Self-Denial and Self-Fulfillment

Self-denial has never been a popular way of life.

Self-denial is what makes diets successful. And unpleasant. Self-denial would rather lose a few pounds than savor a slice of delicious chocolate cake.

Self-denial is what enables people to save up for things – a new car, a bigger house, even retirement. Self-denial, however, means giving up certain more immediate, although temporary joys, in the meantime – a new iPod, snazzy rims for the old car, a costly weekend jaunt to the coast.

Self-denial keeps the complacent married man from straying and the hormonal teenager from falling. Self-denial is full of promise, but so much of it is distant and therefore, vague. Self-indulgence is immediate, instantaneously rewarding. Self-indulgence is a major cause of the world’s current economic woes – buying houses and cars one could not really afford, expecting the government to fund retirement and bail us out of our mistakes. When self-indulgence appears to be without consequence or cost, it is little wonder that people will find no reason to practice self-denial.

Self-denial, however, is the only biblical path to true self-fulfillment, that sense of success and satisfaction with life that makes each day worthwhile and the future an object of happy anticipation. Self-indulgence  is selfish, self-destructive and rotten on the inside. Self-indulgence is chocolate cake today, cellulite tomorrow; flashy cars this year, bankruptcy next year; an extramarital fling this weekend, divorce court the next.

Jesus 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. For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself” (Luke 9:23-25)?

Self-denial 101 is to turn one’s life over to the lordship of Jesus Christ – not some philosopher, guru or self-help psycho-babbler, but the very son of God, unimpeachable expert in the psychology of humanity and life itself. Accept his guidance and follow his example – put your feet in the prints he left behind upon the Earth. Believe and trust. Follow him down in the watery grave of baptism and arise to walk in newness of life. Learn from him, for he is gentle and humble.

Such elementary self-denial might cause you to risk your physical security, to forfeit your preconceived notions, to declare war on dangerous habits and hobbies. Taking up the cross of Christ might even put you at risk of persecution and mockery for your ideals. “A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master. It is enough for the disciple to be like his teacher, and the servant like his master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household” (Matthew 10:24-25; see also First John 3:13). 

Persecution makes self-denial more difficult. Many are tempted instead to deny Christ, whether through verbal recantation or worldly conformity (Matthew 10:32-33, Titus 1:16). It is self-denial that puts faithfulness ahead of self-preservation, reputation and popularity. Only by self-control of our carnal impulses can you “present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God” (Romans 12:1; see also First Corinthians 9:27).

Self-denial continues to be an integral measure of faith even for the seasoned Christian. Jesus challenged his disciples to practice righteousness that exceeded the manner of the most religious men in Jerusalem at the time, the Pharisees and scribes, whom he identified as hypocrites (see Matthew 5:20). In the sermon on the mount, he called attention to the shallowness of their pious deeds – their self-promoting almsgiving, their attention-grabbing prayers, their pitiable fasting. “But all their works they do to be seen by men,” he explained (Matthew 23:5, NKJV).

What appeared to be self-denial – especially their charitable gifts and fasting – were really just religiously warped forms of self-indulgence. They indulged their egos, inflating their sense of self-importance with every pat on the back. “Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward” (Matthew 6:5). God was not mocked.

The second phase of self-denial, then, is to abandon even the sentiment that religion can be used for self-aggrandizement. The more excellent way is borne of love for God and neighbor, not ego and esteem (see First Corinthians 12:31-13:8, James 1:21-27). “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 18:14). One like Diotrephes might seem to be the epitome of Christian faith, but compared with the example of Christ, his tyrannical arrogance was seriously diabolical (see Third John 9-11).

Self-denial has now dethroned two idols from the believer’s heart – the devil who would have kept him ignorant of Christ and the believer himself who would have been content with a sense of personal religious superiority.

Now strengthened, self-denial is capable of seeping into every facet of a believer’s life without being hamstrung by doubt and shortsighted restraint. Self-denial can encourage one to take the risk of sharing the gospel with potentially hostile unbelievers, to make sacrifices which could prove devastatingly costly in this life. Self-denial can abandon every fleshly confidence – wealth, popularity, security, might. “But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ” (Philippians 3:7-8).

Self-denial can change your entire life’s plan, shake up your comfort zone and even drive you out of your fortress of familiarity. Self-denial is the only attitude that will make you a stranger and pilgrim in the world, bound for the next without regret.