~ Christ Washing the Apostles’ Feet, Dirck van Baburen (1616)
34 And calling the crowd to him with his disciples, he said to them, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. 35 For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. 36 For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? 37 For what can a man give in return for his soul? 38 For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”
~ Mark 8:34-38
The Lord Jesus Christ traded his glory for humility, his satisfaction for suffering, his majesty for servanthood, his transcendence for earthiness. But he did not make himself low merely for the sake of so doing; he did so for our sake. He likewise calls each of us to deny oneself, to bear our own “cross”–in all that word’s polysemous proliferation. The context in Mark 8 suggests that one significant instance of denying ourselves is choosing Christ over worldly gain when the two are in conflict; the related instance of bearing our crosses is submitting to the consequences of the open proclamation of our allegiance to Christ and God’s kingdom in a culture which does not appreciate that. I don’t know about you, but I find this very difficult sometimes, not least because I am afraid of being that clanging symbol in 1 Corinthians 13.
During Lent, the emphasis on self-denial may have the propensity to turn us inward, as we leave off participating in certain activities that are often good but that may sometimes leach our time and energy away from the pursuit of God and godliness. May I humbly suggest, however, that self-denial is not primarily about me (or you)? While such devotional self-reflection is often helpful, self-denial in the Christian sense is bigger than that. Jesus calls us to self-denial for his sake and for the gospel’s sake, which is ultimately for the good of others and the world. Paul expands on this by describing how he humbles himself by taking on the weaknesses or limitations of each group of people he serves, in order that some in each group may thereby receive the gospel and be saved.
19 For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. 20 To the Jews I became as a Jew… To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law)… 21 To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ)… 22 To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some.
~ 1 Corinthians 9:19-22
Later in the same chapter, Paul describes disciplining his body to maintain self-control, but once again, this is not for the sake of that control, but for the sake of others: “lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified” (v. 27).
Acknowledging our own sin and setting aside things we desire are wise and worthy practices, but they are best when they turn us away from ourselves by increasing our desire for God and increasing our passion for spreading his kingdom–for preaching the gospel, for loving the lost, for serving the needy, for stewarding the world’s resources, for working as a redemptive force in the surrounding culture. In other words, if we take pride in our self-denial, it is nothing but false humility. True humility will lead us to serve others and to proclaim only the one who has humbled himself for us.
The Lord is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
The Lord is good to all,
and his mercy is over all that he has made.
All your works shall give thanks to you, O Lord,
and all your saints shall bless you!
They shall speak of the glory of your kingdom
and tell of your power,
to make known to the children of man your mighty deeds,
and the glorious splendor of your kingdom.
Your kingdom is an everlasting kingdom,
and your dominion endures throughout all generations.
~ Psalm 145: 8-13