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. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. (Mark 8:34-35)
It is difficult to think of a more outrageous and offensive idea in today’s world than “deny yourself.” Today’s “gospel” is often exactly the opposite: embrace yourself, affirm yourself, be proud of yourself. We are told to not only follow our desires, but to define ourselves by our desires.
On the surface, the command to deny yourself and be willing to lose your life may seem like the height of folly, if not outright dangerous. So before explaining what this does mean, let me propose three things it doesn’t mean.
First, “deny yourself” does not mean hate yourself. It is not akin to self-pity or self-loathing. Many people—including many believers in Christ—have a very hard time accepting themselves, perhaps because of things they’ve done or things done to them. Jesus is not saying, “Be sure to keep thinking the worst possible thoughts about yourself.”
Second, “deny yourself” does not mean your desires and distinctiveness have no value. It is not a call to lose everything that makes you “you.”
Third, “deny yourself” does not mean to be selfless towards others as a means to feeling better about yourself. It is a wonderful thing that altruism usually brings a kind of satisfaction. But doing nice things to feel better about yourself is not actually being selfless, and is certainly not what Jesus means here.
So what is Jesus saying? This command, and our ability to obey it, is not first and foremost a posture towards ourselves, but a posture towards God. Denying self is ultimately dependent on beholding the infinite worth of Jesus in the gospel. “…whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.” Self-denial is the right response, even a joyful and willing response, to grasping the goodness and worth of God in Jesus, through whom we may know his forgiveness, love, favor, and delight.
If this is the case, self-denial will never make sense or be possible if we don’t first hear and respond to the good news of God’s unearned grace in Jesus. In a world where self is all you have, in a godless world, there is no sufficient motivation to deny self. That is to lose everything!
But self-denial makes perfect sense to those who find a new identity and worth and comfort in Jesus’ love and favor, secured in his sacrificial death and resurrection. It makes perfect sense to those who have discovered the love and delight of their Creator God, which cannot be shaken by even their ugliest sins, worst days, or condemning feelings.
One of the great implications of this is that we are no longer defined by the unstable opinions of others–nor by our own unstable opinions and feelings! Rather, we are defined by the unearned, free gift of God’s love, manifested in the death of Jesus. The key to accepting ourselves is repenting of our propensity to define ourselves apart from God in the first place. It is to see ourselves through his eyes, in the person and work of Christ. It is to submit our wills, desires, and feelings to the one who is not only fully worthy, but fully good, loving, and trustworthy. The one who loves us higher than the heavens are above the earth (Psalm 103:11).