Self-denial is core to the Christian experience. This is, in fact, the prerequisite Jesus gave to following Him:
Then he said to them all, “If anyone wants to follow after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life because of me will save it (Luke 9:23-24).
As Christians, we are familiar with the image of the cross. It adorns our buildings, it hangs around our necks, it’s hung on our walls. But for those who first heard these words of Jesus, the invoking of the cross was far from sanitized. It was scandalous. It was not a subject that was talked about in polite company.
The cross was reserved for the worst kind of criminals. It was about blood. Suffering. Torture. And above all, it was about death. No one climbed down from a cross after a few hours. So Jesus made no bones about what it meant to come after him. If anyone seeks to follow Jesus, they are choosing to walk the way of death.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer famously once wrote that when Christ calls a man, He bids him to come and die. This is the way you follow Jesus – whether you’re young or old, rich or poor, educated or not. Fundamentally, when we follow Jesus, we walk the road of self-denial. It’s true for us – and it’s true for our children.
Thing is, self-denial doesn’t come naturally. Nor does it come all at once. In my experience, self-denial is incremental. It’s built on one small choice at a time, and is therefore a learned habit. If that’s true, then one of the ways we bring up our children in the way of faith is by helping them learn to deny themselves. But how do we do that? How do we do it especially since it’s so hard not only for them but not for us?
We do it the same way we learn this discipline ourselves – through small, everyday choices. And here are three simple ones:
1. Make them attend their siblings “thing.”
Granted, this only works if you have multiple children, but if you do, chances are they are different from one another. Each one of them has a “thing,” be it baseball, ballet, violin, or robotics. At some point that “thing” is going to have an activity, and if that “thing” isn’t the same “thing” as their siblings’ “thing,” that activity might be considered boring.
Now the temptation as a parent is to avoid conflict. You might think that of course, your son doesn’t have to go to his sister’s basketball game because he doesn’t enjoy basketball. But here is one small chance to teach this practice of self-denial. Rather than trying to convince your son that basketball is actually awesome, we might do better to acknowledge that he doesn’t find it exciting, but to remind him that he is going to go not because he loves basketball but because he loves his sister. Again, it’s a small thing, but it’s a step forward in experiencing what it means to deny yourself.
2. Be disciplined in the giving of gifts.
Every parent loves giving gifts. And it’s a good thing to do so. We ought to enjoy giving good gifts to our children, ones that not just satisfy their needs but actually make them happy. But here again is another opportunity to build in a small way of self-denial.
A child probably shouldn’t get everything they want for Christmas. They probably shouldn’t receive everything they desire on their birthday. Some friends of ours introduced this philosophy to us some time ago around Christmas, and it’s been extremely helpful: Each child gets something they want, something they need, something to wear, and something to read. You’re covering all the bases, but you’re not giving everything, and by God’s grace our kids are growing to not expect to have all their wishes fulfilled right when they think they should be.
3. Make them be selective in their activities.
I am consistently amazed by the sheer volume of opportunities there are for children in today’s culture. It seems like everywhere you turn there is a permission slip, a tryout, or a sign-up form for some activity or another. There are travel sports teams, art lessons, school musicals – you name it, and it’s all out there waiting for us to say “yes” to on behalf of our kids.
It’s all a little difficult to sort through, especially since every activity seems to be “the” activity. On a given week, the same child might be convinced that they need to be an actor, a tennis player, a playwright, and an outdoors expert. Part of our job as parents is to help curate these opportunities – or even better, to help our kids curate the activities themselves. This is yet another way to help our children learn self-denial. Sure, they might be on the basketball team, the choir, the baseball team, and in the play, but I’m convinced doing them all is not ultimately best for them. Or their families. So let’s make them choose. And help them choose wisely.
4. Encourage them to serve, not just attend, church.
One of the ways we all can practice self-denial is through the local church. The church is a place where we can find ourselves, by losing ourselves, and we do so by serving. Serving in the church is an opportunity to give our time, our effort, and our energy in often unsung and unthanked ways… and that’s a good thing. Just like it’s a good thing for us, it’s a good thing for our children.
As a side benefit, teaching our children to serve, and not just attend church is also one of the ways we more fully embed the life of the church in their lives. If we want our children to love the church, then help them serve the church.
Parents, it’s not easy to deny ourselves. It’s not supposed to be. But according to Jesus, it’s only through self-denial that we actually find ourselves. This is what we want, isn’t it? Not for our children to have everything they want, but instead to truly find their lives in Christ.