Sunday, July 26, 2009

Step One: Deny Yourself

Dear Friends and Family,

I cannot express strongly enough how much I appreciate the continual flow of blessings that I am receiving from so many - notes, cards, prayers, words of encouragement, and even some pretty wild hats (stay tuned!).

As I have indicated, this Thursday is a big day as I have a CT scan scheduled for 4 PM to determine how much cancer has been killed by the first 4 treatments. Because of your prayers and God's unwavering goodness in my life, I am not anxious. If the scan shows that the tumors have become smaller, then I will be scheduled for two more treatments in August (6th and 27th). I am beginning to sense that I am on the downhill run. . .

I have been reading through the Bible in a year with the Discipleship Journal Plan (four-track reading plan you can get online), and have recently been reading the gospel of Luke. In chapter 9:23,24, Jesus says the following:

"If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it."

I would like to take the next few blogs to explore these verses and hear wisdom from others on how they are applying Christ's words in their own lives.

Because of my situation with cancer, I have been thinking about self-denial. We live in a very self-oriented society and age. Self-confidence, self-reliance, self-actualization, self-determination, self-preservation, self-help, self-esteem, etc are all very positively received concepts in western society today. We can only assume that the origins of these now well-developed ideas were present in first-century Israel and among her neighbors. Jesus' comments would likely have been counter-cultural then just as they are now.

What does He mean by denying self? Why is it a prerequisite for taking up our cross daily, following Him and losing our lives for His sake, and thereby gaining it?

By way of background, I don't believe that Jesus  is saying that we should treat ourselves badly through neglect, harm or indifference. His groundbreaking ethic in stating the Golden Rule in its positive form underscores this perspective. "So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets". (Mt. 7:12) His assumption is that we want good things for ourselves which in turn should be the standard for our behavior towards others.

Self denial might start with not gratifying our every desire, whether we call it a want or even a need. It could come in the form of food, drink, leisure, sex, material comfort, and so on. I have been experiencing some self denial in terms of my diet, which I describe as the "no meat, no dairy, no sugar, no alcohol, no fun" diet. I am eating a healthy diet thanks to my wife, Susan. It is full  of vegetables, fruit, grains, fish, and the like. It has been good for me physically to be on this diet, but it has also been good for me spiritually to experience this form of self denial. Jesus is saying to us: "Don't give into every selfish desire that comes along. Keep the all-encompassing tenth commandment not to covet (desire/pursue) that which you don't have."

A second form of self denial involves being less focused on our problems, and being willing to embrace others. We often tend to behave as if the world is supposed to revolve around us, at work, at home, at school, in traffic. We need to get our eyes off of our own problems, and start to be aware of what is going on around us. I had a friend and co-worker tell me that his uncle used to live by the motto: "Be kinder than necessary to everyone you meet, because everyone is dealing with some kind of problem". How true. I have noticed over the past few months as I speak with people, they are dealing with challenging problems of their own - health, family, job, spiritual direction - that rival my bout with cancer. Jesus is saying to us: "Look around you at others, see them with eyes of kindness and compassion, because the world does not revolve around you and your problems".

A third form of self denial involves the willingness to find ourselves in a story that is broader than just our own. A narrative or worldview that encompasses things far greater than our life story, but one that integrates our story into the bigger text. It means that we are not the main player; rather, we play a small but uniquely important role. I have been challenged recently as I read the book "The Hole in Our Gospel" by Richard Stearns, the president of World Vision. Stearns argues persuasively that we need to find our story inside the broader gospel, and then act to bring that gospel in word and in deed to "the least of these" around the world. I believe we all are searching for the significance that comes from being a part something bigger than our self-driven existence. We seem to be wired to know that just focusing on our own needs and our own story will cause us to come up short in the end. Jesus is saying to us: "Change the title of your life story from 'It's All about Me' to 'A Hitchhiker's Guide to God's Redemptive Plan for the Universe'".

I hope to hear some of your thoughts on denying self. . .

In Christ alone,


1 comment:

  1. Hey Newt!
    I agree that in today's society the concept of self-denial seems wrong, but it God's society it is right. As I was reading your post I was thinking about how the trials raise our awareness of the needs of others. When I was diagnosed, my thoughts were about my family and their needs. I did not want to tell my mother until I had more details, because she would worry herself sick. (She's a worrier warrior.) When friends came over to pray before my surgery, we turned to one of the friends facing a spiritual trial and poured prayers out over him, also.

    We live in a world filled with people brought up to focus on their own needs, and it breeds selfishness. (Like drivers at the intersection of Ford Rd. & Mulberry St.!) The good news is that it is a thin layer that can usually be peeled back to reveal a kind and caring person. When we deny ourself, it thins out that layer of selfishness.

    I am also convinced that there are many rewards for denying ourself, but they are not obvious to us...but they are to GOD. I think afirst about Jeremiah 32:27 -- "Behold, I am the LORD, the God of all flesh. Is anything too hard for me?" In our "flesh" this is a great promise. (God's promises are the antidote for the poison we call fear.) But, as I read the passage in context, Jeremiah is being asked to do something irrational. Purchase a field as Babylon is about to overtake the land. God says to do it, because nothing is too great for him. He promised to restore His people.

    So, I say...Deny yourself, even when it does not seem right or fair or fun. Nothing is too hard for Him! Amen?!

    Living by His Grace,