Wednesday, November 29, 2023

Let Him Deny Himself

Yesterday, I proposed an alternative translation of Matthew 16:24-26 legitimized by Greek usage in the New Testament that applies a little more broadly than the standard interpretation of the passage. I’m not suggesting the “life/soul” distinction that most translators see as key to understanding what the Lord taught is incorrect. What I’m proposing is that we apply these few verses to a whole lot more of our lives than just the moment in which we are willing to die for the faith if called upon to do so.

After all, dying is relatively easy. You only have to do it once. Living for Christ requires dying to self every day and in every way.

Here’s how I am currently reading the passage:

“Then Jesus told his disciples, ‘If anyone would come after me, let him deny his own self and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his own self will lose it, but whoever loses his own self for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his own self? Or what shall a man give in return for his own self?’ ”

So what is this “self” that followers of Christ are to deny? We ought not to think of it as obviously-sinful selfishness or self-occupation. The Christian self is a combination of personality (genes, upbringing, experience, preference, IQ, etc.) modified by character, which can be good or bad depending on the maturity of the believer, as discussed at greater length here. The parts of the self that most require surrendering are the default attitudes, goals and drives untouched or incompletely modified by the Holy Spirit. These are most evident in the way we define ourselves to ourselves.

The Rich Young Man

The “self” of the young man who asked the Lord Jesus “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” was all tied up with his possessions, so he went away sorrowful rather than following Christ.

Now, I very much doubt this young fellow was a first century Jewish version of Scrooge McDuck, deliriously rolling in gold coins in his bank vault and obsessed with mammon for mammon’s sake. In fact, I suspect he may have been quite generous, perhaps to a fault. He seemed confident in his obedience to the Law of Moses, and that law repeatedly stresses the importance of taking care of the poor, the sojourner, orphans and widows and so on. His problem was likely not with giving to the poor, it was giving all that he had to the poor. The moment he did that, you see, he would be one of them, dependent on the generosity of others for his next meal. The self-image he had taken for granted all his life would be completely inverted.

From kindergarten, we are taught the importance of having a good self-image. This man’s self-image depended on something external, whether it was being well-thought-of for his generosity, or respected for his business acumen, or fawned over by others, or any of the other benefits that wealth confers, like freedom, autonomy or (relative) safety. Which of these ways of viewing himself defined him is irrelevant, but one of them did.

The unfortunate thing for the rich is that there comes a day when no amount of money can buy what you need. I once met a multi-millionaire, the heir to a grocery empire, whose wealth was the basis of his self-image, and it made him many fair weather friends. Then, in his sixties, he was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s, which is pretty much the definition of losing your self. All the money in the world couldn’t bring back his memory, give him back his freedom or his ability to manage his own life.

We don’t know what happened to the rich young man who went away sorrowful, but whatever he gained by walking away was surely lost to him already. If you truly believe in eternal life, how do you look yourself in the mirror knowing you just traded it away? He kept his wealth, but lost himself.

The Provider

I knew a very decent Christian man who, to all appearances, was one of the most selfless people you could ever meet. A devoted family man, he was generous, organized, competent and cheery. He constantly busied himself in taking care of those around him, and seemingly had few concerns for his own needs. One day his doctor told him he was going to have to stop driving as his vision had deteriorated to the point where being behind the steering wheel was unsafe for him and everyone else. He was asked to surrender his license.

You have never seen such a transformation. That genial, gracious man turned into a petulant child. What happened? Well, his self-image was all tied up in what he was able to do for others. Take that away from him, and he couldn’t imagine going on living at all. He would rather have continued driving without a license, putting everyone around him in mortal danger, than lose the image of himself he had carefully constructed over the years as the much-needed man in charge. But that loss was inevitable. Whoever would save his own self will lose it.

The Control Freak

I have a friend who grew up poor. Despite a very rough childhood lived at least part of the time in abject poverty, she was for years one of the most positive people I had ever met who didn’t know the Lord. What gave her comfort was the fact that she had ordered her life to give herself the ability to make choices she never had as a child. She not only thought of herself as a woman with options, but also assumed anyone else could have what she did if they only worked hard and worked smart. Her choices were not always bad ones, but what made any choice “good” to her was primarily the fact that she was the one making it.

Then reality hit. Several crises occurred back to back in her life that left her with limited options, all of them degrees of bad, and her personality began to change. Why? Because her self-image was all tied up with her perceived autonomy. When that fundamental fact of life proved false, I began to see a level of anger, pessimism and even bitterness that were foreign to her in earlier years.

She was beginning to lose her self.

The Self-Sacrificing Mother

I spent much of my teen years at other people’s houses. One of my friends had a mother who appeared unusually dedicated to her family, to the point of documenting just about every moment of their lives on camera, having the photos printed, and including them in a series of albums personally tailored to each child. She ironed all their T-shirts and jeans, a process that took hours and for which her children were uniformly ungrateful, as their school peers noticed they looked different.

By the time the kids were all high schoolers, it dawned on me that mom’s extravagance at doing her job had more to do with maintaining her own self-image as a woman who raised her family “properly” — a term she (naturally) defined — than with meeting actual needs or expressing love in language her children might recognize. I rarely asked her how she was doing without hearing something along the lines of “Utterly exhausted” or “Completely unappreciated”.

It wasn’t the most desirable self-image she had constructed, but it was hers and she would not let it go.

The Efficient One

I have always had a near-autistic ability to focus on one thing for extended periods. This has been of great use in the office and appreciated by anyone I worked for who valued productivity, but quite a bit less enjoyable for people I lived with when I attempted to impose my own innate sense of orderliness on their lives. It also came at a social cost, when I let my self-imposed routines take priority over what I wrote off as distractions. These were usually people in need, and often, potential witnessing opportunities.

I had to learn that “Mr. Efficiency” was nothing more than yet another expression of self. Most of the time he needed to be denied.

The True Self

The man who dedicates himself to the pursuit of his own goals may ultimately achieve some or all of them, but he will lose some or all of himself in the bargain. His own nature will change over time as he becomes more like the things on which he has set his heart. He will not be the man he was when he started out. All the features of his character that made him appealing or desirable will have been sacrificed on the altar of self, leaving nothing but a void. What would you trade to avoid that fate? In contrast, the man who dies to self every day in order that Christ may live more comfortably within him is more truly himself in the sense his Creator always intended with every passing year.

Those of us who are determined to follow Jesus need to learn to deny self. Not just unhealthy appetites and desires, about which scripture is crystal clear, but also any expression of self-will that puts distance between ourselves and others, that hinders our growth in Christ, that is a barrier to public testimony, that is unproductive, unconstructive or that has its basis in any self-image or concept that is something other than Christ himself.

The way we define ourselves to ourselves is ultimately unsalvageable, and we need to learn to let it go. Age is a great leveler, but unforeseen circumstances can produce the same effect much earlier. One day the Provider will need to be provided for, the Competent One will find himself trying to manage new technology at which he does not excel, the Control Freak will find she can’t control her circumstances and the Financial Whiz will find something staggeringly important that money can’t buy. That’s a bitter pill to swallow, but those who try to save these “selves” will lose them. To the extent we obey any inclination, moral or immoral, that originates in self-will and self-determination, we will be immature in that area and all expressions of the self-image from which these inclinations originate will be useless to the Lord.

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