Sunday, March 4, 2012

Practicing Self-Denial

Practicing Self-Denial

copyright 2012 © Robert J. Elder, Pastor

Psalm 22:23-31 Mark 8:31-9:1

Second Sunday in Lent: March 19, 2012

If any want to become my followers,

let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.

Self-denial. It’s something that would take practice, isn’t it? It’s not the sort of thing that comes naturally to the human species. As Americans we are acquainted vaguely with the concept, though generally not thoroughly, often not on a first-hand basis. For some of us, the concept of self-denial often runs along the lines of deciding to keep our old car a year or two longer than we had planned. We are known the world over as consumers of monstrous portions of the world’s resources. Yet we are taught through our religious faith that the denial of self for the sake of others, when chosen freely, is a virtue. Like the ability to play Chopin on the piano or to swing a bat so as to hit a ball, self-denial is not an in-born characteristic of our species, it requires practice, and plenty of it.

We are taught this ideal, that denial of self and placing others’ needs first is a hallmark of our faith. Yet we live more in the world of Somerset Maugham, who once werote, “From the standpoint of pure reason, there are no grounds to support the claim that one should sacrifice one’s own happiness to that of others.”[1] Even when we seek to be self sacrificing, there are times when we can twist even that into some odd version of self-service. George Bernard Shaw put it more bluntly and cynically: “Self-sacrifice,” he said “enables us to sacrifice other people without blushing.”[2] C.S. Lewis once wrote, “She’s the sort of woman who lives for others – you can always tell the others by their hunted expression.”[3]

Without much effort, then, we observe contesting ideologies: the ideology of Jesus in which the gift of self to others is the greatest gift one can make, and the calculating thinking of the late 20th and early 21st century “me-first” generations, in which even self-sacrifice or self-giving is calculated to have its own rewards, to be recommended only because, in the end, it results in profit to self. This turns Jesus’ words on their head.

When Jesus says that those who follow him must be prepared to deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow, we often assume this is a work for the hyper-holy, the super-faithful, mighty monastics. But he certainly doesn’t put it that way. “If you want to become my followers...” That seems surely to refer to all of us who would take the trouble to gather here on a Sunday morning. Father Daniel Berrigan once said, “If you are going to be a follower of Jesus, make sure you look good on wood.” It is the self-denial demanded by being a follower of someone else’s will that we are to understand. We don’t seek it because we want it, we seek to set self aside because he asks it of us.

If we are members of this church, there was for each of us a time when we stood before others and were asked membership questions, the third of which asks, “Do you intend to be his disciple, to obey his word, and show his love?” So this desire to be obedient, to follow, this readiness to deny self and take on the cross, these are not options for believers. They are chapter headings in the basic manual of operations. They describe what being a disciple is about.

With that said, what is there to add? I think there is at least one thing to think about in relation to all this, and that is that such self-denial, such taking up of the cross of Christ is seen in the wrong way if it is consistently understood as solely a dour self-abnegation, a forced-march through a barren life void of all pleasure until we reach the next. I think to be understood correctly, the choice to deny self in favor of the interests of others must carry with it the constant sense that it comes to us as a gift from God. Martin Luther said, “Walk in faith and love. If the Cross comes, accept it. If it does not come, do not seek it.”

This may sound a little kooky – self-denial as a gift of God – but I think it is true for a couple of reasons. First of all, it is mostly something we cannot achieve by ourselves. Somerset Maugham was probably right as far as he went when he wrote those words, “no grounds from the standpoint of pure reason to support self-denial.”[4] The capacity for self-denial is – like most of the best aspects of our faith ­– a gift of God. How often have we heard tired old aphorisms like “money can’t buy happiness?” Yet how often does the world give us examples of those who are trying to prove that it can? Who is freer or happier, a day trader chain-smoking his or her way through an intense day of activities meant to increase their wealth, or someone who works merely in order to be able to have the means to live with and support the family they love?

The late novelist, Walker Percy, faced death as one who survived his own suicide attempt. He once wrote,

The ex-suicide leaves for work at eight o’clock on an ordinary morning.

He opens his front door, sits down on the steps, and laughs.

Since he has the option of being dead,

he has nothing to lose by being alive.

He goes to work because he doesn’t have to.[5]

A second reason that self-denial is a gift of God has to do with the one we are called to follow. It is not self-denial per se that is God’s gift, but denial of self so that we may instead affirm something else. Jesus did not just say, “Get out there and start denying yourselves and you will find happiness.” He said, If you want to become my followers you should do so by denying self, taking up the cross — that is, the tasks or duties to which our faith calls us — and then follow. There is a purpose, then, in denying self, and that is in order to make room to do what is important, to become followers.

Following Jesus’ famous question to the disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” to which Peter replied, “You are the Messiah,” Jesus made the predictions concerning his own suffering and death which we heard in our passage today. And Peter rebuked him, and Jesus returned his rebuke, saying “Get behind me...”

When Jesus first called Peter to be a disciple way back in the first chapter of Mark, he used the very same words in the original language that he uses here. He said, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” Though it is translated here as “Get behind me,” the words in the original language are exactly the same. Which makes sense when you think about it. How can you follow unless you get behind the one who is leading? And what had Peter revealed in his rebuke except that he thought for a moment that Jesus stood in need of his instruction? Peter had momentarily left off following Jesus and was trying to take the lead, to tell the Messiah how to be a Messiah. Jesus did not correct his course. The only way to be a follower is to follow, to get behind the one who is leading the way. The only way to be a disciple is to follow the teacher. Thomas à Kempis said, “If you bear the cross gladly, it will bear you.” If we follow the teacher, he will lead us where we need to go, whether we can see the sense of it at the time or not.

Someone once asked if it would make a difference if Jesus had changed the order of his command to those who would follow him. He said, deny self, take up your cross, and follow. What if the order were changed, would it make a difference? If he had said, “Follow me, then deny yourself, and eventually take up your cross,” wouldn’t followers fall by the wayside before the end? Or if he had said, “Take up your cross, follow me, and deny yourself,” wouldn’t there be many who would turn aside before they began, struck by the impossibility of finding inner resources to bear the cross unless they first followed the Master?

The first step along the road to faith is the laying aside of self, the setting aside of our own demands for the kind of Lord we think Jesus should be, and preparing to follow the kind of Lord he is by emptying out our selfish demands in order to make room for the demands of a life of faith. Even when Jesus disciplines, as he disciplined Peter with his hard words, he does not say “Get out of my sight,” but rather, reminds us to follow. The chief duty of the disciple is to be emptied enough of self-direction to get behind the Master, and in following him to discover where we most needed to go all along.

Paul said, “Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God. He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption, in order that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”[6]

[1] William Somerset Maugham, A Writer’s Notebook.

[2] Man and the Superman, “Maxims: Self-sacrifice”

[3] The Screwtape Letters.

[4] ibid.

[5] From a Protestant Hour sermon by the Rev. Winifred Collin, February 23, 1997.

[6] I Corinthians 1:26-31