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.
There is a certain irony here for the Christian, because Jesus doesn’t want us to lose our lives. At least not ultimately. He wants us to save our lives. But He knows that the only way to truly save our lives is to first lose them. Jesus is not anti-personal fulfillment. He is not saying that self-denial is the end; He’s saying that it’s the beginning. He just knows that true fulfillment only comes on the other side of self-denial.
Christians must be the people that are constantly losing their lives, in big and small ways, for the sake of Jesus and the gospel. And as they are, they are finding their lives in Jesus. But the opposite is also true – that we might spend our days trying to save our lives only to find ourselves losing them in the end.
What, then, are some of the more subtle ways that we might be trying to save our lives only to end up losing them? Let me propose three:
1. The way of self-protection.
The longer we live, the more things we accumulate. I don’t know if this can really be avoided entirely; it seems to be just the way things are. Of course, the danger in that accumulation is that we can begin to love the things we have brought into our lives far too much. If we’re not careful, we can begin to devote all our emotional as well as physical energy to making sure that these things we have brought into our lives stay there.
We can, in other words, choose the way of self-protection. We can prioritize making sure that we retain all we have no matter what the expense is to our relationships with others and to our own soul. This defensive mentality is destructive because it puts in a posture of defensiveness; it makes us refuse entry to anything in our lives that might threaten what we currently have. We allow no threat to our power, our prestige, or our aspirations, for our chief aim has become the preservation and protection of these things.
2. The refusal to change.
Perseverance is good. Determination is good. Stability and long-suffering are both good. But the shadow of all those characteristics is a refusal to change. We might be trying to save our lives, only to end up losing them, when we are unwilling to entertain the potential need for us to change something about our lives. That might be a change in neighborhood, a change in career, or a change in some other part of our lifestyle.
We need to recognize that Jesus is always, in a general sense, calling us to change. If not a change in circumstances, He is always moving us toward a greater and greater change in heart. But sometimes, in order to bring about that change in heart, Jesus also moves us to a change in physical circumstances. If we are unwilling to go where He is leading us, then we might well be trying in vain to save our lives.
3. The insisting upon our rights.
Yes, Christians have rights. In a spiritual sense, we have the right to things like dignity and respect because we have been created in the image of God, just like every other human being. And in a more specific sense, depending on the nation where you are a citizen, we also have rights granted to us under rule of law. The problem comes, though, when we confuse what we perceive to be our “rights” with what are actually our preferences. When we begin to insist upon our rights more because of our own comfort than because of our love for God and for others.
We must be careful upon which hills we are willing to die, because here, too, is another subtle way in which we might be trying to save our lives only to end up losing them.
The thing that these three things have in common is that on the surface, they seem innocuous if not actually responsible. All the more reason to be aware. All the more reason to guard our hearts and fully trust them to Jesus. Because isn’t that what losing your life is all about? Isn’t it about putting it all in the hands of One who is trustworthy?
This is the call of Jesus. It’s to find our lives, but to do so by losing them.