What would happen to a group of people who were encouraged from the day they were born to indulge every whim, desire, and fantasy that entered their minds? Little imagination is needed, because sadly, tragically, we are now witnessing whole generations of people who have been raised on this misguided ideology.
Now let’s consider it from another viewpoint. How often do you say no to yourself? When was the last time you said no to yourself in something that was difficult? Are you clear about the value of saying no to yourself?
Today’s difficult teaching is…
“Deny yourself.” It is from Matthew’s Gospel, chapter 16, verse 24.
For context, the whole verse reads, “Then Jesus told his disciples, “Anyone who wishes to follow me must deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow me.”
Self-denial is the condition that Jesus sets for discipleship. Why is denying ourselves so important? Is it the centerpiece of Jesus’ teachings? No. Why then does Jesus set it as a foundation of discipleship? It’s about freedom and self-possession. The essence of Jesus’ teaching is love, but you can only love to the extent that you are free, and we are only free to the extent that we are able to say yes or no to anything. This self-possession determines our capacity for love. For love is to gift ourself to another, love is self-donation, and you can only give yourself to the extent that you possess yourself.
Someone who has no self-control is completely incapable of love. We see this on full display in people seriously addicted to drugs and alcohol. On the other hand, someone who has great self-control, who can direct his or her thoughts and actions at will toward what is good, true, noble, and just, is truly free and capable of immense love.
This is what Jesus desires for you. He wants his disciples to be capable of immense love. This requires the freedom of self-possession, which can only be developed through the rigorous spiritual discipline of denying yourself.
You will notice also that Jesus’ mandate is “daily,” not some days, occasionally, or when we feel like it. Mastery of anything requires daily practice.
Denying yourself in small things, tiny things, seemingly insignificant things, helps you to develop soul strength just like lifting weights would help you to develop muscle strength. You focus on your work when you would rather indulge a distraction, you go for a walk when you don’t feel like it, you have water instead of juice, you have an apple when you really feel like potato chips, and each of these tiny acts of self-denial sets you free, increases your self-possession, strengthens your soul, and exponentially expands your capacity to love and be loved – and Jesus wants you to love and be loved immensely.
This single idea of denying self is enough to understand why people in today’s culture are rejecting Christianity at an astounding rate. They see it as a limitation and imprisonment. Addicted to the selfish and childish notion that freedom is the ability to do whatever you want, whenever you want, they enslave themselves in a thousand ways and are anything but free.
And yet by rejecting the life Jesus invites them to, they alienate themselves from the one thing they desire more than anything else: love.
The self-denial that Jesus invites us to is not life-limiting, it is life-expanding. At World Youth Day in 2001, Pope John Paul II said, “Jesus does not ask us to give up living, but to accept a newness and a fullness of life that only He can give.”
We do not lose ourselves by denying ourselves, we find ourselves and come into full possession of the-very-best-version-of-ourselves.
The ability to deny oneself seems to be at an all-time low in today’s culture, and loss of self at an all-time high. They are directly related. If the discipline of denying ourselves leads us to discover ourselves, then the rejection of this discipline causes us to lose ourselves.
The teachings of Jesus are full of paradox. It is by denying ourselves that we are set free to live life to the fullest.
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