POSTED ON FEBRUARY 1, 2012:
Death to Self
The true pathway to real joyfulness
Martin Luther King Jr. once said, "A man who won't die for something is not fit to live."
It is only fitting that King voiced these words. Like King, there have been times in the scope of human history in which a stalwart belief in something has resulted in an honorable martyrdom. Joan of Arc, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Oscar Romero, Stanley Rother, to name a few.
While virtuous self-sacrifice is a genuine act of suffering, there is another type of death that subsists -- a death that needs to transpire while we are actually living.
Jesus once clarified what this type of death might look in the sacred Scriptures. In the book of Luke, chapter 9, he said: "If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it."
C. S. Lewis says it this way, "A crucifixion of the natural self is the passport to everlasting life. Nothing that has not died will be resurrected."
"Die before you die. There is no chance after," says a character in Lewis' "Till We Have Faces."
Jesus said that a person who loses his life for his sake secures the only life worth having. To take up the cross of Jesus is the only true pathway to real joyfulness. If we dig down to the very heart of what it means to live, we find that loss is gain.
To "come after" means to attach oneself to Jesus as his follower. The figure of speech is based on the truth that Christ's "followers" -- not only the 12 disciples but also many others -- often accompanied Jesus and literally, "came on behind" him.
So how do we die to ourselves while we are still living? What does this type of death look like? At the center, I believe we find self-denial. Death in this life is a million self-denials.
Pastor and theologian Matthew Henry has said, "...self denial is the first lesson in Christ's school." When Jesus saves us from our sins by His grace and by faith, we are united to Him, the first lesson He starts to teach is self-denial.
John Calvin, pastor and theologian went even further than Henry. Calvin posited, "...it's the sum of the Christian life." According to Calvin, the sum of the Christian life is found in two words: deny yourself.
So what does it mean to deny yourself? Pastor Ligon Duncan says, "It means to renounce anything that challenges or trumps our allegiance to the kingdom of God...that is what it means to deny ourselves." Duncan is saying that anything that outmaneuvers our fidelity to Jesus is an enemy to self-denial. Anything.
We must be careful not to conceive of this self-denial in a chronological fashion. Jesus is not exhorting his followers to practice self-denial for a while, then after some time passes, take up and carry the cross, then after some more time passes, then follow Jesus. The order is not chronological but logical. The three simultaneously indicate what true self-denial looks like.
There is a flipside to the failure of denying ourselves. Jesus continues in Luke chapter 9 by saying, "For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself?"
Jesus is letting us in on something here. If we refuse to deny ourselves and our longings and wishes for this life and seek our own gratification, will never find it the very thing we are looking for.
In fact, if we get on the treadmill of self-indulgence, Duncan says that, "our souls get smaller and smaller. They shrivel up. They become turned in on themselves. But those who deny themselves, their souls are enlarged."
The soul with wide horizons of self-denial expands. It overflows with peace, assurance, joy. In helping others, it helps itself. In loving, it experiences love, especially that of God. St. Francis of Assisi reflects this in a prayer:
"It is in pardoning that we receive;
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
And it is in dying that we are born to eternal life."
Jesus is urging us to not follow the wrong course: turning inward upon ourselves. And this is a war, friends. In an attempt to hang on to all one's earthly treasures is folly.
The hard truth is that if you chase after your contentment, you will not get it. But if you pursue Jesus, you will unearth a superior satisfaction greater than you could ever imagine. There is no temporal profit that can compare to the forfeiture of the soul.
You see in the end, it's not a denial of self that equals loss of satisfaction. No, it's a depravation of self that leads to an eternity filled with satisfaction -- even beyond this life.
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