[Jesus] called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them,
“If any want to become my followers,
let them deny themselves
and take up their cross
and follow me.”
One basic part of Lent is self-denial.
Most of us are good at denial, but few if any of us are good at self-denial.
Rev. Dr. Jimmy Watson, a United Church of Christ pastor, published a book called Jesus Is Still Speaking Through the Gospel of Mark (2011). He says, “Self-denial is at the heart of what it means to follow Jesus. And nothing is more unnatural to a human being than self-denial.... We can deny just about everything else in life fairly easily, but self-denial is another matter. We’re not very good at that. The human animal is a self-interested animal, precisely because we have a highly developed sense of self. So what we are more likely to deny is those things that do not serve our interests, things that make our lives uncomfortable.” (page 83)
Watson goes on to discuss the popular cliché of “being in denial.” He cites examples: we may deny that we have a problem, such as a bad habit or bad behavior; we may be unable to face a bad memory, such as the trauma of abuse we may have suffered in childhood; or we may deny the reality of our circumstances, such as the death of a loved one. Our imagination has remarkable power to help us hide realities from ourselves.
“Cleopatra, you’s in de Nile.”
But Jesus tells us that we must deny our very selves. He is not asking us to exercise our imagination, but rather to surrender our self-will.
The Greek word Jesus used, which we translate “to deny,” is arneomai. In the New Testament, it is always used for denying a person, not when denying information. Perhaps the most famous example of its use is when Peter denied three times that he was one of Jesus’ disciples. It was a personal rejection of their relationship.
This word that means “to deny” is so close to the Greek word arnos, “sheep” – it puts me in mind of the prophet Isaiah’s famous saying,
“All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have all turned to our own way.”
We, the sheep, usually deny the Shepherd so we can do as we please. But Jesus, the Good Shepherd, is calling us sheep to deny our own way— our self-interest— and instead follow him on his way.
In a scholarly article on the New Testament use of the Greek verb meaning, “to deny,” Heinrich Schleier gives his own interpretation of what self-denial means: “I must not confess myself and my own being, nor cling to myself, but abandon myself in a radical renunciation of myself, and not merely of my sins. I must no longer seek to establish my life of myself but resolutely accept death and allow myself to be established by Christ in discipleship.” (Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, I, 471) This statement is mind-boggling ! — not so much because it’s a scholarly thought, but because it runs counter to nearly everything that ordinarily drives us human beings.
Paul put it in fewer words, but— oh!— it will take a lifetime to unpack them and live them:
I am crucified with Christ:
nevertheless I live;
yet not I,
but Christ liveth in me:
and the life which I now live in the flesh
I live by the faith of the Son of God,
who loved me, and gave himself for me.
-Galatians 2:20, KJV
The good news of self-denial is, our Good Shepherd Jesus has already denied himself to the point of dying on the cross for us.
This poem is titled Apparuit benignitas (“Goodness Appeared”). It comes down to us from the 1400s in this 1854 translation by Benjamin Webb:
O love, how deep, how broad, how high,
It fills the heart with ecstasy,
That God, the Son of God, should take
Our mortal form for mortals’ sake !
He sent no angel to our race
Of higher or of lower place,
But wore the robe of human frame
Himself, and to this lost world came.
For us baptized, for us He bore
His holy fast and hungered sore,
For us temptation sharp He knew;
For us the tempter overthrew.
For us He prayed; for us He taught;
For us His daily works He wrought;
By words and signs and actions thus
Still seeking not Himself, but us.