“Then Jesus said to His disciples, ‘If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me’ ” (Matthew 16:24).
SELF-DENIAL IS A DIFFICULT DISCIPLINE, TO BE SURE, BUT IT IS ONE OF LIFE’S MOST IMPORTANT VIRTUES. If we wish to become disciples in any serious sense, we must learn to deny ourselves, take up our crosses, and follow Christ.
One reason we find self-denial so difficult is that it goes against the grain of our culture. The social environment in which we live is increasingly dominated by self-affirmation rather than self-denial. This ethic comes through loud and clear in the lyrics of our popular music. For example, a hit by one of the most powerful pop stars of the past decade tells us, “You’ve got to do what you’ve got to do.” Another song, this one even by an artist known for his spirituality, says, “You’ve got to do it in your own way.”
What is wrong with this philosophy? It is certainly true that when tough personal decisions have to be made, we must summon the courage to act on our own convictions. When we’ve analyzed a decision from every angle and considered the advice of others, the time comes when we have to make up our own minds. Integrity requires that we do what we believe is right, even if this conflicts with the collective judgment of everybody we know.
But the philosophy of self-affirmation advocates far more than the simple following of conscience. Instead, when we’re told that “you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do,” it’s understood that what we’ve “got to do” is whatever we want to do. One of the scariest statements I have ever heard illustrates this ethic. The remark came from a very up-to-date friend who said with evident satisfaction, “It feels so good at this point in my life finally to have the courage to do what I want to do and not what anybody else says I ought to do.” In our culture, “want” defeats “ought” every time.
As “self-actualized” people, then, it is hard for us to learn self-denial. We do not find it easy to yield to God when what we want is on a collision course with His standards of what is right. Yet self-denial is what we must learn. Somehow we must recover the old-fashioned virtue of sacrifice — the willingness to let go of everything except that which most greatly glorifies God.
“We tend to be devoted, not to Jesus Christ, but to the things which allow us more spiritual freedom than total surrender to Him would allow” (Oswald Chambers).