Everyone you know—including your Christian friends—has been seduced by the siren song: “Be true to yourself.” David Kinnaman has said that seventy-six percent of practicing Christians in the U.S. now think the best version of themselves can be found by looking inside.
Studies show that each generation in America is more anxious and depressed than the last. Suicide rates are skyrocketing even though we have more doctors and treatments available than ever. We’re looking inside for meaning, but finding emptiness instead.
As believers, time spent searching our hearts for truth and meaning numbs us to what it means to live like Jesus, who says we can’t follow him unless we deny ourselves.
But what does that mean?
WHAT “DENY YOURSELF” MEANS
The concept of denying yourself comes directly from Jesus, most notably in his call to discipleship in Luke 9:23: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.”
If you’re like me, that statement leaves you with lots of questions, like, “What should I be denying myself?” or, “Am I denying myself enough?”
Darrell Johnson, a professor of pastoral theology, explains:
“To deny yourself means to deny your self-lordship. It means saying no to the god who is me, to reject the demands of the god who is me, to refuse to obey the claims of the god who is me. [It means we say] a decisive no—‘I do not know the lord Me—I do not bow down to him anymore.’ ”
Understood this way, it’s not hard to see how important self-denial is in following Christ. In fact, self-denial is the essence of discipleship to Jesus. It’s crucial if we’re going to follow the Master who came to lay his life down for others.
Denying self is essential because it allows us to conquer our own will in favor of the Father’s. “[Jesus] wants to lead and he asks me to follow,” Bill Hull writes. “That drives a stake through the heart of my will, my ego, and my desire to control.”
What are we to deny ourselves of that is so painstaking?
WHAT WE ARE TO DENY
“When we follow Jesus, we deny ourselves the right to justice in human relationships. We deny ourselves the right to a good reputation and immediate vindication,” Hull writes in The Complete Book of Discipleship.
After all, that’s what Jesus did. Though he was God in the flesh, he emptied himself of his rights as God (see Phil. 2:1-11) and gave himself over to the judgment and opinions of others without guarding his reputation.
The heart of self-denial is giving up your need to control every thought or opinion others have of you. Which means you have to die to your metrics of success, along with the world’s—and, yes, even the church’s. You must not allow success to be defined by anything other than obedience to Christ’s commands.
Self-denial is about more than giving up control of your idea of success. Ultimately, it involves giving up control of your future. This is where most start to chafe under the yoke of Christ, like Hull, who says, “My natural bent is to follow my vision, my dreams, my heart—and then periodically check behind me to make sure Jesus is blessing what I’ve chosen.”
Often, we say we’re following Jesus, but what we really want is Jesus following us. If we are to follow Jesus, we must deny—say no to—ourselves. That has always been difficult, but the realities of the modern world make it as complicated as ever.
SELF-DENIAL IN AN AGE OF SELF-FULFILLMENT
Christians in America and other Western countries live in the tension between pursuing a life of self-fulfillment or self-denial. I sense this tension daily. I know Jesus calls me to deny myself, take up my cross and follow him. But sometimes, deep down, I don’t believe he would really ask me to do that.
This is one of the main problems with self-fulfillment. It seeks the happiness of the self over and above all other facets of life so that I can’t imagine someone asking me to do anything contrary to that path.
I think: If realizing my true self in my heart is the path to happiness, then surely Jesus wouldn’t ask me to do something that goes against my heart, right? But Jesus says anyone who wants to follow him must deny himself. . . .
But just when I get close to the truth, the world lures me away. I think about reading the Bible, but I want to keep scrolling and swiping on my iPhone. I think about serving the poor, but it’s much easier to text a donation. I wonder who I should share the gospel with, but I’m more comfortable watching Netflix.
I hope your life is different, but odds are you’re a lot like me. That’s because we’re programmed to seek fulfillment inside ourselves. Thankfully, we can be reprogrammed.
WHAT SELF-DENIAL LOOKS LIKE
Instead of hoping in our plans and pressing on to achieve our goals, followers of Christ are to put God first. We are to give up our right, our need, to be the ones setting the agenda, and pass that mantle to Christ instead.
Practically, this means we are to pray first and act later. Instead of asking the Father to bless what we've chosen, we are to seek his wisdom and will before strategizing. “Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain” (Ps. 127:1). Most of us plan first, pray later. Self-denial reverses the order.
Once we have the order correct, we can think about why we are to deny ourselves. Here we come to Christ’s example once more. When pressed by two of his disciples who wanted seats of honor in his kingdom, Jesus replied, “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).
In this incredible statement, we see that the purpose of denying ourselves is for the good of others. Jesus was going to lay down his life for the salvation of others, and he calls his followers to do the same. In his short book Discipling, Mark Dever writes:
“Being a disciple of Jesus means orienting our lives toward others, just as Jesus did. It means laboring for the sake of others. … We set our sights on serving others for Christ’s sake, just as Christ came into the world not to be served, but to serve and give his life as a ransom for many.”
DIE TO YOURSELF SO YOU CAN LIVE IN CHRIST
Dying to yourself effectively means saying no to your dreams, desires, and ambitions. That sounds depressing, doesn’t it? Only if you don’t consider how saying no to yourself allows you to say yes to Christ.
As you die to yourself, you make more and more room for Jesus to take up residence in your heart and mind. You remove your selfish ways and replace them with his selfless ones. That’s a difficult, sometimes painful, process. But unless you die, Jesus won’t live in you.
Jesus promises to give his followers abundant and eternal life (see John 10:10), but he makes it clear that following him is costly and difficult.
That’s not the narrative many of us are telling ourselves, though. As Hull writes, “We all admire self-denial in others, but we seem to detest it in ourselves.”
We want the abundance Jesus offers without accepting the cost and making the sacrifices. We want godliness without having to work for it. We want fulfillment without learning to find it in Christ.
We want the resurrection without the crucifixion.
But that’s not how it works.
NO RESURRECTION WITHOUT THE CRUCIFIXION
Darrell Johnson writes that there can be no resurrection without the crucifixion—for Jesus or his disciples. He goes on to say:
“Jesus calls his followers to think of ourselves as already dead, to bury our earthly hopes and dreams, to bury the plans and agendas we made for ourselves. He will either resurrect our dreams or replace them with dreams and plans of his own. … This is a hard but liberating saying. … Freedom comes when we lay down the ill-gotten false crown, when we say no, when we live as though the gods who are us have already died.”
Looking inside ourselves will never satisfy our consuming desire for fulfillment that can only be found in Christ. We must repent of our quest for self-fulfillment and press on to win the prize that can only be won through self-denial.
We can follow our hearts or we can follow Jesus, but we can’t do both.
Grayson Pope is a husband and father of three, as well the Managing Web Editor at GCD. He serves as a writer and editor with Prison Fellowship and has earned a MACS at The Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. For more of his writing check out his website, or follow him on Twitter.