He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?”
• Mark 8:34–36
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Jesus’ words are stark and starchy. Let them deny themselves. The saying is loaded and dangerous and has often been misunderstood. In more pietistic and moralistic church traditions, it is often understood as saying “no” to something you really want a lot, of foregoing something you deeply enjoy—like giving up ice cream for Lent, or meat on Fridays, or movies on Sundays . . . perhaps not in themselves bad disciplines, but not the point of Jesus’ saying. The call to discipleship is not a program to make us feel bad or impoverished or uncomfortable. Or pressed more deeply, to deny self is taken too often to mean you should have some self-hate, feel bad about yourself, ponder your failure and your guilt, and reject your worth. But that is surely not what Jesus is talking about.
Rather, he is talking about coming to see that God—the generous creator who gives good gifts—is the center of your life and that the self-taken-alone does not have the resources or capacity to make a good life. To deny self means to recognize that I cannot be a self-starter, cannot be self-sufficient, cannot be self-made or self-securing, and that to try to do so will end in isolation and fear and greed and brutality and finally in violence. It will not work because we are not made that way. It will not work even if all the consumer ads tell us to have life for ourselves. You cannot have the life you want that way.
The alternative to self-focus is to move one’s attention away from self to know that our life is safely and well held by God, who loves us more than we love ourselves, to relish the generosity of God and so to be free of the anxieties and needs and hungers of those who are driven by a mistaken, inadequate sense of self. The self who is denied is the self who is received from God and given back to God in obedience and praise.
God at the center of our lives, our true life is found only in you. May we let go of all that is not life, all that is not you, that we may live in that freedom granted through the cross. Amen.
From: Brueggemann, Walter. A Way other than Our Own: Devotions for Lent (pp. 28-29). Presbyterian Publishing. Kindle Edition.