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.