When you really read the words of Jesus, he said some outright difficult, even offensive things. Allow me to provide a few examples.
“But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mk 10:43-45).
“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worth of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” (Matt 10:34-39).
“Strive to enter through the narrow door. For many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able. When once the master of the house has risen and shut the door, and you begin to stand outside and to knock at the door, saying, ‘Lord, open to us,’ then he will answer you, ‘I do not know where you come from’” (Luke 13:24-25)
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many might works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness’” (Mark 7:21-23).
So when you come across verses like Mark 8:34-38, it would certainly be understandable to struggle with what this verse is actually saying and how this applies specifically to your life. Here’s what Mark records: “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.” Now, on a first glance, that could mean so much. I mean, ‘deny yourself,’ what does that really mean? Is he saying, deny myself when I get those late night fast food cravings? Does it mean punishing myself whenever I desire something that would be pleasurable to me? Or should I sell everything I have and renounce all my responsibilities? I mean, how much am I really denying?
When Jesus says ‘deny yourself’ his language comes across very strong in the Greek. It literally means to disown or refuse to associate with. In short, denying yourself is to abandon the person you used to be in every way to become like Jesus. But what does that actually look like? Well, it certainly could include more than these 4 applications but not less:
1. Renounce self-righteousness. If you will ever truly follow Jesus, you must disown any works based righteousness and come to the Lord knowing you have nothing to bring to him that could contribute to your salvation. In Philippians, Paul gives his spiritual resume and at the end of it, he declares all of it to be rubbish in order to be found in Him with a righteousness that comes through faith (Phil 3:2-10). In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said the people who know they’re spiritually bankrupt are the ones who are blessed (Matt 5:3). In Luke 18, the tax collector doesn’t even lift up his eyes to heaven but beats his breast and begs God be merciful with him and God sends him home justified. To deny yourself at least means that you have a deep awareness of your sin and brokenness and are willing to throw away all means of self-justification to have what Jesus freely offers.
2. Renounce self-sovereignty. When you become a Christian, Jesus starts calling the shots. All of them. You take Christ on His terms, not yours. You don’t try to strike a deal with him and share the throne, you deny yourself and gladly let him take over. The call of discipleship is not Jesus AND your life or Jesus AND your sin or Jesus AND your control. It’s Jesus OR those things. And until you realize that He’s worth turning over all control to, you don’t understand Jesus. So do your plans begin with Him? Do your life decisions begin with Him? Because when he becomes Lord of your life, His ambition, desires, will, agenda, plans, and purpose become yours. You’re sick of the old self and will renounce everything you used to be to allow Him to shape you into everything He wants you to be.
3. Renounce self-centeredness. In Galatians 2:20, Paul explains that he has been crucified with Christ so that the life he lives is no longer him but Christ who lives in him. He goes on to say that now as a Christian he will live by faith in the Son of God. As a Christian, denying yourself means recognizing that your life is no longer lived for you. Now does this mean you can’t seek pleasure or vacations or fun things? No. But what God’s Word does say is that the way you seek pleasure won’t have “pleasure’ as the center but God as the center. When you seek to find your pleasure in God, then you’ll enjoy all He’s given you to enjoy in a way that wells up in worship to Him rather than ends in self-fulfillment for you. Does this mean I have to renounce all of my possessions? No, but it does mean that you’re willing to use or lose any and all possessions for the Lord because you recognize that everything you have is His anyway. Additionally, it also means that the value of your stuff compared to the value of having Jesus is so lopsided that you would gladly sell everything just to have Him: comfort, money, relationships…anything (Matt 13:44). In fact, some people find Jesus so glorious that they’ll strategically buy things just to share them with the people in their lives and the church.
4. Renounce self-preservation. When Jesus says to take up our cross and follow him, this doesn’t mean you go looking for suffering. He’s saying that as a Christian, suffering will find you. Paul goes so far as to say that suffering is evidence that you belong to Him and a pre-condition to glorification (Rom 8:17). While we enjoy the benefit of living in a country in which our lives are not generally at stake for being Christian, many people will experience the suffering of lost friendships and strained relationships with loved ones as a result of following Jesus. Now, is Jesus saying it’s bad to seek safety for your family or kids? Of course not. You’re to protect your family and provide for your family (1 Tim 5:8). That’s not what Jesus or Paul is saying. Jesus is saying this: Following me will bring suffering, and I’m so infinitely worth it that the light and momentary affliction you face won’t even compare to the weight of eternal glory you’ll enjoy with me (2 Cor 4:17). In other words, to live is Christ and to die is gain (Phil 1:21).
Much more could be said on this subject, but my hope is that these 4 principles guide the way you think about denying yourself. Is Jesus’ call to deny yourself uncomfortable for you? If it is, that’s because it’s meant to be uncomfortable. It confronts us with our deepest values and pleasures. Jesus ultimately wants your greater joy, and to give you that which is truly life (1 Tim. 6:19). And that greater joy, the greatest joy possible, is found in Himself.