“Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.” (Luke 9:23)
Following Christ requires genuine commitment; it calls for the kind of dedication that refuses to chase after one’s own desires for the sake of conforming to the will of God. This type of devotion can only be attained by depriving our self-will; however, outside of the season of lent, the topic of self-denial is rarely addressed. It is easy to understand why we avoid it. One the one hand, denying ourselves of anything is often painful and arduous; indeed, scripture and much of Christian tradition utilizes the image of death to describe the process of rooting out our self-will. On the other hand, there have always been those in the Church who have taken Christ’s command to “deny ourselves” to unhealthy limits. However, in the attempt to avoid the one extreme, we have moved to the other end of the spectrum by quietly disregarding it.
John Wesley clearly understood the reasons behind our reluctance to “deny ourselves and take up our cross;” yet, he also knew that the pursuit of Christ required the daily mortification of our sinful self. In his sermon entitled “Self-Denial,” he paints an accurate representation of Christ’s call.
1. Self-denial is not pointless self-depravation.
Suffering simply for the sake of suffering held no meaning for Wesley. That is, to subject ourselves to harsh treatment, to deny our basic needs, or to refuse innocent pleasures just to create a needless sense of misery is not the true meaning of self-denial. Wesley assures us that the very act of following Christ will cause us to encounter suffering; we need not falsely manufacture it. The essence of self-denial, therefore, is “to deny our own will where it does not fall in with the will of God… it is to deny ourselves any pleasure which does not spring from, and lead to God.”* To deny oneself must always have only one end in view: to lead us closer to Christ.
2. Denying our will is only half of the equation.
Wesley noted that all real disciples not only deny themselves but also “take up their cross.” Here, Wesley makes an important distinction between “bearing our cross” and “taking one up.” Bearing a cross is humbly accepting difficult circumstances over which we have no control. Taking up a cross is embracing the will of God and choosing that which is painful when we could do otherwise. It is voluntarily suffering that which we find distasteful because to do so will further us along the path toward Christ. It is doing the good we know to be right and true, not only when it is convenient, but when we find it most inopportune.
3. Neglecting self-denial and taking up our cross will always lead us astray from the path of Christ.
Wesley noted that when we follow the call of Christ we will inevitably encounter a cross in our path. We can either choose to pick it up and continue on the way or turn aside from Christ’s call. Without fail, Wesley observed that believers who skirted around a cross lagged so far behind Christ that it was not long before they detoured away from true faith. Therefore, self-denial and taking up our cross is not an occasional event for genuine believers. There is not a moment when we are not called to deny ourselves and follow
Christ. Therefore, Wesley urged, “Practice it immediately, from this very hour. Practice it universally, on every one of the thousand occasions which will occur in all circumstances of life. Practice it daily without intermission…”
Is there a cross in your path today? Is there some good that you know you should do – even though it will greatly inconvenience you? Will you willingly embrace that which is painful, trusting that it will lead you one step closer to Christ?
*All quotes taken from John Wesley’s sermon “Self-Denial,” 1760.