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

We must deny all anxieties and fears. When young we must not mind what the world calls failure; as we grow old, we must not be vexed that we cannot remember, must not regret that we cannot do, must not be miserable because we grow weak or ill: we must not mind anything. We have to do with God who can, not with ourselves where we cannot. He is our care; we are his; our care is to will his will; his care, to give us all things. This is to deny ourselves. “Self, you may be my consciousness, but you are not my being. If you were, what a poor miserable, weak wretch I should be! But my life is hid with Christ in God, whence it came, and whither it is returning—with you certainly, but as an obedient servant, not a master. For God is more to me than my consciousness of myself. He is my life; you are only so much of it as my poor half-made being can grasp. Because I have treated you as if you were indeed my own self, you have dwindled yourself and lessened me, till I am ashamed of myself. If I were to mind what you say, I should soon be sick of you. No! Let me have the company of the Perfect One, not of you! Of my elder brother, the Living one! Goodbye, self, I deny you, and will do my best every day to leave you behind me.”

Commentary

The Heart of Self-Denial
by Stephen Carney

There are a few definitions of the word “deny.”  One is to refuse to admit that something is true.  This one does not concern us so much at the moment, but a second definition does help us understand what MacDonald is speaking of here.   It is spoken of in the context of refusing to grant someone the things desired.  When it comes to self-denial in the Biblical sense, we are saying that what I wish to have I refuse to grant to myself.   Or as MacDonald says, “Self, you may be my consciousness, but you are not my being.  If you were, what a poor miserable, weak wretch I should Be! But my life is hid with Christ in God, whence it came, and wither it is returning-with you certainly, but as an obedient servant, not a master.”  For the follower of Christ, our desire becomes to do his will and not ours.  We cannot satisfy both at the same time, or at least not until our will becomes his will.  But that is the rub.  Our life of discipleship is the process of choosing his will over ours till the two become one with each other. 

We must learn to will the will of the Father; hence, we are always discovering new places where we are not on the same page with God. 

The struggle then is how do we come to terms with the paradox of not getting what we want so that we can have what we truly desire?  The first lesson is to learn that there is a true self and a false self.  The false self is born in pride, in ego, in the esteeming of one's self.  The false self emerges from the shadows of pride and says, “I deserve this,” or “It will make me famous, make me feel good, make me rich, make me somebody.”  All these are the desires born of the flesh that rob us of our true self, the self that loves God and desires only him.  When we were small children, our true self abided.  We were of the kingdom of God.  We lived out the beatitudes.  We didn't worry about tomorrow, what we would wear or eat.  If we fought we a friend we made up quickly.  I always say, tongue and cheek, It takes a mature adult to hold a grudge for twenty years.  But soon the innocence of childlikeness gives way to childishness, and we wonder, where did that sweet child disappear to?  The child is still there, but like all good children, he or she just sits back and allows the selfish child to rant and rave.  The true child waits for the will to grow strong enough for the man or woman to deny this false imposter of the true self.   Here is where “the old man must die” in order to allow the true child to be born again, and take it's rightful place. 

In MacDonald's The Lost Princess (A Double Story), he writes of Princess Rosamond and a poor shepherdess named Agnes.  Both have been taught to believe that they are special, and both wind up being spoiled.  Both had a sense of entitlement; the only thing different was that one had riches and the other did not.  You don't have to be rich to be spoiled.  The wise woman is called in before the king and queen to cure Rosamond of her “wicked' behavior, and eventually she takes both children and puts each in the home of the other.  The spoiled princess in coming to humble circumstances grows all the better, but Agnes in becoming a princess grows the worse.  Of course. there is a lot of bad parenting here, but also the choices of Rosamond and Agnes play a great part in what they will become.  The theme of the book, as in many of MacDonald's books, could be “What you will be, you are now becoming.”  Rosamond finds her true self in the self-denial of being a peasant, but Agnes cannot find her true self in being made a princess, for there is no self-denial there, as she is given indulging parents with much to give.   Self-denial becomes the key in losing our childishness and returning to child-likeness.  Whenever we tell children they are entitled or special, we must be careful that we are not feeding their false, selfish, conceited self.  To go without our wants never hurt anyone, but to mistake wants with needs ruins nearly everybody. 

I think small children know the difference between pretending and reality better than most adults.  A child can pretend to be a hero or the president, and yet not believe themselves to be so.  But the older we get and the more spoiled we become, we tend not to separate reality from fantasy.  We can begin to believe we are great or entitled to all the world is offering.  We might even take what isn't ours in order to obtain what we believe the world owes us. Escaping reality seems to be the goal of our current generation. They never seem to realize that God has bigger plans for their life than their fantasies.  The moment we deny the false self, we can begin to become our true self, a far more interesting and joyous individual who reflects the glory of the Lord.