Bonus audio track of our choir singing “From the Ashes of Dead Stars:”
And the sermon audio here (don’t mind the blips from congregational discussion):
I spent all week asking people about self-denial, and I got all kinds of answers. The most popular answers were mentions of food and diets. Apparently when we think about denying ourselves in American culture, lots of us think about our temptations in the area of food, which is interesting. But most of the people I talked to also recognized that Jesus isn’t recommending that we give up chocolate. As I feel the need to remind people every year, Lent is not a diet. There’s more going on when Jesus says that “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” Because, of course, denying ourselves a particular food is not the same as denying ourselves.
The first thing that comes to mind for some of us when we talk about self-denial are people who are willing to die to protect others or to defend an ideal. But that type of self-denial requires a moment in which to act with remarkable, spontaneous courage. Most of us like to think we’d be willing to die for another person or perhaps for a cause if it came to that, but we don’t live in that moment of urgency. In some ways, self-denial would be easier in that context. It’s heroic. You can see exactly what you’re sacrificing for. But we are not living in a situation where we’re facing the constant threat of martyrdom. Self-denial is harder to grasp when it’s set in an ordinary, daily life, with a thousand little decisions every day instead of one single momentus choice.
Or we think of self-denial as Gandhi or Mother Theresa or some other ascetic – someone who has given up owning things or having worldly attachments altogether. But while there are many important things we can learn from monastics and people living in extreme simplicity, that just doesn’t seem very realistic to most of us. The ship has sailed. We have families who would also be drastically affected by our decisions. We own property and other things that would be challenging to sell even if we wanted to. We have bills, mortgages, student loans, people who would chase us down for money if we left all our worldly possessions and moved to a commune.
And so, many of the conversations I had this week about self-denial were complex. What does it mean to deny ourselves, to take up our cross and follow Christ, if we are also people with responsibilities and obligations and ongoing lives to sustain? Or is that just a cop-out, an attempt not to deny ourselves at all? Mark Twain once said, “It ain’t those parts of the Bible that I can’t understand that bother me, it’s the parts that I do understand.” It’s worth considering that this might be one of those parts of the Bible, that is not nearly as hard to understand as we might like it to be. It’s possible that Jesus meant what he said, that following him means laying down our very lives, denying ourselves, in this great paradox of losing our lives in order to save them, and dying so that we may live.
Many of you have heard me talk about the Enneagram, and some of you have done work with it yourselves. For you this will be old hat, but for some of you this will be brand new, so bear with me. When people ask what the Enneagram is, it is usually described as a system of describing personalities, and most people start to use it by taking a test like any other personality test, and being assigned a personality category, which in the Enneagram are numbered from 1-9. At this stage, it feels not all that different from the Myers-Briggs or any other personality test that is made to help you better understand how you process information and react to emotions.
So then, if you get interested in this Enneagram business, you might start to read more about the other types and thinking about how different personalities interact. And you might come across some of the literature about how to shift your own patterns so that you can have more productive relationships with people of different types. This still is pretty similar to most personality systems.
But you don’t have to get very deep into the Enneagram before you realize that there is one key difference between this and, say, the Myers-Briggs. The goal of working with the Enneagram is not just to understand your own personality, or even to be the best version of your own personality. The goal is not to be your personality. Over time, as you explore your own motivations, deep fears and longings, and how that plays out in behavior patterns, the Enneagram encourages you to loosen your grip on all of those things. You try out new behaviors, rewire your reactions, and ultimately begin to address the fears that drive you, and it makes you less your personality, and more of what Enneagram literature often calls the “essense” – the true, free core of humanity that is connected to God, to other humans, and to all of creation with the best energy of all the types.
I know I’ve gone a little woo-woo on you here, but I bring up the Enneagram because I think it’s a working example of how dying to ourselves can actually allow us to live. When you can let go of all the personality stuff that you think defines you, you finally have the freedom to live as the person God created you to be. But this is a maladjustment to most personality systems, which basically encourage you to be fully and most effectively your personality. The Enneagram helps you understand your personality so that you can lay it aside – so you can deny that version of yourself.
All of that said, I don’t think you have to get all Enneagram-nerdy to learn what it means to deny yourself. Recovery from addiction involves a similar process of letting go of the things that have defined you so that you can truly live. Really good therapy that teaches you to recognize negative emotions so that you can stop letting them define you is the same deal: you lay down parts of your life, paradoxically so that you can live fully. You don’t need to be martyred to lay down your life. All of those thousands of little decisions we make every day offer an opportunity to choose between the world’s way and Christ’s way, between what feels good for us and what is beneficial for all, between what we want in the moment and what will truly give us life.
It can sound overwhelming, this idea of denying yourself, of laying down your life and following in the way of Jesus, which was eventually a path to the cross and to death. But the truth is that we already know how to deny ourselves. Jesus takes the category farther, all the way to life and death, but we already know what self-denial looks like.
It’s part of the mystique of the Olympics, right? We know that all those athletes make enormous sacrifices for a chance to have a medal draped over their neck while their country’s anthem is played. We know that they deny themselves normal lives because they’ve decided something matters more, and while we don’t all choose to do this, it makes sense to us, that in order to choose one thing that is most important to you, you have to not choose a lot of other things.
And we already know what self-denial looks like to some degree from our own lives. We already do it whenever we love someone, when we choose to set aside our own preferences for the sake of their happiness or the health of the relationship, when we grow and change together instead of maintaining the separate self and moving apart.
The kind of self-denial that Jesus is talking about is just an expansion of what we already know, moving beyond loving an individual to loving the world. And there are as many ways to do that as there are people.
Self-denial is when we recognize our own privilege, and choose not to use it for our own benefit.
Self-denial is when we risk our own reputation or relationships or livelihood to speak up against oppression, even though we’re not the ones being oppressed.
Self-denial is when we could speak, but instead open up that space for the voices of marginalized people.
Self-denial is when it would be very easy to listen to people who look and sound just like us, but we intentionally search out people whose perspectives are different from our own, and may even be critical of us.
Self-denial is when we are mindful of ecological justice in our daily decisions. Self-denial is when we limit our own impact on the earth, and choose sustainability over convenience.
Self-denial is when we treat our material and financial resources as gifts to be shared rather than possessions to be hoarded.
Self-denial is when we worry less about our personal safety and comfort than about the ability of others to live and thrive.
Self-denial is anytime we maladjust to the cultural expectation to respond in self-protection – when we offer love instead of hate, forgiveness instead of judgment, generosity instead of greed, life instead of death.
All of these things require a shift in our thinking and behavior, a maladjustment to the expected ways of operating. But the great paradox that Jesus promises is that by giving up our lives, we save them. It’s only through denying ourselves that we are free to truly live.