Today’s article starts a new series on the topic “Deny Yourself and Follow Jesus.” Well, it’s actually an old series—it may ring a few bells for longtime readers. Sister Michelle Watson wrote it back in 2016. She’s given it a refresh, and it will be here to greet you every Friday in the coming weeks. May it be a blessing!
Here are two words you never hear together: Deny yourself.
When was the last time you saw anything on TV or social media that encouraged you to deny yourself some kind of pleasure?
What about celebrities, politicians, professors, and other intellectuals? Who is stumping “Deny yourself” like it’s super-important and relevant?
We live in a world where we’re repeatedly told:
Yet, 2,000+ years ago, Jesus Christ told His disciples and followers, “Deny yourselves.”
A while back, I felt pressed to study this concept. So, naturally, I procrastinated and put it off.
Finally, after months and months, I read all the verses that contain the command.
“Then said Jesus unto his disciples, If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.
For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it.
For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul? (Matthew 16:24-26)
Luke 9:23 adds the word “daily” like this:
“Let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me.”
That means that it’s not a one-and-done thing to check off a list of good works. This is supposed to be a lifelong habit.
These are beautiful scriptures, but I must admit that I don’t like being told, “Deny yourself” or “Control yourself.” (Shocking, right?) Yet, it’s often exactly what I need to hear, even if it raises my hackles.
I huff and puff and snip, “You’re not the boss of me,” or, “How dare you judge me.”
But, to be a true disciple, I need more than belief in Christ. I need to actually follow Him. I need to follow in His footsteps.
And those footsteps will inevitably lead me to self-denial.
It may sound like a bad thing BUT….
When I lose myself, I gain something in return.
When I lose myself, I gain Christ.
Letting go of “self” frees my hands to accept the (waaaaaaay-better) gifts that God wants to give me.
I find my true purpose.
My life has greater meaning.
My priorities fall into place.
I get to see the world and all the people in it with new eyes.
My heart becomes softer to God and stronger against Satan.
I don’t know about you, but I want to live for something greater.
Humans are hard-wired for selfishness, yet we’ve also got this open port that’s buzzing and sparking with electricity, waiting for the right connection to plug itself in … so we’re no longer isolated and alone.
We yearn for something greater. (We yearn for our Creator.)
But, these scriptures tell me that a major step toward that Christ-connection is denying myself.
Even though I acknowledge the benefits, part of me still asks, “Can I somehow bypass this requirement?”
Denying myself sounds hard. And boring.
Why does Jesus ask it?
If I believe that God is good and that He commands me to do things that are for my own good, then I can only conclude that denying myself will produce good fruit (eventually).
In this article, I grapple with the question: How?
What Does It Mean to Deny Yourself and Follow Jesus?
Merriam-Webster says that self-denial is the “restraint or limitation of one’s own desires or interests.”
After reading that, I’m like…
Self-denial isn’t exactly delightful, no. But it’s also not this horrid thing I should avoid, either.
Let me clear the air by outlining what self-denial is NOT.
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.”
I am most definitely a wretch saved by amazing grace. I 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). He carefully crafted me using a wonderful, deliberate process (Ps. 139:14).
On a similar (more extreme) note, self-denial is not masochism. This is a perverse form of self-denial where you find pleasure in pain and suffering. (That’s Satan’s schtick.)
Self-denial is NOT meaningless suffering.
The book “Man’s Search for Meaning” is a fascinating chronicle of psychologist Viktor Frankl’s experience in Nazi concentration camps. Frankl reflects on which prisoners were most likely to survive the harrowing imprisonment. The physically strongest? The bravest?
Frankl concludes that the prisoners who felt like the suffering “meant something” clung to life better than those who believed it was pointless.
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. Not suffering for suffering’s sake.
My life matters to Him. My suffering matters.
Self-denial is NOT rejecting all pleasure.
Ever meet Christians who act like they were baptized in lemon juice? There’s this notion that following God is supposed to be a dreary journey where we forfeit all pleasure. The less fun you have, the more holy you are.
God wants me to experience joy and happiness. He wants me to laugh and do cartwheels. (But for His reasons.)
Self-denial is NOT denying who you are.
Self-denial doesn’t mean that I have to change myself to fit some arbitrary Christian stereotype. Self-denial is not self-suppression. I can be my authentic self and still follow Jesus.
Loud and outgoing. Shy and quiet. Deep thinker. Quick decision-maker. All okay!
If I truly follow Jesus, then I’m going to transform. But not into a cookie-cutter copy of every other Christian on the planet. I will retain the unique combo of qualities that make me me.
Alright, I have a better idea of what self-denial isn’t. Now, I need to discover what self-denial actually is and how it produces good fruit in my life.
Why Does Denying Myself Matter and What’s at Stake If I Refuse?
If I flat-out reject self-denial, is my soul’s salvation in jeopardy?
Yes, it’s at risk.
It’s not lost…
…but it’s at risk.
Hey, what about God’s forgiveness and grace? He died for that sin. I can’t be perfect all the time. Isn’t this going overboard? #thiefonthecross
Let me ‘splain.
I don’t think that God is going to kick me out of the kingdom for single acts of selfishness, and certainly not when I sincerely repent.
However, if these things characterize my general behavior and everyday living, and repentance is half-hearted or non-existent, then I’m in trouble because I’m not really following the Master.
Jesus said, “Follow me.” How can I be a true follower if I don’t do the things He’s asked me to do but instead go my own way and pay Him lip service?
How can I be one of His sheep if I’m constantly found in someone else’s pasture?
How can I meet Jesus at the end of my life if I’m hardly ever found on the straight and narrow path that leads to Him?
If I’m only embracing the parts of the gospel that make me feel good about myself and affirm what I want, and I consciously reject everything that challenges me to change, sacrifice, and submit, then I’m not following the true and living God.
My god is myself, and “me” isn’t the door that leads to eternal life.
I hope that it comes through loud and clear that I’m talking about a life-defining pattern of unrepentant me-first thinking and behavior rather than single acts, which God is mighty to forgive as often as they happen (and they do).
Scriptures That Link Self-Denial to Soul Salvation
You probably want proof from scripture on this one. Those cornerstone scriptures about self-denial (the ones in the Gospels and 3 Nephi) present this strong connection:
“For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?” (Mt. 16:26)
(See the word “soul” in there?)
Here are a few more scriptures that link self-denial to soul salvation.
- Jacob 2:16 – “Let not this pride of your hearts destroy your souls!”
- 1 Peter 2:11 – “Abstain from fleshly lusts, which war against the soul.”
- Alma 39:9 – “I would that ye should repent and forsake your sins, and go no more after the lusts of your eyes, but cross yourself in all these things; for except ye do this ye can in nowise inherit the kingdom of God.”
- 1 Cor. 9:27 – “But I keep under my body, and bring it into subjection: lest that by any means, when I have preached to others, I myself should be a castaway.”
- Matt 5:29 – “And if thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell.”
Like many other facets of discipleship, self-denial has eternal significance.
Thanks for hanging in till the end of today’s installment. See you in one week for the next part of this series!
This article has undergone ministry review and approval.