Everyday Self-Denial and Cross-Bearing

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In John Wesley’s thinking, there are two of the general means of grace that especially explain the importance of our inward attitude because he thought they served as easy-to-understand examples: Jesus’ twin commands to deny oneself and take up one’s cross. About self-denial, Wesley says that “to deny ourselves is to deny our own will where it does not fall in with the will of God, and that however pleasing it may be.” When he talks about “our own will,” the idea that he has in mind is that our own will is almost always going to lead us down the wrong path when left on its own. Because he often views the presence of sin as akin to a moral disease within us, Wesley tends to think of the effects of sin as constantly influencing toward thoughts, feelings, and actions that take us away from God. To deny ourselves would be to deny those basic worldly, sinful impulses that seem so attractive to us on their surface.

The flip side of the coin is Jesus’ command to take up one’s own cross. This has some real similarities to self-denial in the sense that cross-bearing also involves going against the natural tendencies we might have. Wesley writes, “A cross is anything contrary to our will, anything displeasing to our nature.” While this is a companion to self-denial, it actually raises the bar in terms of what it requires of us. “[T]aking up our cross goes a little farther than denying ourselves,” Wesley says, “it rises a little higher, and is a more difficult task to flesh and blood, it being easy to forego pleasure than to endure pain.” In other words, I can say “no” to something I would other wise enjoy more easily than I can say “yes” to something that I positively don’t want to do.

Why are these two ideas so important to Wesley’s view of how our inward disposition is a general means of grace to us? Well, you can’t really deny yourself the things you most want, or take up things that are truly difficult for you, without thinking about exactly why you are putting yourself through that kind of unpleasant process. You have to be intentional about it. You have to be focused on what it means to deny yourself, or to take up your cross in some specific way. There is no way to deprive yourself of one thing (or burden yourself with another) without your inward intention being at the center of that whole process.

Our cultural mindset of consumerism makes real discipleship difficult. The world around us wants to encourage us to indulge ourselves and avoid things that are difficult. This is just the opposite of Jesus’ commands to us! It may be that the general means of grace are needed now more than ever. We live lives of distraction: technology and media, in the form of smart phones and tablet computers and high-definition TVs, mean that we are rarely left alone with our thoughts. Contemplating ourselves and our relationship with God is so rare nowadays, in fact, that it is likely to make us fairly anxious when we first start to do it. I’m not sure there’s anything more important though. Ultimately, we will never build the holy habit of patterning our lives according to the means of grace if we do not focus on the need for mindful attention in all that we are doing. In some ways, the general means of grace must be focused upon for all the other means of grace to make a difference.

Everywhere I have served as a pastor, one of the most common requests I get from church members when it comes to pastoral care is about how to navigate the difficulties of personal relationships. Sometimes this has to do with spouses and other family members. Sometimes it has to do with coworkers and friends. Whenever a church member of mine has presented me with a difficult situation, I would always ask how he or she had responded (or intended to respond). It almost never fails that people will give me an answer related to their level of comfort with personal interaction. Some would say they were going to send a text or an e-mail. Others would say they intended to pick up the phone and make a call. Very few people said they wanted to seek out the person with whom they had a disagreement, sit down together, and talk.

Now ask yourself this question: Why wouldn’t the first reaction of people be to seek out those with whom things have become difficult so they could sit down together in person? I think it’s probably all wrapped up with fear, anxiety, and the desire to avoid confrontation. My pastoral counsel to such folks is always to think about how they naturally wanted to respond and then move at least one level up on the difficulty scale. If the impulse was to send a text message, they ought to make a phone call. And if they naturally thought of making a phone call, they should instead seek the person out face-to-face. The goal, of course, would be to always seek out a person face-to-face, but not everyone can do that right off the bat.

In a small way, this is about denying oneself and taking up one’s cross. Real relationships can be hard, but they are only built in a face-to-face manner. Doing the hard thing on the front end has positive consequences in the end. If you can think about your own discipleship like this, then you will begin to get a sense of how important the general means of grace are. We can use phrases that come from Jesus’ mouth, like “obey the commandments,” “deny your- self,” and “take up your cross.” Or, we can go with that little phrase that Wesley seemed to like so much: the exercise of the presence of God. The truth is that they are all pointing to the same idea, which is to be aware of God’s presence in your life and live your life in response to the grace he gives you in every moment.

Do you want to learn more about the transforming power of God’s grace in our lives? Get The Means of Grace: Traditioned Practice for Today’s World by Andrew Thompson from our store! “Thompson is an excellent, giving fresh insights into Wesley’s concept of Means of Grace. He reasserts that transformation is God’s work not ours. The Spirit is faithful to work through means of grace as we avail ourselves to them.” (Charles L.) Get it from our store here.

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Dr. Andrew C. Thompson is a pastor, teacher, and scholar in the United Methodist Church. He is an award-winning author and frequent speaker, focusing on the thought of John Wesley, the history of Methodism, and contemporary Wesleyan theology. Andrew is an ordained minister and has served pastoral appointments in Arkansas, Tennessee, and North Carolina. He currently serves as the senior pastor of First United Methodist Church in Springdale, Arkansas. Previously he taught for four years on the faculty of Memphis Theological Seminary in Memphis, Tennessee.

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