Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. (Matthew 16:24-25)
The words of Jesus in the verses, above, seem like hard words, a bitter pill to swallow. He tells us that if we want to follow him we must “deny” ourselves, and “take up our cross” and “lose our lives for his sake.” If we take these words at face value it is hard to imagine anyone responding to such an invitation and eagerly following after Jesus. They don’t bring to mind images of the kind of life most of us are hoping to live. In fact, they sound more fit for a Cistercian monk than for your average man and woman.
Yet, we should not dismiss these words of Jesus because we think they demand more than we can give of ourselves. They deserve a fair hearing because in them there is a profound truth which holds the key to a new kind of life – one in which we experience authentic freedom and even joy.
So we return to the verses in which these words are found to give them a closer look. The first phrase to consider is the one in which Jesus states that we must deny ourselves. I think it is safe to say that nobody likes having to deny themselves something they want or enjoy, for any length of time. And while we might deny ourselves something for a brief period on behalf of a worthy cause or for someone we love, we really don’t want to have to do that on a permanent basis. Although a better translation of that word from the Greek would be to disown or renounce ourselves, neither one of those sounds a great deal more appealing.
However, what we must consider is exactly what Jesus is asking us to disown. He is saying we must disown “ourselves” or more specifically, our “natural” self. Our natural self is our personality: our likes and dislikes, our thoughts and habits, the desires of our heart, as well as our unconscious and intuition. Now some of us may be quite satisfied with our natural self, but if we truly saw it for what it is, apart from Jesus, we probably would be quite happy to disown it.
The Bible gives us plenty of opportunities to glimpse the natural self at work. The story of Adam and Eve is the most illuminating of them all. As you may recall, God blesses them greatly and their life is very good, but when God tells them they can have anything they want – except the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil – we see how the natural self typically reacts. They just can’t help wanting what they want. They are quick to fall for the temptation of assuming they’ve got a right to have what God says they can’t. They behave as though they can make their own rules.
This is precisely who we are. Our natural self will always fall prey to pride, idolatry, greed, envy, and fear. Any natural generosity we have will also smack of self-interest. Our natural kindness will be peppered with self-promotion. Our natural goodness will be influenced, unconsciously, by a need to manipulate a situation for our own purposes. It all comes down to the fact that our natural self is unable to trust wholly in God’s will and purpose. So we end up going through life stuck being preoccupied with ourselves. Paul describes what this is like in his letter to the Romans: Those who live according to the sinful nature (a.k.a. the “natural self”) have their minds set on what that nature desires…(8:5)
Let’s consider this further. What is the first thing a person is most likely think about when waking up in the morning? Is it not, “What kind of day am I going to have? What problems will I have to deal with? What things am I hoping to do?” The initial waking thoughts of all of us are mainly, if not totally, about ourselves. And our efforts throughout the day are oriented toward trying to get what we want and avoid what we don’t like, all the while positioning ourselves in the best possible light. And often, we are not even conscious of this; we just do it, naturally. Even when we intentionally take our mind off of ourselves, we can’t do it on a permanent basis because we always revert to what comes naturally.
So in light of all this, perhaps the thought that we must deny, or disown, our natural self, might not seem like such a bad idea. It is the only way free from the tyranny of self-preoccupation. The way to begin is by handing ourselves over to Jesus Christ.
In his book, Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis describes what it means to turn over our natural self to Jesus. He writes, “Christ says, “Give me All. I don’t want so much of your time and so much of your money and so much of your work: I want You. I have not come to torment your natural self, but to kill it. No half-measures are any good. I don’t want to cut off a branch here and a branch there, I want to have the whole tree down…Hand over the whole natural self, all the desires which you think innocent as well as the ones you think wicked—the whole outfit. I will give you a new self instead. In fact, I will give you Myself: my own will shall become yours.”
Next week: Finding Your True Self concludes.
In two weeks a new series begins: Cure for the Soul.