Sometimes delivering a message is easy. A trip to Disneyworld? A bonus at work? A clean bill of health? These are easy messages to deliver because we know how they are going to be received. These are the kind of messages that burn in our hearts not because they must be delivered, but because we desire to deliver them. They make the person receiving the message feel good, and they make the one making the delivery feel good.
And then there are other messages. The bill is more than we thought. We have found a spot on the X-ray that needs to be looked at more closely. We are going to have to downsize and move in a different direction. These are hard messages for the same reason the others are easy – we know likely how the person receiving them will feel, and we feel a sense of dread and trepidation at being the messenger that makes it happen.
These messages burn in our hearts as well – because these are messages that must be delivered, regardless of what the response will be. And so we turn from that general description of messages to the specific message that comes part and parcel with Christianity – the message of self-denial. And with that, we also face the fact that in many cases, this message will not be received well. It won’t be particularly enjoyed whether we are delivering it to someone else or when we are preaching it to our own souls. Self-denial is hard. Painful. Full of loss. And yet the message of self-denial is an imperative message to deliver, regardless of the consequences, and here are three reasons why:
1. Because Jesus said so.
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).
Dietrich Bonhoeffer famously once wrote that when Christ calls a man, He bids him to come and die. That’s what the imagery of taking up your cross means – it’s about death to our selves. And notice that Jesus makes no qualifications about this – “he said to them all…” 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. No self-denial, no discipleship. No discipleship, no Jesus.
2. Because our culture is moving us toward “me.”
Henry Ford once said that he could make a car in any color people wanted as long as the color was black. Times have obviously changed. One of the effects of technological advancement is the increase in customization. Now, you don’t just buy a pair of shoes; you design your pair of shoes. You don’t just see ads online; you see ads that have been created for you based on your browsing history. And as you look at things like social media, you see content that is increasingly tailored toward your likes and preferences. Everything in the world is moving increasingly toward “me” to the point where there are very few instances in which we have to die to our own preferences, or even be inconvenienced.
This is not the way of Christianity, and because our whole culture is pressing us further toward “me”, it’s imperative we not lose the message of self-denial. We must preach it to ourselves, to our churches, and to our children because the opposite of that message is being implicitly preached all around us.
3. Because it’s the only road to true fulfillment.
Let’s go back to Luke 9:
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” (Luke 9:23).
We’ve already said that the road of following Jesus is fundamentally about self-denial. But lest we think that Jesus is anti-personal fulfillment, we need only keep reading to what He said next:
“For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life because of me will save it.”
Jesus is not saying that self-denial is the end; He’s saying that it’s the beginning. Jesus is not anti-self-fulfillment – He just knows that true fulfillment only comes on the other side of self-denial. This is the most ironic reason of all that we must be loud and proud about the road of self-denial – it’s because only through denying ourselves that we fund our true selves.
Some messages are easy to deliver, both to others and ourselves. But the ease of delivery does not determine the quality of the message. We must swim against the current of the culture, and the current of our own hearts, for if we want to follow Jesus, then we must deny ourselves over and over again.