At church last Sunday, it was raining outside, plus there were forecasts of an ice-storm. I stayed home and watched John MacArthur’s service, then I watched the service of the church that I usually attend. I hope I don’t get too comfortable with this way of doing “church”! As an introvert, I love it, but I do think it is good for me to push myself into situations that involve being with people.
MacArthur was continuing his series on the church, and he was commenting on Jesus’ statement in Matthew 16:24: “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me” (KJV).
What does it mean to deny oneself? Does it mean that we are never allowed to do what we want to do, to please ourselves? Can we never have our own way?
MacArthur offered explanations. For him, one way that we deny ourselves is by being humble about our need for God’s forgiveness. According to MacArthur, we should come to church, wanting nothing from God but God’s forgiveness. As we grow in the faith, MacArthur said, we become more and more aware of how unworthy we are of what God has given us.
How is this self-denial? It may be self-denial in the sense that it entails that we deny our natural tendency to exalt ourselves, by humbling ourselves before God.
MacArthur offered other ideas, as well. He referred to a Puritan poem about a person losing everything, yet still having Jesus and the riches of God’s grace. MacArthur also mentioned attitudes that correspond with self-denial. Such attitudes include being content with anonymity, accepting rebuke from people we consider our social inferiors (or at least taking that rebuke seriously), not fighting back when we are criticized, and being happy for someone when something good happens in that person’s life, even if we are still struggling. Again, self-denial contends against our desire for self-exaltation.
The pastor at the church that I normally attend touched on self-denial. He has done so in past sermons, too. For him, self-denial is resisting our old, sinful self, which wants to go the opposite direction from God’s way. We have to say “no” to that.
How do I process all of this? Sure, I would love to be content with anonymity! Some days, like today, I actually am. But, like a lot of people, Christians included, I would like to be noticed. And, in my opinion, part of Christian love is recognizing other people’s desire to be noticed and actually noticing them! There are plenty of New Testament passages about encouraging people, which entails noticing them.
What is self-denial? I could say that it related to the persecution that Christians endured back then, and even endure today in certain countries, but that seems like too convenient of an explanation, for me and other Christians in the United States. In my opinion, and I’m sure there are people who will disagree with me on this, being a Christian in the United States does not entail a lot of counting the cost. Christians are not put to death in the United States for being Christians. I could say that self-denial means being a Christian despite persecution, and, since I am not persecuted, that command does not apply to me. But that sounds like the easy way out.
Maybe MacArthur goes to an extreme in his characterization of self-denial, but then, on the other hand, maybe there is somewhere in there something helpful and constructive: being so secure in our identity in God that we can actually take second place.