DENY YOURSELF, TAKE UP YOUR CROSS AND FOLLOW ME.
This verse reverberates in the air as the pastor challenges us to move past the me-first culture we live in.
I’m 100% on board, and yet I still cringe;
Deny yourself is not the opposite of love yourself, though it may sound like it.
Deny yourself does not mean stop seeking to understand yourself.
Deny yourself does not mean…
Actually, what does it mean?
I’m sitting on the other end of what a life of “denying yourself” leads to: not having any self left to give away. It’s not a good place; not a place I would lead people to. In fact, the pastor in me wants to put up fences and signs; boundary lines marking out the danger zones to keep people away from where I have been. Denying yourself can be a poison.
But the words are there in black and white, and I can’t dismiss the Bible based on my experience; that’s not how good theology works.
What, then, does it mean to deny yourself?
How does it interact with my newfound lessons of self-care, reflection and rest?
Are they opposed, or is there a syncing that brings the two sides together?
The Denial Lifestyle
When I look below the surface, if I’m honest, I feel like we have a whole culture of denying oneself; only it’s not a healthy culture.
Deny your sadness; paste a smile on that face!
Deny you have problems in relationships; blame it on the circumstances.
Deny that deep longing to be loved; cover it up with a fangirl fetish or Pinterest-perfect life
Deny that broken place inside; dull the pain with medication or the party life.
Deny, deny, deny.
I think we can all agree, that’s not what Jesus meant.
Denial the Jesus way
So what does it mean to deny yourself?
The next part of the verse has the clue: take up your cross and follow me.
Then he said to them all: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. (Luke 9:23)
Jesus has said that elsewhere, too.
Often, in fact. And yes, there was always an element of leaving something behind: denying yourself.
To Peter & Andrew, they had to leave their nets behind. (Matthew 4:19-20)
Matthew left his tax collecting booth. (Matthew 9:9)
The rich man was asked to leave his riches behind to follow Jesus… but couldn’t. (Matthew 19:21-22)
One potential disciple was even asked to ditch his dad’s funeral to follow Jesus. (Matthew 8:22)
There is always something to leave behind.
I think the biggest clue to the kind of self-denial Jesus was talking about versus the various forms of denial we see all around us, is what comes after. When you deny yourself like Jesus asked, the result is always following Jesus.
What does that look like?
It looks like becoming more like Jesus.
Are you loving people better? Are you more peace-filled than yesterday? Is grace getting easier to extend – to yourself and others?
In my case, my self-denial was leading to stress, panic, less grace, more hard edges.
In fact, when I stopped “denying” myself and started attending to myself, I re-discovered gentleness, kindness, peace and fruits of the spirit.
I sure looked good before, but the self-denial I was engaging in was not God honouring.
And I suspect many of those whom we regard as good at “denying themselves” may not be doing quite what Jesus had in mind.
You deny yourself in order to follow Him.
He’s not promising a bed of roses – hence the take up your cross piece.
But nor is he interested in making self-denial a race to be won, an award to achieve or a destination to reach. The destination is Jesus. Follow Him. Along the way, there are distractions and temptations that will arise, and to those He reminds us: deny yourself. But the point isn’t to put yourself last – the point is to put Jesus first. When He’s in focus, the rest comes into focus, too.
I wish I had more words to explain this. I’m not arguing with Scripture, I just know how this statement has lead me off-track way too often, and I suspect I’m not the only one.
What self-denial is not
How do I explain it? I know one way: in my old worldview, to rest meant to let others down. Resting meant putting myself first – the polar opposite of what Christianity teaches. But I had it wrong. With Jesus in the forefront, it meant putting Him first and that’s where my healing began.
I am in a season of rest and guess what? It’s making me a better Jesus-follower. Yet I hear “deny yourself” and the first thing that comes to mind is guilt for the money & time I now spend at the local gym, or the hour I take DAILY to have a cup of tea by myself, journal and read Scripture. That’s a lot of time & money I use that take away from our family’s resources to look after myself. It feels selfish. I feel like I should “deny myself” and get back to work. But that is NOT what the Bible is saying. Does that make sense?
And the only filter I know of to discern the difference between godly self-denial and, well, stupid self-denial – the kind that leads to destruction – is to hold tightly to part two: follow Jesus. I am convinced my self-care routine, despite the money and time investment, is making me a better Jesus-follower. But I did give up my Starbucks coffee dates with friends (don’t worry. We still get together. Only now we drink Mountain & Main tea at my house or go for walks instead!) That’s a self-denial that is leading to godliness. I will have many opportunities to deny myself, but I want to use the filter: and then what? And then am I serving someone else? Or am I following Christ? (They’re not always the same). Because when I give something up to follow Jesus, there’s good fruit. But too many of us are giving up good gifts to follow culture, or a person, or an ideal that isn’t bringing us more in line with Jesus.
So when you hear the verse “DENY YOURSELF, take up your cross and follow me” I wonder what goes through your mind? Can I encourage you to step back for a bit of perspective, and put the emphasis on those last two words? FOLLOW ME. Because that’s always the goal.