Jesus gives one of his most counter-cultural commands in Luke 9:23. In this passage, He says “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” In an over-the-top selfish culture, this command from the Son of God runs the opposite way.
But why does Jesus command us to deny ourselves? He tells us this because our nature–before salvation–is inherently wicked. Our hearts are deceitful above all things (Jeremiah 17:9). So it stands to reason that we must deny that nature—we must starve it!
And here’s the thing, Christian: this is not optional. There is not a healthy Christian life apart from the daily dying to self by self-denial. It’s part and parcel.
Why Self-Denial is Important
Why is self-denial an important aspect of the Christian life? It goes back to our sinful nature that we inherited from Adam. When God saves us, though we are perfectly righteous in His eyes because we have the imputed righteousness of Christ, we still nevertheless live in our fleshly body, where sin resides. Because of this, we wake up each morning having to deal with the nagging cravings of our sinful flesh.
If we do not deny ourselves and rather actively feed our sinful flesh its cravings and desires, we show that we might not be saved. Christians are a people who strive to deny themselves daily. Not to say there’s not a struggle in the denial—as we see, even the Apostle Paul knows that struggle in Romans 7—but we must desire to deny ourselves. If there’s no desire to deny self, there’s surely not a desire to truly follow Christ because, as we see further in Luke 9:23, denying self is an integral part in following Jesus.
When we start to deny ourselves—though unnatural as it may seem sometimes because of our flesh—we begin to obey Christ. Obeying Christ shows that we truly love him (John 14:15). As Christians, our first priority in life is to follow Christ, and this looks foolish to the unbelieving world.
Self-Denial Doesn’t Make Sense to the World
In an increasingly self-absorbed world, the call of Jesus to follow Him by denying ourselves couldn’t be more counter-cultural. The world is running downstream with its perverse ethics, hatred of God, and redefining of social norms; Christians are crawling upstream because God has shown us “the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (2 Corinthians 4:4b). When the world says to embrace yourself, Jesus says deny yourself.
It’s no wonder that people scoff at Christians acting like, well, Christians. They don’t get it (nor do most want to get it). But they also don’t see it (2 Corinthians 4:4a). They cannot see the glory of God through the lens of unbelief. They look at the cross–the center of our faith–and see foolishness (1 Corinthians 2:14).
But we don’t owe the world anything. Looking cool to the world is not a fruit of the Spirit. We should embrace the weird looks, marginalization, and potential persecution. That happens when you follow Christ.
Jesus is Worth It
Though we will experience different degrees of marginalization and/or persecution (2 Timothy 3:12), Jesus is absolutely worth it. The Son of God came and died for us, so we can absolutely live for Him. Jesus is worth the pushback; He is worth the discrimination; He is worth it all.
We don’t carry our crosses and deny ourselves because we think everything might turn out all right for us; no, we carry our crosses and deny ourselves because Jesus promised us that He is coming back to restore everything to its proper place. He will make all things new (Revelation 21:5). Our hope is not a fickle “hoping for the best.” No, our hope is firmly rooted in the gospel of our God displayed through the person and work of Jesus Christ.
So, Christian, remember this: when you are discouraged or find it tough to deny yourself, look to Christ! Take your eyes off yourself, direct them to Jesus, and see that He’s your righteousness and He will make everything new. One day–one amazing day!–He will glorify you, and you will therefore have no sin to deny.
But in the meantime, keep denying yourself, because we know we are the problem. Don’t do it for its own sake like some type of asceticism; deny yourself because Jesus is leading us to true freedom when we do so. The world sees denying ourselves as restrictive. It’s not. When we deny ourselves for the sake of following Christ, we experience true freedom because we are living how God wants us to live.
Soli Deo Gloria