Differentiating Another Christian Virtue From “Selflessness”
Self-denial is another Christian virtue that on the surface sounds a lot like “selflessness.” If we really want to understand the difference between love-oriented sacrifice (which is Biblical) and self-oriented selflessness (which is un-Biblical), then we must look carefully at what Jesus says about self-denial. Here it is:
“Then Jesus said to His disciples, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me.For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it.” (Matthew 16:24-25)
The same teaching is repeated almost verbatim in Luke 9:23-24. And Jesus elaborates on the idea of “taking up your cross” later in Luke:
“If anyone comes to Me, and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be My disciple. Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple.” (Luke 14:26-27)
Is Jesus teaching selflessness…?
In a sense, yes, Jesus is teaching selflessness – according to the strict dictionary definition of the word! He’s urging his disciples to be less concerned with self-protection and self-interest. Following God means writing him a blank check, letting him take us wherever he wants – even to the Cross. This is a difficult and beautiful teaching that all of us could spend our lives seeking to understand and obey.
At the same time, my twisted and damaged mind sometimes takes these words to a place that I don’t think Jesus intended. When Jesus says, “deny yourself”, I hear echoes of the damaging definition of “selflessness” (self-hatred) that I’ve learned from this world. I hear the verse saying, “I’m bad. My desires are bad. To deny myself and take up my cross means to shut my mouth, suck it up, fall in line, and do all the nice things I know I’m supposed to do. I shouldn’t expect it to be fun, because I’m just scum, and scum doesn’t enjoy being good.” (That’s what the Bible means when it says we’re all sinful, right? That we’re just scum?)
And even further: “Tim, are you tired of doing good? That’s because you’re lazy. Are you sick of never asking for what you want? That’s because you’re selfish. Do you long for care and compassion, grace, rest and mercy? That’s because you’re an ingrate who can’t shut up and be grateful for all the good things God has already given you.”
Do the voices in your head ever tell you these things? Do you believe that this is God’s message for you? It sounds kind of like what I’ve heard Christians (and even myself) say from time to time. But it sure doesn’t sound like water to a thirsty soul. And my soul is thirsty.
Or is there another way?
I really believe there is a better (and more Scripturally accurate) way. Next time, I’ll take a fresh look at what Jesus is saying in these verses, so we can ask him with open hearts what he really wants us to take from them.