Self-Denial Is an Invitation

Sunday of the Adoration of the Holy Cross, March 11, 2018
Hebrews 4:14-5:6; Mark 8:34-9:1

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.

If any man would come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me.

These are the words of the Lord Jesus. If you are like me, when you first try to take them seriously within yourself, you reject them. Why? Because I do not want to deny myself.

Denying myself is not something I am accustomed to doing. Rather, I indulge myself. I give myself what I want. And even if I am not being what we normally think of as “self-indulgent,” the way that I arrange my life is the way that I want it. I set my schedule the way I want it. My preferences are what run most everything in my life. And I live in a culture that encourages that and has a vast apparatus designed to deliver to me what I want.

Denying myself is not easy, and there is almost nothing in my culture that encourages it—the opposite, really. So when I hear “deny yourself,” inwardly my feeling is, “Why?”

Well, why? Because Jesus said so. Okay, but why would He say so?

First, it is the example that He Himself gave us. Christ died for us. We think about that especially on this Sunday of the Cross. Christ, Who is the Son of God and therefore God, emptied Himself and gave up His life for us. That is self-denial. He says, “If any man would come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross.” So He’s basically saying, “Do what I did.” Or, if we see it in terms of the narrative chronology of the Gospels, “Do what I am going to do,” because He hadn’t died on the cross yet.

Okay, so denying myself and taking up my cross is in imitation of Christ. And I want to be like Christ. So I had better deny myself if I want to be like Him, if I want to follow Him. That’s what He said, and that’s what He did.

But what does it do? Is denying myself and taking up my cross just about obeying Jesus and imitating Jesus? Or does it actually have an effect on my life?

It does have an effect.

We are so used to getting our way or at least fighting to get our way that it can be hard for us to imagine that it is actually better to give up on that quest. But what happens if we give up on that? What happens if we actually do deny ourselves?

Well, for one thing, we might be able to hear someone else, for a change. You can’t listen and you can’t make space for someone else if you just keep talking about yourself. And you have to listen for real, not just wait for them to stop talking.

So when you deny yourself, you find that there is actually now an opening for someone else to come into your life. We all have had moments where we did that—or I hope so, anyway. And when we did, we found that there was so much more to life than just ourselves. There are so many things to discover, so many people to know, almost infinite stories to learn. Denying yourself is the road to freedom.

And when you deny yourself, you are actually becoming open to meeting Jesus Christ and having Jesus Christ dwell within you. As I like to say (and need to hear!), as long as you’re full of yourself, you can’t be filled with Christ.

This is all the meaning of the Lord’s words: “For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for My sake and the Gospel’s will save it.”

That is, if you pursue your life and try to preserve your life—which is about not denying yourself, about trying to keep everything about yourself as you want it—then you will lose it in the end. Human beings are made for communion with God, which is what sustains them through eternity. And communion is possible only with self-denial. But we if cut ourselves off from communion by not denying ourselves, then we wither away and die.

How else can I deny myself? Is listening the only way? No, there are many ways. Here is another way: When you come home from work or school, or when you are in the middle of something, or when you are at any other time when you just don’t feel like doing something that someone else needs, that is the moment to fill that need.

It is when you have just had it, when you are just too tired, when you are just too frazzled or too annoyed or too ready to abandon civilization and go live on a desert island somewhere all by yourself—that is the moment when you should find a need and meet it. And usually you don’t have to go find that need. It just shows up. Why? Because Christ is giving you what you need—a chance to deny yourself and take up your cross.

Believe it or not, life is actually simpler when it’s lived this way. Hard to believe, I know! But when you live a life that isn’t about fulfilling your own desires, then it becomes very simple—just meet that need in front of you. Meet it through prayer, through action, through kindness, through a good word—whatever it takes. Become Christ to that other person.

Be as Christ to those around you, just as Christ was with His disciples. Walk with them, talk with them, shower them with love, eat and drink with them, live with them, sacrifice for them, and die for them. This is how Christ taught us. This is what Christ showed us.

When you live this life of love, which is what the life of self-denial is, another thing you may notice is that you will be offering the same freedom to those around you. They are in a sense being given permission to return to innocence, to deny themselves as well. You inspire them with your love to respond with love. The way of love becomes contagious, multiplying in other people.

This is all why Jesus is able to say to us in Matthew 11:30 that His “yoke is easy and [His] burden is light.” Coming to Jesus is actually the way of rest, the way of peace.

If we feel like being a true Christian means being hardcore (whether we like that idea and so embrace such a spirituality or dislike that idea and so reject Christianity), then we have missed what Christianity actually is. Denying yourself and taking up your cross is about following Jesus, about becoming like Jesus. And when we do it, we are actually freeing ourselves to encounter Him and be filled with Him. And we are also offering freedom to those around us, because love begets love.

When you are like Jesus, other people will also want to be like Jesus. They will be drawn to Him in you. And the only way to become like Him is to deny yourself and take up your cross.

And finally, what is the cross He would have us take up? Is it just whatever suffering comes our way? No, it is not mere suffering. Rather, to take up our cross is to empty ourselves on behalf of those around us, just like Jesus did. It is to offer ourselves up as living sacrifices, holy and acceptable to God, which is our reasonable service (Rom. 12:1).

When we hear Jesus say, “Deny yourself and take up your cross,” we should not hear some heavy, painful command. Rather, we should hear an invitation. It is an invitation to freedom, to love, to being changed to be more like Him and to be able to offer that beautiful life to others.

To our Lord Jesus Who first denied Himself and took up His cross for us, with His eternal Father and His all-holy and good and life-giving Spirit, be all glory, honor and worship, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.