This article is part of Sister Michelle Watson's deep dive into the concept of "deny yourself" (Mt. 16:24, Mk. 8:34, Lu. 9:23, 3 Ne. 12:30).
In wild excitement for a study abroad program in Florence, Italy, the summer of my freshman year of college, I read "The Agony and the Ecstasy" by Irving Stone. It's a biographical fiction about Michelangelo, and I remember the passages that describe his approach to sculpting. He'd look at a block of marble and think, "OK, the finished sculpture is in there somewhere. I just need to chisel away anything that is NOT my masterpiece."
It's kind of the same with definitions. When a word has a complex meaning, sometimes the first step in defining it is to describe what it's NOT. Self-denial certainly qualifies as complex, so I'm taking the "chisel away" approach.
What Self-Denial Is NOT
I believe it's not denying who I am or how God made me. For example, I'm newly baptized and I decide to immediately move to a foreign mission field and start converting some souls. Without deep roots, I won't last long, right? (Matt 13:20-21) I shouldn't sacrifice self-awareness for self-denial.
It also doesn't mean going into denial. It sounds funny ha-ha, but I've actually seen people do this in the name of self-sacrifice. We go to spiritual extremes without letting ourselves see the toll that it's taking (in a bad way). Nope. It doesn't mean sticking my head in the sand.
I also believe self-denial is not self-hatred. My brother-in-law has an awesome T-shirt that says, "I'm the wretch the song talks about." (Yes!) I definitely need to know my place before God, but I don't have to loathe my existence. I'm God's creation, after all, and He says I have value (Luke 12:6-7).
It may go without saying, but self-denial is not masochism. This is an extreme form of self-denial where you find perverse pleasure in pain and suffering — of yourself or others.
Last one. Self-denial is not meaningless suffering. In Viktor Frankl's "Man's Search for Meaning," a fascinating chronicle of the doctor's harrowing experiences in Nazi concentration camps, he describes how prisoners who couldn't make meaning out of their suffering did not survive the ordeal. Yes, I believe the Lord asks me to walk through periods of physical and emotional privation, but there's always a good reason for it. I don't think God wants me to suffer for suffering's sake.
Alright, this "chisel away" exercise helps bring the definition into better focus for me. Moving forward, though, I need to identify what self-denial actually is.
Based on some preliminary scripture study, I think self-denial embraces these things:
- Self-abasement (humility)
- Self-sacrifice (charity)
- Self-restraint (discipline)
- Self-condemnation (conviction of sin)
- Submission (following God)
Self-denial rejects these things:
- Self-exaltation (pride)
- Selfishness (greed)
- Self-indulgence (worldly pleasures and lusts)
- Self-justification (self-righteousness)
- Self-will (stubbornness)
So, that's where my studies are headed in the weeks to come. Where are yours headed?
This article has undergone ministry review and approval.