Friday, April 5, 2019

Don't Deny Yourself

That’s a clickbait-y title and it might not make it to the end of the editorial process, but it felt like a good place to start. A frequent impression you get from people who are not interested in Christianity is that their lives are good enough as it is. If Jesus is your answer, good for you, but they don’t need Him. That has a number of implications for the witness of the church, but the particular one I have in mind is how it relates to behavior and enjoyment.

We have a culture in which self-gratification is treated as a high virtue, and is even called one. “Just be yourself” and “do what makes you happy” are the chief principles of the age. Having fun and feeling good all the time are the best things you can seek, and whatever that means in the moment is what should be pursued.

Christianity, by contrast, is seen as a set of rules, and it is the idea of rules even more than their content that the modern worldview is so hell-bent (literally) on resisting. The world says not to deny yourself. It says to be happy. Christians say to deny yourself, which is understood as saying to be miserable.

Dealing with Burdens

To some extent, that is fairer than we care to admit. People have this impression of our faith because it is what too many of us have made it. Like the ancient Pharisees, we have occasionally heaped up rules for ourselves and for the people around us. Then we have acted like following those rules is what makes us righteous. It is a burden that cannot be borne, so it is no wonder when people have no interest in picking it up.

On the other hand, self-denial and lifting a heavy burden are mentioned in the same passage by no one less than Jesus Christ Himself. In Matt. 16:24 He says, “If anyone wants to follow after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.” If those are the words of the founder of our faith, then we cannot get around them.

We can, however, more fully understand them. When we do, we can hopefully better explain them and do so in a way that shows people their need for the Lord. Relationship with Him is not merely “good for us.” It is the only good for everybody, and we need to know why.

Pursuing the Best

The first and most important thing to explain is that Christianity is not about following rules. It is about Christ’s sacrifice. The price is paid and we are not expected to live up to it. Beyond that, though, we do need to help people understand what the price is for. Simply put, what we want is not always the best thing for us.

Should that really be a difficult concept to understand? Look at a vice that most people in our culture have no qualms about judging. It seems almost universal to look down on smoking and smokers. At least, on tobacco smokers. Marijuana gets a pass for some reason, but culture is fickle so give it time. The point is, old-fashioned smoking is popularly regarded as wrong. Why? It is comforting, energizing, and can even assist in weight loss. It makes people feel good. So why should they deny themselves that feeling? Well, because it’s killing them and the people around them.

The message of the Bible is that we want a lot of things that are killing us. Unlike smoking, though, we do not have a way to kick the habit. Each of us chooses instant pleasure over long-term good, good that is in accord with the purpose for which we were made. When we do, we instantly place a burden on ourselves. It is the burden of eternal judgment, and we can do nothing to lift it off.

That is what our deeply broken natures want to do. We deny them by saying we will accept what Jesus has done for us rather than continuing to pursue our own mad ideas of what is good for us. When we do that, He does not add to the weight. He takes it off, instead.

In the end, then, self-denial boils down to deciding what self you are talking about. Do you not want to deny the pleasures of the current one? Or are those pleasures not really worth pursuing if they lead away from life? Your other self is the one that can live in joy and fulfillment forever if you believe in Jesus. Should you deprive that one the promise of real goodness? I think that would be crazy. Don’t deny yourself.

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