Foundry United Methodist Church

Rev. Dean Snyder, Senior Minister




What Does Jesus Mean by Self-Denial?

Sunday, August 28, 2005



Romans 12: 9-21

Matthew 16: 21-26



Rev. Dean Snyder


“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me,” Jesus says. “If any would become my followers, let them deny themselves...”


I have been pondering this saying of Jesus these last several weeks. Actually, I’ve been worrying about it because I have tried to be a follower of Jesus, but it doesn’t feel like I’ve denied myself very much.


What does it means to deny ourselves? What is it that Jesus means by self-denial?


Surely, he doesn’t mean self-hatred. Just a few chapters after this lesson in the book of Matthew, somebody is going to ask Jesus what the greatest commandment is and Jesus is going to say that the greatest commandment is to love God with all your heart, soul and mind. Then he is going to say that the second greatest commandment that is just like that one is to love your neighbor as yourself. If we don’t love ourselves, we cannot love our neighbors as ourselves.


As a matter of fact, if you are my neighbor and you hate yourself, I would just as soon not have you love me as you love yourself. Much of the world’s intolerance is due to us hating in others what we cannot come to love in ourselves. Much of our spiritual journey is discovering who we really are beneath the surface of the person we have been taught to show the rest of the world so that we will be acceptable to other people. Much of our spiritual journey is to learn who we really are so that we can love our true selves.


Self-denial doesn’t mean self-hatred.


Self-denial is often thought of as sacrifice. Once a year, United Methodist Women throughout the world celebrate a week of prayer and self-denial in which they give up something and make a special offering to other people in need. During Lent we often deny ourselves something in order to identify at least a little bit with the suffering of Christ.


But this sort of thing, which is a temporary act in our life, is not what Jesus meant about denying ourselves. We are not meant to live in Lent year-round. One of my golden verses of scripture is John 10:10 where Jesus says: “I have come that they may have life and have it abundantly.” We are not meant to live as though it were Lent all of the time.


I was thinking this week about a story that a Sunday school teacher told my class 43 years ago. Any of you who teach Sunday school should consider this: that there are may be someone around who will remember something you say 43 years later. I was 15 years old and my teacher’s name was June Miller. I will never forget this woman and she told us a story in class 43 years ago that I still remember.


The story goes like this: There is a little girl who went to spend a weekend with her Methodist grandmother who was a very, very strict old-time Methodist. After church on Sunday, the little girl came home and went to turn on the T.V. Her grandmother came over, turned the T.V. off and said: “Methodists don’t watch television on Sunday.” So she got out some cards and began playing solitaire. Her grandmother came over and took the cards away and said: “Methodists don’t play cards on Sunday.”  So she got out a comic book and started to read it and her grandmother came over and took the comic book away and said: “Methodists don’t read comic books on Sunday.” So she went outside and sat on the back steps of the house. The neighbors’ pet wandered over, a basset hound, and sat down next to her. She turned and looked into the basset hound’s droopy, big, sad eyes and said: “Oh, I see you’re a Methodist, too!”


That story is at least 43 years old.


So Jesus says: “If any would be my followers, let them deny themselves…” As I was brooding with these words and trying to figure out what self-denial meant in my life, one day as I was walking between home and here, it suddenly occurred to me that this invitation and commandment of Jesus doesn’t make sense unless we include the “ands.” “If you want to become my followers, deny yourself and take up your cross and follow me.”


We do not deny ourselves for the sake of self-denial. We take up a cross that claims us and we follow Jesus. We take up a commitment for which we decide that we will live and die. We give ourselves to something. We give ourselves to Christ. And what we give ourselves to leads us to give up something else, but it doesn’t feel like we’ve given up something. It feels as though we have finally found ourselves. We have found life and found it more abundant and not self-denial.


I was talking to some new parents recently who talked about how this child had been born into their household and suddenly claimed them the way nothing had ever claimed them before. They were denying themselves. They were denying themselves time. They were denying themselves money. They were denying themselves sleep. Any of you who are parents know what this is like. And yet it didn’t feel like self-denial. It felt like fulfillment.


Or you go to Africa or you go to Appalachia and you are gripped by the enormous inequalities in this world that make no sense, that just aren’t right, that cannot be God’s want or will. That sense of a need to contribute something to make the world more just claims you and grabs you. You pick up that cross and you have denied yourself something, but it really feels like you have found something to give yourself to.


There are four crosses in the world. There are four things worthy of us giving our lives to and for. The four things are love, truth, justice, and beauty. When we take up one of these crosses and follow Jesus, we deny ourselves on behalf of love, on behalf of the pursuit of truth, on behalf of the making of justice, on behalf of the creation of beauty. We deny ourselves and devote ourselves to these things. But we also find ourselves.


This is what Jesus means, I think, when he says that those who want to save their lives will lose it. But those who lose their lives for the sake of Jesus, for the sake of God, will find life. For what will it profit us if we gain the whole world but lose love, truth, justice and beauty?


We do not deny ourselves for the sake of self-denial. We take up the cross, and we follow Jesus, and we lose ourselves. And we find ourselves.