Self Denial

And he said unto all, If any man would come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me. For whosoever would save his life shall lose it; but whosoever shall lose his life for my sake, the same shall save it.

— St. Luke 9:23-24

To deny oneself is to act no more from the standing-ground of self; to allow no passing influence between the self and the will; not to let the right hand know what the left hand doeth. No grasping or seeking shall give motion to the will; no desire to be conscious of worthiness shall order the life; no ambition whatever shall be a motive of action; no longing after the praise of men influence a single throb of the heart. To deny the self is to not shrink from condemnation or contempt of the community or country which is against the mind of the Living one; for no love or entreaty of father or mother, wife or child, friend or lover, to turn aside from following him, but forsake them all as any ruling power in our lives; we must do nothing to please them that would not first be pleasing to him. Right deeds, and not the judgment thereupon; true words, and not what reception they may have, shall be our care. Not merely shall we not love money, or trust in it, but, whether we have it or not, we must never think of it as a windfall from event or circumstance, but as the gift of God. It is God feeds us, warms us, quenches our thirst. The will of God must be to us all in all; the life of the Father must be the joy of the child; we must know our very understanding his—that we live and feed on him every hour in the closest way. To know these things in the depth of our knowing is to deny ourselves and take God instead. To try after them is to begin the denial, to follow him who never sought his own.


by James House

The level of self-denial described in today's passage likely appears as intense to most readers.  Indeed parts of my own being cringe at these expectations and hasten to find excuse or reason to find fault in the demands.  As the requirements listed are a reiteration of the Lord's own demands, it is no surprise to hear of how so many people rejected him both passionately and passively.

Parts of my soul scream out:  "If I were to fully do this, I would cease to be me!  If I were to do this what would be the point of being me? I would not be free!".   Other parts bemoan:  "How could I ever possibly do this?  How could I put His will before my love for my friend? My wife? My child? How could I ever put His will before each and every one of my dozens, hundreds of desires?".  Worse parts of me complain: "He expects too much, it's not fair!  I love some of these things too much to set them aside."

Certainly this idea of required complete self-denial is one of the chief areas of complaint against Christianity and perhaps the most frequent maker of hypocrites.  It is also one of the popular areas in which "spiritual advisors" of the flattering stripe find excuses and justifying loopholes for their patrons - giving them a false sense of freedom.

But Christ did demand it.  Read his words.  He stated it again and again - elaborating the point from many angles, showing how each aspect of our life falls within the scope of the demand.  From the beatitudes in his Sermon on the Mount, to the conversation with the rich young man, to his call the the fishermen: "come follow me": all of his teachings point to the need, and indeed his own example underscores the demand.  We must put others before ourselves, offering them the greatest quality of love, by putting God first in all things.  Be ye therefore perfect.

With each attempt and half-success that I have in following the Lord's commandments, I get a greater glimmer of understanding of how giving my will over to his not only preserves my individuality but enhances it.  My faith in the concept has increased, and I believe it to be true, though parts of me still rebel against it, and though my capacity to explain it remains small.  Perhaps like many of the other gospel truths, satisfactory explanation will always be elusive: and understanding can only come from doing.

Though parts of my soul still try to rebel against the idea of complete self-denial, I agree with this sentiment of George MacDonald in Malcolm:  "I could ill believe in a divine influence which did not take the person such as he was; did not, while giving him power from beyond him, leave his individuality uninjured, yea intensify it, subjecting the very means of its purification, the spread of the new leaven, to the laws of time and growth.".   Further, my life experiences have also given me the wisdom and capacity to see the truth in this statement in Alec Forbes of Howglen:  "all wickedness tends to destroy individuality, and declining natures assimilate as they sink."  The evil one has always been a great counterfeiter and liar -- thus it is no surprise that we find feelings in ourselves to rebel against God's will, naming it the destroyer of individuality and freedom, when in fact the rebellion against God's will is the true destroyer of our freedom.

Just as we are free to choose while driving a car whether or not to stop at a stop sign, we have more continued freedom if we obey the law than if we break it (and become bound with legal and medical problems).  Obedience does not take away freedom:  it allows us to choose further and greater obedience, rather than becoming restricted by consequences.

We must ever trust that His love for us includes the desire for us to become our best and most happy selves.  We must trust his words and exercise obedience to find the promised understanding.

Barbara Amell previously shared, from a report of George MacDonald's sermon reprinted in 'Wingfold' Summer 2012: "We only need to see that God is our individual Father, and then He will be our strength and our joy. You do not know how happy God wants to make you, and you will never know it till you have given up yourself and taken Him instead."

MacDonald's writings are full thoughts and insights on individuality and giving of our will to God.  Here are some passages from Miracles of Our Lord to ponder:

But once more the question recurs: Why say so often that this and that one's faith had saved him? Was it not enough that he had saved them?—Our Lord would knit the bond between him and each man by arousing the man's individuality, which is, in deepest fact, his conscience.

A great deal of what is called freedom of thought is merely the self-assertion which would persuade itself of a freedom it would possess but cannot without an effort too painful for ignorance and self-indulgence. The man would feel free without being free. To assert one's individuality is not necessarily to be free: it may indeed be but the outcome of absolute slavery.

But as the withered and restored limb to the man, so is the maimed and healed man to his brethren. In every man the power by which he does the commonest things is the power of God. The power is not of us. Our power does it; but we do not make the power. This, plain as it is, remains, however, the hardest lesson for a man to learn with conviction and thanksgiving. For God has, as it were, put us just so far away from Him that we can exercise the divine thing in us, our own will, in returning towards our source. Then we shall learn the fact that we are infinitely more great and blessed in being the outcome of a perfect self-constituting will, than we could be by the conversion of any imagined independence of origin into fact for us—a truth no man can understand, feel, or truly acknowledge, save in proportion as he has become one with his perfect origin, the will of God. While opposition exists between the thing made and the maker, there can be but discord and confusion in the judgment of the creature. No true felicitous vision of the facts of the relation between his God and him; no perception of the mighty liberty constituted by the holy dependence wherein the will of God is the absolutely free choice of the man; no perception of a unity such as cannot exist between independent wills, but only in unspeakable love and tenderness between the causing Will and the caused will, can yet have place. Those who cannot see how the human will should be free in dependence upon the will of God, have not realized that the will of God made the will of man; that, when most it pants for freedom, the will of man is the child of the will of God, and therefore that there can be no natural opposition or strife between them. Nay, more, the whole labour of God is that the will of man should be free as his will is free—in the same way that his will is free—by the perfect love of the man for that which is true, harmonious, lawful, creative. If a man say, "But might not the will of God make my will with the intent of over-riding and enslaving it?" I answer, such a Will could not create, could not be God, for it involves the false and contrarious. That would be to make a will in order that it might be no will. To create in order to uncreate is something else than divine. But a free will is not the liberty to do whatever one likes, but the power of doing whatever one sees ought to be done, even in the very face of otherwise overwhelming impulse. There lies freedom indeed.