What Did Jesus Mean about Self-Denial?

Jesus said to his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” Matthew (16:24), Mark (8:34), and Luke (9:23) all agree that Jesus told his followers that they must deny themselves. Mark and Luke include the whole crowd as well as the disciples in the audience. These instructions are familiar to us, but what kind of denial was Jesus talking about?

Was it the kind of denial we practice when we give up chocolate or one of our favorite foods for Lent? Was it the kind of denial that has us pass up a treat or a fun time on principle, to show that we can live without it? Was it the kind of good feeling we get when we take money we would have spent on an expensive trip or outfit and send it to a good cause?

I don’t think so. If denying ourselves something we like is supposed to make us care more for others, it doesn’t work that way. In fact, Psychology Today (September 11, 2013) reports a study that says denying ourselves a treat actually increases our appetite and happiness by helping us enjoy the treat we gave up even more when we indulge in it the next time. So much for denial as a sacrifice.

Jesus doesn’t say that followers should deny themselves luxuries, or a comfortable life, or even things they enjoy. He says that they must deny themselves (ἀπαρνησάσθω ἑαυτὸν). This is the same original Greek word that the gospels use when they describe the way Peter denied Jesus when he was arrested.

What did Peter do? He had three chances to affirm or deny his relationship with Jesus, and each time he spoke more strongly. As Matthew (26:69–74) reports it,

  • Now Peter was sitting outside in the courtyard. A servant-girl came to him and said, “You also were with Jesus the Galilean.” But he denied it before all of them, saying, “I do not know what you are talking about.”
  • When he went out to the porch, another servant-girl saw him, and she said to the bystanders, “This man was with Jesus of Nazareth.” Again he denied it with an oath, “I do not know the man.”
  • After a little while the bystanders came up and said to Peter, “Certainly you are also one of them, for your accent betrays you.” Then he began to curse, and he swore an oath, “I do not know the man!”

Lying and cursing and swearing do not make Peter a good role model for behavior in a crisis, but he does illustrate how serious a denial can be.

The form of the word in Greek (ἀπαρνησάσθω) that Jesus is using is not simple denial, but denial with a prefix (ἀπ) that makes it especially intense (ἀπαρνησάσθω), like the difference between bad and worst or good and best. This kind of denial can mean:

  • to deny strongly, with the implication of rejection
  • claiming no knowledge of or relationship to someone
  • to affirm that one has no acquaintance or connection with a person
  • reject, deny with repudiation, or disavow
  • disown, renounce claim to someone or something
  • to deny utterly, to abjure

This is the kind of denial that severs family ties, ends relationships, and leads to one person saying of another, “I never knew you.” It is also the form of denial that Jesus uses when he says:

Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven; but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven. (Matthew 10:32–33)

This denial is absolute, total, and complete.

When Jesus uses this intense form of denial as an action toward oneself (ἀπαρνησάσθω ἑαυτὸν), it is interpreted as meaning:

  • to forget one’s self, lose sight of one’s self and one’s own interests
  • act in a wholly selfless manner, give up one’s own personality

How can Jesus expect us as his followers to distance ourselves so completely from the people we have always been? How can we walk away from our identities, the personalities we have developed over the years, the people we are used to being? It is clearly not easy.

Paul talks about the new life we have in Christ in his letter to the Romans:

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. (Romans 6:3–4)

In this new life, we walk away from the life we have lived, the kinds of people we have been, to become someone who is reborn to be like Christ. We are still the same person on the outside with the same name and body, home and relatives, jobs and hobbies, but now instead of doing everything for our own motives, we have accepted and live out of the mind and motives of Christ. This is a new life in the strongest sense of the words, since even though the externals are the same, the person inside has had a complete change of perspective.

Ruth Burrows, one of my favorite authors, explains very clearly how this change of mind, into the mind of Christ, can work for us today:

By nature we stand on the viewpoint of self and judge other people, things, what is happening from that stand. Faith demands that we deliberately get off that stand and move to another, the viewpoint of Jesus, and then, how different everything looks.

This needs constant effort, constant readjustment. Unless we undertake this battle against our subjectivity—how we feel, how things look to use, and so forth—and choose to stand on Jesus and live our lives in his vision, we shall never get anywhere. And yet, how few do this day in day out until it is second nature, their own nature. These indeed, have put on the mind of Christ. (Burrows, Essence of Prayer, p22)

Burrows says that “accepting the friendship and companionship of Jesus … is a decision to shift the center of our lives from ourselves to him, to forgo self-interest and make his interests, his will, our sole concern. (Burrows, Essence of Prayer, p21)

Many of us undertake roles in life, in our jobs and in our relationships, that require a personality that is learned and not what we would do or be naturally. My therapist once said, “I’m a much nicer person as a therapist than I am as a human being.” Those of us who act as ministers know that we put ourselves into a caring role, leaving our personal reactions aside when we interact pastorally. Those in sales or customer service jobs know that their professional role requires them to put on a personality that is focused in the people they are helping. In professional roles, we can “become” a kind of person who acts out of personality traits that may not be our first choice in other circumstances.

What it takes to make the shift into a person more like Jesus is much more than asking “What would Jesus do?” It requires getting to know him so well that we can develop into the kind of person that he is. Peter talks about this in his first letter when he says,

Like obedient children, do not be conformed to the desires that you formerly had in ignorance. Instead, as he who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in all your conduct; for it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.” 1 Peter 1:14–16

We need a whole lot of help to do this, in prayer and by welcoming the Holy Spirit into our daily lives, but this is what Jesus asks and expects of his followers. May we all be willing to take up the challenge.

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