Deny yourself, take up your cross and follow me.Luke 9:23
This verse reverberates in the air as the pastor challenges us to move past the me-first culture we live in.
I’m 100% on board, and yet I still cringe;
Deny yourself is not the opposite of love yourself, though it may sound like it.
Deny yourself does not mean stop seeking to understand yourself.
Deny yourself does not mean… well, what does it mean?
Self Denial and Burnout
I’m sitting on the other end of what a life of “denying yourself” leads to: not having any self left to give away. It’s not a good place; not a place I would lead people to. In fact, the pastor in me wants to put up fences and signs; boundary lines marking out the danger zones to keep people away from where I have been. Denying yourself can be a poison.
But the words are there in black and white, and I can’t dismiss the Bible based on my experience; that’s not how good theology works.
What, then, does it mean to deny yourself?
How does self denial with my newfound lessons of self-care, reflection and rest?
Are they opposed, or is there a syncing that brings the two sides together?
When I look below the surface, if I’m honest, I feel like we have a whole culture of denying oneself; only it’s not a healthy culture.
Deny your sadness; paste a smile on that face!
Deny you have problems in relationships; blame it on the circumstances.
Deny that deep longing to be loved; cover it up with a fangirl fetish or Pinterest-perfect life
Deny that broken place inside; dull the pain with medication or the party life.
Deny, deny, deny.
I think we can all agree, that’s not what Jesus meant.
So what does it mean to deny yourself?
The next part of the verse has the clue: take up your cross and follow me.
Jesus has said that elsewhere, too.
Often, in fact. And yes, there was always an element of leaving something behind: denying yourself.
To Peter & Andrew, they had to leave their fishing boats behind.
Matthew left his tax collecting booth
The rich man was asked to leave his riches behind to follow Jesus… but couldn’t.
One potential disciple was even asked to ditch his dad’s funeral to follow Jesus.
There is always something to leave behind.
But I think the biggest clue to the kind of self-denial Jesus was talking about versus the various forms of denial we see all around us, is what comes after. When you deny yourself like Jesus asked, it results in following Jesus.
What does that look like?
It looks like becoming more like Jesus.
Are you loving people better? Are you more peace-filled than yesterday? Is grace getting easier to extend – to yourself and others?
In my case, my self-denial was leading to stress, panic, less grace, more hard edges.
In fact, when I stopped “denying” myself and started attending to myself, I re-discovered gentleness, kindness, peace and fruits of the spirit.
I sure looked good before, but the self-denial I was engaging in was not God honouring.
And I suspect many of those whom we regard as good at “denying themselves” may not be doing quite what Jesus had in mind.
You deny yourself in order to follow Him.
He’s not promising a bed of roses – hence the take up your cross piece.
But nor is he interested in making self-denial a race to be won, an award to achieve or a destination to reach. The destination is Jesus. Follow Him. Along the way, there are distractions and temptations that will arise, and to those He reminds us: deny yourself. But the point isn’t to put yourself last – the point is to put Jesus first. When He’s in focus, the rest comes into focus, too.
Because the first words He said to me on the other side of my so-called “self-denial” breakdown was “rest.” In my old worldview, to rest meant to let others down. Resting meant putting myself first – the polar opposite of what Christianity teaches. But I had it wrong. With Jesus in the forefront, it meant putting Him first and that’s where my healing began.
So when you hear the verse “DENY YOURSELF, take up your cross and follow me” I wonder what goes through your mind? Can I encourage you to step back for a bit of perspective, and put the emphasis on those last two words? FOLLOW ME. That’s the goal.