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Feb
09

What does it mean to “deny yourself”?

How is the new life that we live with Christ different from the life we lived before the gate? How is the path different?

The path is different because it is the path of discipleship, of following Jesus. As we follow Jesus, we start to “look” more and more like him; and as we look more like him, we look less like the world.

There are many descriptions in the Bible of the path of discipleship and why it is so different from the world, but my favorite is in the book called “Mark,” chapter 8, verse 34. This is the pivotal verse in my life when it comes to how I think about life as a follower. It changed the way I think, and actually led me to write this blog.

We are at a turning point of Jesus’ story. Jesus has been conducting a public ministry, speaking to large crowds, teaching about the kingdom of God, and doing miracles to prove his authority. At Mark 8:27, it is like Jesus has finally come to the point where he is willing to ask the disciples to make a commitment. Who do they think that he is? Peter, probably speaking for all twelve of them, says, “We believe you are the Christ, the Messiah, God’s king who was to come into the world.” Jesus accepts Peter’ confession as true.

But then everything in the gospel story changes. Jesus’ ministry becomes mostly private, not doing as many miracles, and primarily teaching the twelve disciples what it is like to live as disciples in God’s kingdom. In verse 34 Jesus says, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”

If anyone, man or woman, wants to follow Jesus, to be his disciple (be a “Christian” we tend to say), then he must do two things. He must “deny himself” and “take up his cross.” When Luke tells this same story, he clarifies that we are to take up our cross “daily” (Luke 9:23). What does this mean? The answer to this question shows why the path is so different form the world.

To “deny” yourself means to say “No” to yourself and “Yes” to God. Paul is not talking about asceticism — forgoing earthly possessions, not eating certain foods, ignoring the world, etc. To say it differently, the process of denial is “to humbly submit my will to God.” It is to go through life repeating the words that Jesus said the night before he died. When he was praying in the garden, he said to God his Father, “Not my will but yours be done.” It is what millions of Christians have prayed for centuries when they repeat what we call the “Lord’s Prayer.” “Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven”( Matthew 6:10).

What does it look like to live out this prayer? Someone hurts you. Your natural reaction is to lash back, to get angry. But the path of discipleship is “not my will but yours.” It is humbly submitting my will to God’s will. Instead of getting angry, we realize that God is calling us to forgive even our enemies. A verse that is becoming more and more important to me is Paul’s instructions to the church in Ephesus. “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you” (4:32). When I am hurt, I am called to submit my will to God’s will and follow his example. This is what it means to “deny” yourself. Now, I don’t always do it. Sometimes I like to reword Jesus prayer: “not your will but mine be done.” But that’s not what Jesus said.

What does it mean to “daily take up your cross”? The cross was a horrid symbol of pain, shame, and death. A person hung on it, naked, until his skeletal structure collapsed and he suffocated to death, without air and with his body drowning itself in its own fluids. Every day we are to live in such a way that it is apparent to everyone that we have died to ourselves, to our selfish ways and ambitions, and live for God. Another translation words the verse: “If any of you wants to be my follower, you must turn from your selfish ways, take up your cross, and follow me” (NLT).

Something unfair happens and instinctively we want to get even. But we have died to that “right,” we have prayed “not my will but yours be done.“ Hopefully we humbly submit our will to God’s will, and we respond in kindness and humility. Will you always do this right the first time? Of course not, and that is, in a sense, okay. Life is a journey. God understands that over the years we have created habits of our heart that are not easily broken, and he is patient with us as we learn to walk the new path. Nevertheless, we are called daily to humbly submit our will to his.

To get back to the original question, why is the new path of discipleship different? It’s because we have been changed. We now follow Jesus, and the new longings in our heart are to do his will, not our own.

Don’t be frightened. God is not standing there with a scowl on his face, arms folded, with a whole new list of things we can do and things we can’t do. Remember the theme verse of this blog. “You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore” (Psalm 16:11, ESV). The path of discipleship is the path of joy, but it is also a path that is different.

Because Jesus is different.

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About Bill Mounce

Bill lives as a writer in Washougal, WA. He is also the President of BiblicalTraining.org, a non-profit organization offering world-class educational resources for equipping leaders in the local church, and Research Professor in New Testament at Western Seminary. Bill is the author of the bestselling Greek textbook Basics of Biblical Greek, Greek for the Rest of Us, and many other resources. Bill was also the New Testament chair of the English Standard Version translation of the Bible, and is currently serving on the New International Version translation committee.

Comments

  1. Matt Lowe says:

    For the most part I agree with you; but is it possible that when we take this approach, we’re letting ourselves off the hook (or the cross) just a little by reading Jesus through Paul? Yes, we have “died to sin” in Rom 6:2, and the very event that marks our birth as Jesus’ followers is a baptism “into his death” (6:3). And while it’s true that “Paul is not talking about asceticism,” — at that point in your argument you’re talking about Mark and Luke, not Paul! We need to acknowledge here that for millions of Christians today and in the church’s history, “taking up the cross” has been much more literal than we in the Western world can comfortably admit; it has meant, and continues to mean, persecution, suffering, and death, often by means every bit as horrible and public as crucifixion. “Dying to ourselves” is an excellent place to start, for we will certainly never be willing to follow Jesus to our literal death if we are not already dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus, but I don’t think we can afford to let ourselves believe that the path of cruciform discipleship will be exclusively figurative.

    • Bill Mounce says:

      Excellent point. It is so easy to forget that Western culture is not the world’s culture. I still remember talking with my sister about whether or not to include a chapter on suffering in my new believers curriculum, and how early or late in the sequence to place it. We talked for a while and then Teri said, “Of course, if this curriculum were for China, you wouldn’t even be asking the question.” “Taking up your cross” in most places outside the Western world does mean physical suffering. And the Western world is not too far behind.

    • I believe that to deny thyself means to – be still- that is – not in worry, anger, fear, anxiety or any other form of negative thought that distracts us froom trusting in God. The practice of doing God’s will is to accept and honor every circumstance every moment as being exactly as it should be. Even if it feels like the worst possible thing. Only then can I truly enter the kindgom of heaven within. Truley turn my will and my life over to God and experience the peace of God.

  2. I appreciate the sincerity inherent in this form of discipleship. It is like WWJD bracelets without feeling like a ploy, or a bad joke. It is a good reminder that when we think “Let this cup pass from me” that we be reminding of the words that follow.

    To Mark Lowe’s comment, I would be surprised to find that the many saints whose lives were given for the gospel thought in terms of a joyful martyrdom (not that none did, but that it is not primus voluntatis. I think of Luther on the way to the Diets, not gleefully seeking persecution but seeking the Will of his Father in heaven. Or of Tyndale who actively sought refuge outside of England to work on his translation. The taking of the cross in these instances is purely figurative, but that does not preclude the possibility that God’s will for one’s life will not require his sacrifice of that very life.

    Great article.

  3. Cedric loving God in my new walk says:

    Thank you for sharing this awesome. This is very helpful to me as i’am at a turning point in my walk as a believer in Christ. I had a terrible storm in my life and know that it was God doing a new thing in my life. I have been focusing on being whom God truly chosen me to be. Thank you I can walk with a greater understanding in order to please God.

  4. Elizabeth makamure says:

    I thank you for the word which i didn’t know some of the things how to deny yourself and to give commitiment to God and to know the truth

  5. IN ORDER TO ACCEPT CHRIST WE MUST DENY SELF. AND THE ONLY WAY TO ACCEPT JESUS AND DENY YOURSELF IS BY SUBMITTING UNTO THE WILL OF GOD….THUS YIELDING OURSELVES OVER TO HIM! JESUS ALSO SAID FOR US TO PICK UP THE CROSS…FOR WHEN WE FOLLOW HIM WE WILL HAVE O ENDURE SOME HARDSHIPS AND SOME PERSECUTIONS IN THIS DAILY WALK WITH CHRIST….THEREFORE WE MUST DILIGENTLY SEEK HIM AND LEARN OF HIM SO WE WILL BE ABLE TO ENDURE WHAT SATAN, THE FLESH, AND THE WORLD SENDS OUR WAY! ALSO JESUS WAS CRUCIFIED ON THE CROSS IN ORDER TO FREE US FROM OUR SINS. SINCE WE FOLLOW HIM AND STRIVING TO BE LIKE CHRIST WE MUST PICK UP OUR CROSS AND CRUCIFY OUR FLESH DAILY TO KEEP US FREE FROM SINNING. THEN WE ARE ABLE TO FOLLOW CHRIST BE BLESSED!!!

  6. The gospel was and is a simple message, it’s about the Kindom principles . When you understand this you have no issue in submitting to the Ruler of the Kindom. In our case it’s Jeasus the the true and living GOD. So why do we complicate life. Just flow with the principles of God and you will have victory. Thank you . Be blessed.

  7. EvergladesEddie says:

    Plain and Simple, Jesus said, “I came to Serve not to be served” – He have us FREE WILL and He commands us to Follow His lead! We MUST LOVE AND SERVE THE POOR/NEEDY and WE MUST PREACH THE GOSPEL OF JESUS CHRIST TO THE LOST ;)

  8. Samson Jola says:

    You have said it all…… Jesus knows the way to handle our “Cross” because He”s been there before.

  9. Not any one of us getting it done. If you call it yourself getting it done , then your just like all the rest. You have to get so sick and at the end of yourself, that Jesus is the only option…then He makes ripples in the world thru your self loathing and daily surrendering…

  10. Excellent presentation on denying self and following Jesus. My only question is if this includes the Ten Commandments, the fourth of which instructs us to honor the Seventh-day Sabbath. Why do so many who claim to follow Jesus reject this commandment and follow the tradition of men in uplifting Sunday sacredness, a practice which neither, Jesus, the apostles, nor early church followed? http://bit.ly/14VLZpL

  11. all these are wonderful insights and good points are made here. one thought , or rather, an illuminating contrast that might shed some light on the subject; If GOD denies HIMSELF, he is not GOD. What then happens when we deny ourselves? We are not ourselves in one sense.

  12. These are great references to discipleship in Mark 8 and Matthew 16. I would like to comment on how between the confession of Christ and our discipleship or following Christ sits the cross. Many people confess Christ but sadly many of them never follow the way of the cross to become a disciple. Confession alone will not allow you entrance into the kingdom or Jesus would not have said that Many on that day will come and say Lord, Lord but will still be rejected by Christ. I hope this helps someone.

    Blessings

  13. ChristianG says:

    So are you also saying that we are to deny our hopes and dreams that we may have on earth as well and put all our attention and focus in life and energy in Jesus Christ? It seems humanly impossible. I wouldn’t know where or how to begin.

    • Good questions, Christian. As I am not the author of this post, I can’t speak for what he was trying to say, however, here are my thoughts on the subject:

      I don’t think following Jesus means abandoning all hopes and dreams here on earth, but rather, as you become more Christlike, hopes, dreams, and ambition ought to be transformed to reflect the mission and glory of God. And yes, this is humanly impossible. Fortunately for us, God doesn’t leave us on our own. It is only with Christ’s help that we are able to move away from our sinful nature in any way and become even a little bit more Christlike. I think Art Azurdia (another author here on the blog) says it really well:

      (Quote taken from his Christ-centered preaching interview, http://wp.me/p4dWCg-1n6)

      “As Christians…we need to be reminded every single week of how profoundly satisfied God is with us because of what Jesus Christ has done on our behalf. The default position of the human heart is “I’ve got to please God by my morality. God will be happy with me when I am good and unhappy with me when I am bad.” So we have to remind ourselves of the gospel everyday – that God is already fully, and in every way, happy with us because of Jesus Christ. Out of that, I then find a greater compulsion and motivation to obey.”

      P.J. Oswald also wrote a post titled “Does Following Jesus Mean Giving Up My Ambition?” that you may find interesting. Here is the link: http://wp.me/p4dWCg-1il.

  14. ChristianG says:

    Thanks for your reply. It was very helpful to me.

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  1. [...]  Must we ‘unplug from the Matrix‘ or does He mean something entirely different?  Bill Mounce says that it means to ‘say “No” to yourself and “Yes” to God, or to humbly submit [...]