Self-denial is a valid and essential part of a life of discipleship

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From “Growing in the character of a disciple”: Chapter 1 – What it means to be a disciple and how Christian character is formed

Modern Western society is fixated upon self. We are continually urged to indulge ourselves, such that many of us have become habitually self-centered and even self-obsessed. Far from condemning such an approach, modern psychology encourages us to focus on ourselves, excuse ourselves and love ourselves more and more.

By contrast, the Bible takes it as a given that we love ourselves more than enough as it is. God never tells us to love ourselves, because He knows that we already do. Therefore none of us has any need to learn how to love ourselves. Instead, He tells us to love others in the same way that we already love ourselves:

…..You shall love your neighbour as yourself””

Matthew 19:19(b) (RSV)

The Bible takes a directly opposite approach to that taken by the world. It urges us to deny ourselves. That goes against all our carnal instincts and cultural expectations. But it is a vital part of being a disciple. Look how Jesus put it:

And he said to all, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.

Luke 9:23 (RSV)

This life of self-denial and of taking up a cross and carrying it is not restricted to a selected few, such as apostle Paul. The verse quoted above was not a special message, which Jesus only said to a few hardy types. He said it to “all” and that it applied to “any”man who would come after Him. Therefore it applies to you, and to me, and to all other disciples, without exception. Apostle Paul spoke of how much he had to give up for the sake of the gospel. But the sacrifices were worthwhile:

7 But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. 8 Indeed I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as refuse, in order that I may gain Christ 9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own, based on law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith; 10 that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 that if possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead. 12 Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. 13 Brethren, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but one thing I do, forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.

Philippians 3:7-14 (RSV)

If we are ever going to learn how to deny ourselves and make sacrifices for Jesus’ sake we must also learn how to control ourselves. Self-control is an essential first step to becoming a disciple. It enables us to make choices, and impose things on ourselves which our flesh nature does not want. Therefore self-control is listed as one of the fruit of the Spirit in Paul’s letter to the Galatians:

22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23gentleness, self-control; against such there is no law.

Galatians 5:22-23 (RSV)

If you don’t have self-control then it will not be possible to achieve any of God’s objectives for your life. That is because your flesh nature will never desire what God wants, or cooperate with anything that promotes your growth as a disciple. Therefore, doing God’s will is never the natural choice that you will instinctively make. It has to be imposed on yourself by yourself.

But you won’t ever do that unless you can first learn to control yourself, such that your willmakes the decisions, rather than you acting in accordance with your fleshly desires, instincts and habits. Therefore the Bible has a lot to say in favour of self-control. In fact, it is the only acceptable form of control. We cannot, and must not, control anybody else. But we can, and must, control ourselves:

A man without self-control
is like a city broken into and left without walls

Proverbs 25:28 (RSV)

A fool gives full vent to his anger,
but a wise man quietly holds it back.

Proverbs 29:11(RSV)
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