What is the role of self-sacrifice in the life of a Jesus follower? I thought I had a grasp on the concept, but lately I feel like I don't understand it at all. It's so much bigger and deeper than I realized. It's life-changing, perspective-shifting, and utterly petrifying.
Denial of self? In this part of the world, that's about as counter-culture as it gets. I am a prime example of the opposite mode of living; preoccupation with self. Most of us are finely in-tune with the wants and needs of ourselves and our families, and we build our lives around fulfilling those desires. This isn't bad. In many ways, it's good. But Jesus invites us to dig deeper.
Jesus wasn't joking when he said: "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me" (Mark 8:34, Matthew 16:24, Luke 9:23).
Generally I just avoid thinking too hard about that statement. I don't like looking at it closely because it's like a 10X magnification mirror. Only instead of revealing every stray nose hair and enlarged pore, it reveals every nook and cranny of my ego, selfishness, and greed.
It's easier to dim the lights and look away. It's more convenient to just skim the overall "denial of self" concept and settle for: "Cool, Jesus. No problem. I volunteer once a week and sometimes I donate paper towels to the food shelf. I'm doing my part. I'm taking up my cross."
But that's clearly not quite what Jesus was talking about. He was nudging his followers into a different mode of existence. If it was overwhelming for the disciples to ponder such an approach, it's only more so for us today.
I keep chewing on Jesus' words in the hopes that with enough bites, I can swallow and digest. When Jesus says, "let them deny themselves," he's saying: let them disregard their own self-interests in order to spend the majority of their energies engaging with the Gospel message of justice, love, and reconciliation.
This raises so many questions! Am I capable of setting aside my own will to genuinely focus on God's? What does it mean for my interpersonal relationships? Do I have to live this way all the time? Can I take "selfish breaks" now and then? What does this concept look like from a congregational and denominational perspective?
Complete denial of self seems extreme. Where does self-care fit in? I believe in the benefits of reflection, self-awareness, and personal growth. Taking care of one's body, soul, and spirit are a way of honoring the life we've been given. I don't think Jesus is asking any of us to give up on caring for ourselves.
But perhaps we invest in self-care for the greater purpose that we are then equipped to give our healthiest, most balanced selves away. Maybe we are only capable of denying ourselves when we find peace and balance within.
I do want to follow Jesus. But sometimes/almost always, he stretches my comfort zone. Thankfully, he accepts me as the navel-gazer that I am and gently tilts up my chin so that I am reoriented with the bigger picture. That loving, graceful forgiveness is for us all.
Denial of self isn't a one-time act. It isn't a switch we can flip. It's something we get to practice every second of every day. We don't deny ourselves to get into heaven. We do it because Jesus asks us to. And we trust that whenever we live this way, the kingdom of God is near.
Holy Spirit, grant us all the ability to place your kingdom and your will above our own self-interest.