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

Some of the things a man may have to forsake in following Christ, he has not to forsake because of what they are in themselves. Neither nature, art, science, nor fit society, is of those things a man will lose in forsaking himself: they are God’s, and have no part in the world of evil, the false judgments, low wishes and unrealities that make up the conscious life of the self which has to be denied. But in forsaking himself to do what God requires of him, a man may find he has to leave some of God’s things, not to repudiate them, but because they draw his mind from the absolute necessities of the true life in himself or in others. Then he who knows God will find that knowledge opens the door of his understanding to all things else. He will become able to behold them from within, instead of having to search wearily into them from without. Then will the things he has had to leave be restored to him a hundredfold. So will it be in the forsaking of friends. It is not to cease to love them, “for he that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, how can he love God whom he hath nor seen?” It is to not allow their love to cast even a shadow between us and our Master; to be content to lose their approval, even their affection, where the Master says one thing and they another. It is to learn to love them in a far higher, deeper, tenderer, truer way than before—a way which keeps all that was genuine in the former way, and loses all that was false. We shall love their selves, and disregard our own.



by Dave Roney

The Christ in us! Nothing but that self can displace the false, greedy, whining self, of which, most of us are so fond and proud. And that self no man can find for himself; seeing of himself he does not even know what to search for.

— George MacDonald, writing in “Sir Gibbie”
Now, with the help of God, I shall become myself.
— Soren Kierkegaard

When our Lord spoke the words “If any man would come after Me, let him deny himself...” we must understand what the words mean and to whom they are addressed.  There are two types of people who will hear the words, and they will, in fact can only, understand them differently.  His phrases “come after,” “take up his cross,” and “follow Me” indicate that group to whom His words “deny himself” belong; the entire structure of the sentence points to only His disciples.

There may have been others present when the Lord spoke these words, and He would not deny them hearing, for ours is a God Who constantly reveals Himself, but understand: To the world His offer is “Come unto Me,” to His men it is “Come after Me;” those who would take up their cross daily must first come to Him, then He will instruct them in how to follow after Him.  To the world He says “Come unto Me and I will give you rest;” to His men He says “Come after Me and I will give you labor.”  To the world He says “Come unto Me that you might have life” but to His disciples “Come after Me that you might die!”  And for the dying He yet further encourages by, in Luke 9:24, a contrast: If a man would keep his old Self he will lose his true self, but if he will put the old Self to death, then he will live; “He who loses his life for my sake shall find it.”

Yet here there is a fog thrown over His meaning by the English translations.  For, the phrase “will lose his life” is woefully inadequate.  The phrase so interpreted is drawn from the word “ἀπολέσει” (apol-les-ee) which derives from a root meaning “I destroy,” or “I slay.”  It is a thing “I” must do, which neither God nor any other can do for me.  The old Self is not, then, a thing I can “lose” nor should it be understood in such a non-violent way; it is a thing I must deliberately destroy—even closer to the truth is to say I must annihilate it.  Therefore “If” I am to follow after Christ, I must slay the old Self, do it through the daily, momentary, continuing, crucifixion of it, do it consciously, deliberately, and willingly.  And if I do not that, I am not following Christ. 

And one further thing is necessary to be said regarding this slaying of the Self.  For, because our world is one of violence, and our culture is ever on a war-footing, and we've come to understand that might must be matched by might, we may think that to slay the old Self is to practice the art of warfare, that by some inner strength, or some fortitude of character, drawn from inner resolve or else by the assistance of God, that we shall become, as is often taught, “over-comers.”  That is wrong, but it does serve to introduce the other aspect of what I am saying; the two types of understanding what it means to “deny Self.”

There are two means by which men attempt to deal with that “world of iniquity” which is the throbbing pustule of the old Self.  The first of these is to suppress the old thing; the second is to slay it.  The world is capable of only the first of these, the believer is able for the second; let no one assume that by following after Christ a man does not still attempt to suppress his proclivities.  The Church is riddled with congregants who are still trying to tame the beast within, to harness it and put a bit in its mouth, or else to lock it in an internalized cage.  But that beast, which is the Self, working from within a man and manifesting itself outwardly in his moods, thoughts, words and deeds, has as much power for destruction as the worst demon has working from the outside in.  It cannot be caged but will escape, it will throw the bit, it will rise up against the man—as long as it has death-life in itSelf—to torment him and keep him from the Abundant Life for which God created him to have and live—it will make him miserable, keep him defeated; he will look around and see others who exude the joy of their salvation and long to have it, yet cannot find how.

The believer who continues to deal with his old Self in the same manner the world deals with their old Self will produce the same worldly results in the child of the Father.  And, in fact, if by “deny self” the Lord intended that His followers should but do a better job of suppressing the old Self, He need not have said what He did—for the entire world is filled with good people, and they are counted as good because they have, to some large degree, been able through discipline to corral the Self and keep it, more or less, under control.  They do it through Self-discipline, by etiquette and refined manners, by social graces learned, by the customs of culture, by a hundred different means they exhibit the best qualities to be found in men.  Yet in every case all these noble efforts do nothing to eradicate the cause of their struggle—for the Self has not, itself, been improved; it is the same miserable old thing which churns in the heart and mind of the best man and the worst of sinners alike.

Granted, the world would become unlivable if good people did not suppress their dark impulses; but that is no victory, at best only a stand-off, where the old saying “win a few, lose a few” is the reality; the constant see-saw of a pitched battle; the field of battle, life itself, producing casualties as we hurt people and are hurt by them, where (if we are honest) our best impulses are our first interests, where we cannot truly love our neighbor as our self because we do not truly love our old Self nor can, it being unlovely and unlovable.  Even the great Apostle struggled with suppression of Self.  Hear him in the 7th of Romans as he admits the futility of it: “but sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness.”  This is St. Paul speaking in the weakness of Self, recording his failure to do as he ought by the power of the Self, which is only to suppress, as best he is able, the evil in him.

The solution to dealing with the old Self is not to master it, and if that is what you've been attempting to do you know you've failed throughout your Christian life, to thereby make endless attempts to suppress it, then admit the failure of the attempts to yourself; and you should further acknowledge to yourself that, by suppression, you will continue to fail and be miserable—you will continue to confess your sins and pray that God will help you overcome your old Self—but He will not nor can He: He would, in such case, only add to your weakness some additional strength to suppress your evil—when the Lord says “deny yourself” His meaning is “put your old Self to death; crucify it; you must slay it, and cease trying to suppress it!”

When a person comes to understand this difference between suppression and slaying of the Self, and further knows that it is a thing which he or she must them-self do, willingly, in obedience unto God, and then begins to actually do it, the result is that the pseudo-Self dies and the true-self begins to live.  To do it is a matter, not of strength but weakness, not fighting any more but surrendering, it is wrapt in the metaphor of Self-crucifixion with Christ, Who by His cross died for sin as we must die to sin.  The wretched Apostle found this the only solution to his 7th of Romans agony, and to victory, declaring “I am crucified with Christ” and speaking the truth from his emancipated heart “I live even though I've suffered crucifixion death, that of my old miserable Self—I live even as my Redeemer lives—and the life that I now live, my true self, my true life, I live by the power of the Son of God, Who loved me and gave Himself for me!”

The natural, that is to say the old, Self cannot be tamed; it must die, and is like unto the seed which falls into the ground, then in dying it produces the shoot, from whence comes the stalk, then the flower and finally the fruit.  It was true with the Divine, Who in Christ Jesus died to Self from the beginning, and by that daily dying prepared Himself to die as much as God can die, on the cross.  He is our Pattern; we must also die to Self that we might live unto God.  Now, we know that He was tempted in every way that we are, except without sin.  And the more we grow into His likeness, the more we come to habitually put Self to death, the more we shall also be tempted like Him—that is to say, “without sin.”

And the meaning of such sinless temptations is this: We shall be tempted to do good which God does not intend for us to do—the good shall be done in every case before time has ceased, but all things in their order.  There are many times when we, intending the good, might help another—but in what we intend as help may well be to harm.  When the Lord was tempted in the Wilderness it was to good things; good that a hungry man should eat, good that He should rule the world, good that the power of God to save Him should be manifest—but for the best He would ever sacrifice the good, and be content in whatever state He found Himself.  So, in the crucifixion death of the Self comes a different kind of temptation, which must also be slain; the temptation to the good when it would interfere with the working of God:

“But in forsaking himself to do what God requires of him, a man may find he has to leave some of God's things, not to repudiate them, but because they draw his mind from the absolute necessities of the true life in himself or in others.”

And I say to you that when a man yearns to share Christ he will be tempted to give a man a fish when, at times, the Lord would teach that man how to fish—the question is raised, “Can a man outgive God?” and the answer is that he can, if in fact God does not desire, for whatever His reason, that something ought to in that moment or circumstance be given; God often withholds the good for a season that He might later provide the best.  And what is discovered here is a conflict in the believer who, on the one hand and according to the old Self, would press ahead while, on the other hand, his true self would stand in faith and allow nothing except the Spirit lead him, to do or to not do a good thing.  It is a thing hard to understand, but know it we must—that the old Self sometimes appears as the angel of light.

The Self is manipulative, shrewd, and deceitful—Scripture describes it in a certain place as being “desperately wicked, who can know it?”  The old Self will go to any and every length imaginable to have its way in us, will rationalize the unthinkable, will either subtly or overtly demand from us that we live according to its will and not God's, to seek its own rather than His, to go its own way as a rebel without a cause, and to demand from us obedience.  It cannot be negotiated with, no peace treaty can be made with it, it is stronger and smarter than our own rational minds, is able to deceive us, twists reality in the attempt to conform it, the world, our neighbors, and ourselves to it, its desires, its Self-aggrandizement and gratification.  The “natural man” as St. Paul refers to the Self would, in fact, be very god; holding court, making judgments, prosecuting or else exonerating others according to how and to what degree they lend service to and please it.

Knowing these things full well, and better than we know ourselves, when the Lord said that to follow after Him a man must first “deny” himself He intended not suppression of the Self but the slaying of it, the willing Self-crucifixion.  And when He prayed, and lived the prayer, “Not My will but Your will be done” He showed us the Way.  It is not to fight against the old Self but to put it to death.  As we enter into this covenant of Self-dying with our Lord we will, the more we endeavor, discover how powerful the old Self really is.  We shall fail, be inconsistent, especially in the beginning; we will, by the constant conscious application of discipline, of confession, of growing love for our Lord, become better at it as time goes by.  No discipline is mastered by whim, nor by the novice, but by practice: Therefore, with the Apostle, we must put the Self to death on a continuing basis, to, as he said, “die daily.”  And in the death of Self comes the living of the true self, the self that loses itself to find itself, the self that lives by the power of the Son of God... 


Dave Roney

“—let him deny himself.” (Luke 9:23)

“But in forsaking himself to do what God requires of him, a man may find he has to leave some of God's things, not to repudiate them, but because they draw his mind from the absolute necessities of the true life in himself or in others.”

Eating meats is a good thing, but the Apostle will not eat meat if it offends his brother.  Eating bread is a good thing for a starved man to do, but the Lord will die rather than “live by bread alone.”  In St. Paul's case, he refuses because he will not cause a brother to stumble; in the Lord's case He refuses lest He cause Himself to stumble.  Every man is tempted to sin.  The more a man is the true child of his Father, the more of God and therefore the Good that abides in him, the more often his temptation will be brought to him in the form of a good and not an evil; such a man “...may find he has to leave some of God's good things” on occasions, for seasons, perhaps indefinitely if not perpetually.

This is no false asceticism by which we are tempted, as a yoke of bondage placed upon our necks, which is pride; it is the outshowing of true love from the heart for neighbor and for self, in obedience to the Lord's command “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  If we are to “love our neighbor,” we place his welfare before our own; if we are to love our self, “as yourself” He says, it is to put the welfare of Christ before self.  Nor should we allow that any other, or any group, cause us to place upon our necks this yoke of false asceticism, as do some of our clergymen and their flocks, those present-day Pharisees, who insist “touch not, taste not, handle not!”  I say such is pride; it is the pride of false humility: “If with Christ you have died...  why do you submit yourself to regulations?” Paul asks the Colossians; “let no one assume to condemn you by insisting on asceticism, puffed up without reason by his sensuous mind, and not holding fast to the Head, from Whom grows with a growth that is in God.”

One then sees immediately that Self-Denial, which is a good thing, can be done as from the heart or from the flesh, in Christlikeness or as the Pharisee, as the ascetic or as the true child of the Father; the one way foments the pride of self-magnification, haughtiness, and judgment of others, the dark spirit which inwardly says like the Pharisee, standing by himself, not to be associated with the lowly: “God, I thank you that I am not like other men.”  Or, without thought of abstemious constraints, which is Self-Rightousness, to “count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ.”  It is with this “surpassing worth of knowing Christ” that I understand MacDonald's words:

“Then he who knows God will find that knowledge opens the door of his understanding to all things else.  He will become able to behold them from within, instead of having to search wearily into them from without.  Then will the things he has had to leave be restored to him a hundredfold.”

To truly “know God” is the first thing, and He is not first known by the intellect but the heart; and true belief in Him is no academic enterprise but that of obedience.  And if a man will obey, then he shall begin to know.  But the obeying is itself no ascetic denial of self; it may well begin there, but cannot stop there.  For, in that case, a man is but doing what he ought to do because he ought to do it.  We must press on to that which is higher, to suffer the loss of what we may and consider it but rubbish in view of the surpassing excellence before us; we must come to the point where we do as we ought because we desire to do what we ought.  The less of self which is residually within us, the more we will, as Christ, seek from pure hearts to do The Will as that Will becomes our very own will as well.

In our old “self” (which must die at our own will, through daily crucifixion death) we would forsake a friend because we would gain from leaving him, or because he offended us, or some other self-centered reason; now, if we must leave him it is for his good, even to the breaking of our earnest hearts which love him; though in love we may for his good cause to leave him; we will never forsake him.  If we must leave our brother it will be for no less reason than his good which is best served when:

“It is not to allow their love to cast even a shadow between us and our Master; to be content to lose their approval, even their affection, where the Master says one thing and they another.  It is to learn to love them in a far higher, deeper, tenderer, truer way than before—a way which keeps all that was genuine in the former way, and loses all that which is false.  We shall love their selves, and disregard our own.”

Finally: In the reading upon which this note is based there are two particular words used which bear on the entire scope of the reading; the one word is forsake, and the other is repudiate; though the words may be used thesaurally, that is similarly, they are by no means synonyms.  To repudiate a thing or person or idea is to refuse to accept it; to forsake is, in the sense of the Koine, is to turn from, or leave behind.  The ultimate Denial, or Forsaking, of self is the cruciform Jesus suffering, bleeding, dying for sin; it was no Repudiation of Himself by either Him or His Father; the cry from the cross, “Why, O God, have You forsaken Me” is not as some theologians would teach indicative of God's repudiation of Christ.

God repudiates the evil, but not the evil-doer; He may turn His face from a man, but will never remove His hand from him, who is His child without regard to the child's condition.  What God repudiates He will never accept; what He forsakes He will regain by reconciliation in Christ to Himself.  We, likewise, are to repudiate all evil in us, but never to repudiate ourselves; we are to do the same with others, and on any occasion when they, even when they are not sinning, would come between us and God, must forsake; we must allow nothing to come between us and our Father.  As our Father, we turn our face, but never remove our hand, from our neighbor.  And when he has been reconciled to God we will gain him; until then we will not repudiate, which is to condemn, but will leave the door between us wide open to receive him over the threshold when he is able and ready.  Repudiation is permanent; forsaking is for a season.  The Lord forsook bread in the wilderness; He did not repudiate it:

Some of the things [such as bread] a man may have to forsake in following Christ [in His case following the Will of His Father], he has not to forsake because of what they are in themselves.”

But the next sentence following this one is of particular interest to me, for it reads in part:

“Neither nature, art, science, nor fit society, is of those things a man will lose in forsaking himself.”

Here MacDonald makes clear to me that the forsaking of people and things is actually the forsaking of Self; “ forsaking himself” he says.  It is not the things themselves because “They are God's and have no part in the world of evil.”  All that which is “in the world of evil” we repudiate; all that which is God's we accept, enjoy, but may for His service forsake when called upon to do so.  Little of harm to us for the forsaking, it is a temporary and transitional leaving behind.  Through the forsaking we will find; we will find our God as we could not otherwise do, if we are faithful we will eventually find again what we deny ourselves now, we will find others and they shall be ours, and we will find our true self.  Even as it is by dying of self that we have eternal life, so also by forsaking we are constantly finding...

“If any man would follow Me, let him deny himself, forsake himself, abandon himself, and take up His cross and daily follow Me”  (Luke 9:23)