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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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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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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Steadfastness

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Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.
James 1:2-4

I love the book of James. I’ve spent more time in this little book than I’ve spent in many other places in Scripture, and I’ve found that further study and meditation often leads to fresh discoveries within the text. Even after years of reading these same words, I keep finding new things. The discoveries aren’t always comforting, though.

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