Written Word

A Life of Self-Denial

If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me….And anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. (Matthew 16:24; Luke 14:27)

Following Jesus involves both self-denial and crucifixion. Jesus could not have made this plainer. He calls for wholehearted devotion to him for life.

Self-denial brings medieval images to mind: mortification of the flesh, hard beds, hair shirts, cold showers, draughty monasteries, celibacy, the absence of fun and creature comforts. Spartan! Yet self-denial is none of these. Neither is it having low self-esteem, always running yourself down, never rejoicing in the good you accomplish or never laughing.

We can say that self-denial is saying no to what we want to do and saying yes to the will of God.

Here are a few example to help amplify the point.

On the night of his betrayal, Jesus went to the garden of Gethsemane and prayed. Ahead of him lay his arrest, trial and execution. He prayed, ‘My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.’ Praying a second time he said, ‘My Father, if it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may your will be done’ (Matthew 26:39,42). The spirit of self-denial is heard in his words, ‘not as I will, but as you will.’ Jesus came from heaven to earth, not to do his will but the will of the Father. Through his death he was showing us the real meaning of self-denial.

Another example of self-denial is displayed by Mary. Informed that she would give birth to the saviour of the world she responded, ‘I am the Lord’s servant … may it be to me as you have said.’ (Luke 1:38) In these words, Mary echoes the sentiments of the Lord’s prayer, ‘Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.’ She would become pregnant, not through sexual intercourse, but though the intervention of the Spirit. This had never occurred before, so there was no one she could consult who had undergone a similar experience. No support group existed for virgins who conceived miraculously. And how would she explain her pregnancy to Joseph, the man to whom she was engaged? These were real concerns, nevertheless she chose to do the will of God. That’s self-denial.

Among those who worked alongside the Apostle Paul was an outstanding disciple named Timothy. Self-denial was a way of life with him and Paul paid a glowing tribute to his tireless efforts for the Lord Jesus Christ. He wrote to the church in Philippi:

I hope in the Lord Jesus to send Timothy to you soon, that I also may be cheered when I receive news about you. I have no one else like him, who takes a genuine interest in your welfare. For everyone looks out for his own interests, not those of Jesus Christ. But you know that Timothy has proved himself, because as a son with his father he has served with me in the work of the gospel. (Philippians 2:19-22)

Timothy’s life of self-denial is captured in the words, ‘I have no one else like him, who takes a genuine interest in your welfare. For everyone looks out for his own interests, not those of Jesus Christ.’ Unlike some who looked out only for their own interests – what’s in it for me, how much will this cost me, let someone else do it – Timothy was driven by only one ambition – to do the will of Christ irrespective of the cost to himself. That’s self-denial.

The doing of the will of God, rendering obedience to God, saying yes to God is what self-denial is all about. And when the temptation to sin comes our way, and it will, we must practice self-denial. This point is discussed in the previous lesson.