I wrestled long and hard (and still do) to discern what faithfulness looks like for me at this time. The season has been uncomfortable, embarrassing, and isolating.

On the other hand, I’ve seen fruit from the steady plodding of previous months and years. I received a Master of Theology, marking roughly the mid point of my pursuit of a PhD. I passed the one-thousand mile mark on an app that keeps track of my running. I’ve finished reading books I set aside months ago. I’ve made progress on some new projects I’m excited about. I’ve been encouraged. The season has brought affirmation, support, and hope.

Seeing both types of experiences in the same season confuses me a bit. One moment, I feel like I can’t do anything right; the next moment, I’m affirmed in the work I’m doing. One day, I feel lost; the next day, I feel content and secure. I feel hopeless and hopeful, lost and found, faithless and faithful. I’m learning to rely on friends while worrying that I annoy them with my needs. I’m learning to boast in my weaknesses while wishing I could grow out of them. I feel a bit like a living paradox.

During this season, some biblical passages have come to life in fresh ways. The tension between suffering and steadfastness, between death and life, at play in 2 Corinthians 4 holds new meaning as I’m stretched by the trials and joys of this time. Hebrews 12 also challenges and comforts me as I see afresh how God is disciplining me, a painful process, to produce the fruit of righteousness, a pleasant result. I’m learning to hope in and rely upon the Lord, thinking often of him as my Shepherd (Psalm 23). I’m learning to long for the Lord, realizing in new ways my need of him (Psalm 63).

As I reflect on this season, I confess that I desire its end. I want to move past this present state, to learn the lesson and be done with the trials. I don’t enjoy living in the tension. But I recognize that lessons are learned through the testing of faith, that sanctification is accomplished through the long seasons of discipline. So I pray for faithfulness, for endurance, for hope that will not put me to shame. I pray for the Lord to accomplish his work in my life and for him to sustain me on the path he’s called me to walk. And I trust that he who began the work will not fail to complete it (Philippians 1:6).


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The God of Peace

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The topics of peace and division have been on my mind lately. In part, this is due to some of my research along those lines this semester (see last week’s post for more on that). But the themes are present outside of the classroom as well. Online interactions show us that division is prevalent in our world, and the bitterness with which people divide makes peace seen almost a myth. And sadly, the church isn’t immune from such struggles to live in unity.

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Weakness

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I do not want this weakness anymore,
This want of strength, this will so rife with lack.
I tire of always falling further back,
Forgetting truths I knew just days before.
Corruption keeps its hold upon my core,
Each fault of mine another little crack,
Each inability a grave attack
In this, the never ending inner war.
But at the end of my ability,
Your grace, sufficient for my ev’ry need,
Reminds me of the testifying host
Of those who grasp their own futility
And trust instead your ev’ry word and deed,
So trials become their joy, the cross their boast.


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