Self-Denial in an Age of Self-Fulfillment

Everyone you know—including your Christian friends—has been seduced by the siren song: “Be true to yourself.”

David Kinnaman has said that seventy-six percent of practicing Christians in the U.S. now think the best version of themselves can be found by looking inside.

Studies show that each generation in America is more anxious and depressed than the last. Suicide rates are skyrocketing even though we have more doctors and treatments available than ever. We’re looking inside for meaning, but finding emptiness instead.

As believers, time spent searching our hearts for truth and meaning numbs us to what it means to live like Jesus, who says we can’t follow him unless we deny ourselves.

But what does that mean?

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Dying to Self, Living in Christ

This is part 4 in the series “What ‘Following Jesus’ Really Means.” Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4


In this series, we’ve been looking at what it really means to follow Jesus by breaking down each phrase of Greg Ogden’s definition of a disciple:

“A disciple is one who responds in faith and obedience to the gracious call to follow Jesus Christ. Following Jesus is a lifelong process of dying to self while allowing Jesus Christ to come alive in us.”

Last time, we saw that following Jesus is a lifelong process. Today, we’ll look at the two competing forces that process consists of—1) dying to self while 2) allowing Jesus to live in us. It’s necessary to see how each of those work separately before we see how they fit together in the process.

Dying to Self

The concept of denying one’s self comes directly from the teachings of Jesus, most notably his call to discipleship in Luke 9:23-24 where he says,

“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.”

For a long time, I struggled with understanding what Jesus meant by “deny himself.” What am I supposed to deny myself? I’ve come to see that denying myself means to reject myself or to refuse to give into myself. In effect, it’s like saying, “I don’t know myself.”

That sounds strange until you realize our sin is borne out of our desire to be our own gods. That’s the lie Adam and Eve believed in the garden, that they could be their own gods and determine the rules for themselves. Each of my sins is rooted, somehow, in that same insidious lie. Each time I give into the idea that I can be my own lord, I deny the Lordship of Christ and set myself in rebellion against God.

Darrell Johnson, a professor of pastoral theology, puts it this way:

“To deny yourself means to deny your self-lordship. It means saying no to the god who is me, the reject the demands of the god who is me, to refuse to obey the claims of the god who is me. [It means we say] a decisive no—‘I do not know the lord Me—I do not bow down to him anymore.’ Jesus calls us to say no to ourselves so we can say yes to him.”

Saying no to ourselves so we can say yes to Jesus brings us to the second force at work in our lifelong process of following Jesus—allowing him to come alive in us.

Allowing Jesus to Come Alive in Us

As we deny ourselves and crucify (kill) our own desires, we make more and more room for Jesus to take up residence in our hearts and minds. The violent words—crucify, kill—are appropriate because following Jesus isn’t always easy. Jesus promises to give his followers abundant life (see John 10:10) but he makes it clear that following him is costly and difficult.

That’s not the narrative many of us are telling ourselves. We want the abundance Jesus offers without accepting the cost and making the sacrifices. We want the resurrection without the crucifixion. But that’s not how it works.

Johnson writes,

“Just as there would be no resurrection for Jesus without crucifixion, so there would be no resurrection for the disciples without crucifixion. . . . A man on his way to public crucifixion ‘was compelled to abandon all earthly hopes and ambitions.’ Jesus calls his followers to think of ourselves as already dead, to bury our earthly hopes and dreams, to bury the plans and agendas we made for ourselves. He will either resurrect our dreams or replace them with dreams and plans of his own. . . . This is a hard but liberating saying. . . . Freedom comes when we lay down the ill-gotten false crown, when we say no, when we live as though the gods who are us have already died.

A disciple is one who responds in faith and obedience to the gracious call to follow Jesus Christ. Following Jesus is a lifelong process of dying to self while allowing Jesus Christ to come alive in us.

Conclusion

Most of us have fallen for the lie that life is supposed to be easy; that life should involve as little pain as possible. Sometimes we come to Jesus thinking he’ll make that happen.

But that’s not what he promises.

If anything, Jesus promises the opposite. 2 Timothy 3:12 says, “Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” Not “might be.” Not “those who follow me in certain countries.” But everyone who follows him.

If that sounds hard to you, remember this. God who overlooked our open rebellion against him, our allegiance to Satan, and sent his Son to die in our place so we could be restored and renewed, today and in the life to come.

Following Jesus means we count the cost, we understand the difficulty, and we keep following anyway. Not because we’re promised a good life or an easy life, but because we’re promised Jesus—and he’s enough.

Following Jesus means giving up the things we want for the thing we want even more—Jesus Christ.

Following Jesus is a Lifelong Process

This is part 4 in the series “What ‘Following Jesus’ Really Means.” Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3


In this series, I’m breaking down each phrase of Greg Ogden’s definition of a disciple so we can see what it really means to follow Jesus. Ogden’s states,

“A disciple is one who responds in faith and obedience to the gracious call to follow Jesus Christ. Following Jesus is a lifelong process of dying to self while allowing Jesus Christ to come alive in us.”

A Long Obedience in the Same Direction

Even though our salvation is immediate upon responding in faith to Jesus’ sacrifice, it takes a lifetime to conform our lives to his example. Following Jesus is what Eugene Peterson refers to as “a long obedience in the same direction.” Responding in faith to the call to follow Jesus means we enter into a pattern of recreating our lives to look more like his.

Almost every metaphor for spiritual growth in the Bible is a gardening one. That’s because growth takes time, and much of it is out of our control. Just like with gardening, we will experience seasons of growth, seasons of drought, and times of harvest. There will be times to celebrate and times to grieve.

If you’re feeling exhausted or disappointed with your spiritual growth, then take heart. You’re in the same boat as everyone else. We’re all in the process of killing off sin patterns while cultivating new life-giving ones. That’s not going to happen overnight.

Crockpot Faith in a Microwave World

The slow process of spiritual growth can make us frustrated when we’re used to Amazon bringing whatever we want to our doorstep within two days. We’re programmed to want immediate satisfaction, but that’s simply not how spiritual growth works. We all want a microwaveable faith, but the one we’ve been given is a crockpot faith. Low and slow is the key—and it’s how you get that unmistakable flavor of someone that has simmered in Christ.

As followers of Jesus, what we’re after is a life that’s more and more obedient to Jesus each and every day—even if we have trouble seeing the change each day.

And the good news is, we’re promised that God will see through the growth he has started in us. This is what the Apostle Paul means when he writes, “And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil. 1:6 ESV). Even though we’re guaranteed to screw things up along the way, God will see through the work he started in us when he saved us.

That process unfolds over a lifelong process. But what does the process consist of? Dying to self while allowing Christ to come alive in us. That’s what we’ll cover in part 5, as we wrap up this series.

The Gracious Call to Follow Jesus

This is part 3 in the series “What ‘Following Jesus’ Really Means.” Part 1 | Part 2


During this series of articles called “What ‘Following Jesus’ Really Means,” I’ve been taking a close look at each phrase in Greg Ogden’s definition of a disciple, or one who follows Jesus:

“A disciple is one who responds in faith and obedience to the gracious call to follow Jesus Christ. Following Jesus is a lifelong process of dying to self while allowing Jesus Christ to come alive in us.”

In part two of this series, we saw that if we have truly put our faith in Christ, our inward transformation will have outward results. But without faith, we have no foundation for following Jesus in the first place. The two go hand-in-hand—the disciple responding in faith and obedience.

But what exactly are we’re responding to? Let’s explore what the phrase “the gracious call to follow Jesus” means.

Making a Decision for Christ?

When we use the language of “making a decision for Christ,” we can get a little carried away and think it was because of our own effort or decision that we responded to Jesus’ call. That doesn’t mean we don’t have a role to play—we do—but it may not be as significant as we think.

Think about it this way. Imagine someone goes out and buys you a gift, and brings it to your house to give you. They ring the doorbell, you answer and see them standing there with a gift, smiling. They extend the gift in your direction, clearly offering it to you.

You have a choice in that moment of whether or not you will accept that gift. Now, we have cultural norms that put pressure on us to accept the gift, but it really is up to you whether you accept it. Let’s say you do accept the gift, and now it’s yours.

Who is credited with you having the gift? You could say it’s now yours because you accepted it when you didn’t have to, and that’s certainly true. But it’s also true that you wouldn’t have been able to accept the gift without it being offered in the first place. If there was no gift-giver, there would be nothing to accept.

This is how salvation works. We accept a gift that was graciously given to us by God through Jesus’ sacrificial death and resurrection.

But God

The best explanation of this in my mind is from Ephesians 2:1-10. The first three verses focus on what it was like when we were separated from Christ by sin, then verse 4 is a turning point where we see the gracious gift of salvation in Christ is offered.

1 And you were dead in the trespasses and sins 2 in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— 3 among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. 4 But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, 5 even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— 6 and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7 so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. 8 For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.

We didn’t deserve to have Jesus die on our behalf, but God sent him to the cross because he is rich in mercy. None of us deserves to even be offered the gift of salvation in Christ, but God offers it anyway.

But God… Those two words contain the heart of the gospel, that God loves his children so much that he sent his Son to die for them. Now, all those who respond in faith to the gracious call to follow Jesus get to enjoy his righteousness. 

Following Jesus means we respond in faith and obedience to his gracious call to follow him. Though that’s a simple enough concept to explain, the reality is that responding in faith and obeying Jesus is a lifelong process, which is the theme we’ll explore next time.

A Disciple Responds in Faith and Obedience

This is part 2 in the series “What ‘Following Jesus’ Really Means.” Read part 1.


In the first part of this series, we saw that when Jesus called someone to be his disciple, he did not mean sitting in a classroom and memorizing information. Following Jesus means walking where he walks, doing what he did, and teaching what he taught.

Disciples of Jesus are not supposed to simply learn information, they are supposed to apply information into their lives in a way that leads to transformation.

In his book Discipleship Essentials, Greg Ogden writes,

“A disciple is one who responds in faith and obedience to the gracious call to follow Jesus Christ. Following Jesus is a lifelong process of dying to self while allowing Jesus Christ to come alive in us.”

In this article and each that follows, I’ll be taking a closer look at each phrase in that definition to give us a fuller picture of what following Jesus really means.

Responding in Faith

It’s common to hear someone in the church refer to the time they “put their faith in Christ” or “made a decision for Christ.” And for good reason. That’s part of the way we respond to Jesus’ call to follow him, by putting our faith in him and trusting him to lead our lives.

But to truly understand what the Bible means by putting our faith in Christ, we need to know what the Bible says about faith. Hebrews 11:1 defines faith this way: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”

If we have faith, then, we don’t merely “hope” for things in the sense that we wish they would happen. Instead, we have the assurance that those things hoped for—no more pain, no more tears, no more death—will one day come to pass. If we have faith, we have conviction in the things God has revealed to us through the Bible; things we cannot see. We don’t have to see the resurrection to have the conviction that it happened.

Responding in faith to Christ, then, means we are assured, we are confident, in his promises of salvation, restoration, and eternal life. We have the conviction these things will happen despite our lack of visual evidence.

Our response of faith isn’t a one-time thing, either. Living by faith is an everyday action for the Christ-follower whose beliefs and convictions are constantly being challenged by other people or life circumstances. An unexpected layoff calls for faith that God’s timing is perfect. An unwelcome diagnosis calls for faith in the resurrection of the dead, where we’ll one day receive a new body, uncorrupted by sin.

When Jesus says to us, “Follow me,” it requires faith to move any further.

Responding in Obedience

But responding to Christ’s call to follow him is not merely about faith—it’s also about obedience. By obedience, I simply mean doing what Jesus tells us to do.

Jesus is not satisfied with divided allegiances. He is not content with fair-weather followers. He requires total and complete submission to his lordship over our lives. “So therefore, any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple.” Anyone who would follow Jesus is required to renounce everything he has—his selfish ambition, plans, dreams, family, job, income—before truly being able to say they are a disciple of his.

This is why the phrase “I accepted Jesus into my heart” can be so troubling. It’s not that the heart is uninvolved; of course our submission to Jesus results in an emotional response. It’s that the heart can only go where the hands and feet are willing. To give ourselves to Jesus only sentimentally is the same as not giving ourselves to him at all.

Jesus does call us to follow him with our heart and our minds, but he also calls us to follow him with our hands and our feet. Remember, the call to discipleship, or following Jesus, is not just a call to believe; it’s a call to change your life and actions based on those beliefs, as well.

Just as a disciple following their rabbi would become more and more like the rabbi the more they followed him, so we want to become more and more like Jesus in our thoughts and actions the more we follow him.

To be clear, we are not saved through our actions, but our actions are evidence that we have been saved. This is what James is talking about when he writes, “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says” (James 1:22 NIV). And it’s what Jesus means when he explains, “You are my friends if you do what I command you” (John 15:14 ESV).

If we have truly put our faith in Christ, our inward transformation will have outward results. But without faith, we have no foundation for following Jesus in the first place. The two go hand-in-hand—the disciple responding in faith and obedience.

Next time we’ll look at exactly what it is that we’re responding to.