When Bonhoeffer's government was committing genocide, he had the opportunity to escape, but instead of following his own will, he said, “I have made a mistake in coming to America. I must live through this difficult period in our national history with the Christian people of Germany.”
And with that, he put others ahead of himself and embarked on his mission.
After making a principled stand, the city banished John Calvin. Three years later, the same city lettered him explaining their dire need for his return, as the city faced implosion. He responded saying, “Had I the choice at my disposal, nothing would be less agreeable to me, but when I remember that I am not my own. I offer up my heart, presented as a sacrifice to the Lord.”
The theologian and pastor then returned and spent the remainder of his life reforming the city that once excommunicated him.
After a systematic destruction of their country, the people were deported from their homeland. Even though they were God’s covenant people, they faced certain genocide. The supreme assigned many of the young men into an assimilation program. They were given new names and placed into a new educational system. They were stripped of their culture, brain-washed, and banned from praying to Yahweh.
But Daniel resolved.
I give these stories to color a complicated concept. This concept is not easily grasped nor easily lived out, yet it carries eternal significance. During his earthly ministry, Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23). Christ commanded his disciples to disobey our cultures rule of self-obedience. From major life decisions to minor life decisions, God calls Christians to consistently deny themselves.
A simple Google search asking, “should I follow my heart” tells us how our society preaches a gospel of self. Prominent figures like Oprah to popular artists like Macklemore all tell their audiences to follow their hearts and look inward for success. However, Christ tells us “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34). As a result of culture’s indoctrination, many only shallowly understand the concept of self-denial. Cultural commentator, Mark Sayers writes, “the most counter cultural act one can commit in the third culture is to break its only taboo: to commit self-disobedience.”
Self-denial is surrendering our autonomy and having God reign in our lives. Biblical scholar, H.D.M Spence, writes, “But in what shall we find its root [evil]? In the preference of our own will to the will of God. If we trace human wrong-doing and wrong-being to its ultimate point, we arrive at that conclusion.” The root of evil is choosing our desires over God and his desires, thus self-denial is surrendering our autonomy for God’s rule. Sayers illustrates this saying, “To acknowledge that authority does not lie with us, that we ultimately have no autonomy. To abandon our rule and to collapse into His arms of grace.”
To Christians, self-denial appears attractive, but after a short time we lose our enthusiasm. The task is no easy burden, yet the goal is sustaining the calling of daily self-denial. The Apostle Paul writes, “As for you, brothers, do not grow weary in doing good” (2 Thess. 2:13, ESV). He writes a similar word in Galatians 6:9. Paul tells us not to become tired of obeying God, but this is daunting task, as Christ tells us to deny ourselves everyday.
Only by meditating on the Heavenly life and fixing our eyes on Christ can we attain longevity in fulfilling our calling as Christians. We have the tendency to focus on ourselves and this world. We focus on the tangible and the immediate, rather than the unseen and distant. We must shift our focus from self to Christ and from the earthly to the Heavenly (Matt. 16:23, Col. 3:2). Focus on the day when “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Revelation 21:4). We ought to meditate on his precepts and fix our eyes on Him (Hebrews 12:2, Psalm 119:15). Instead of striving towards an earthly goal, let us “press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:14).
C.S. Lewis’ definition on humility sheds light into true self-denial: “True humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less.” Similarly, denying self has to do with focusing less on yourself and more on Christ and our life in Heaven.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes, “To deny oneself is to be aware only of Christ and no more of self, to see only him who goes before and no more the road which is too hard for us. Once more, all that self denial can say is: ‘He leads the way, keep close to him.’”
John Owen famously said, “Be killing sin or it will be killing you.” The usual Christian faith lacks a certain urgency that Christianity calls for. We must urgently surrender at the Cross and deny ourselves. A practical way to deny ourselves is through the spiritual disciplines, specifically, by devoting ourselves to prayer and reading the Word.
Christians should pray concerning:
The glory of God. We must meditate on the day when “the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea” (Hab. 2:14). By doing this, we will begin to lose sight of self, and in turn be focused on the LORD.
For wisdom from God. James 1:5 says, “ If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him.” Pray for wisdom on how to deny yourself. Self-denial is not a black-and-white issue.
For the ability to deny yourself. Ezekiel 36:27 states, “And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.” He will cause us to deny ourselves.
For a life that exemplifies the Fruits of the Spirit as seen in Galatians 5:22-23.
For others. Philippians 2:4 states, “Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.” Deny yourself by praying for others.
Scripture. Pray Daniel’s prayer from Daniel 9:1-19. Sometimes others can verbalize our thoughts and concerns better than we can.
By focusing on the King and the Kingdom through the spiritual discipline of prayer, we deny ourselves and we present ourselves as living sacrifices to God who reigns. Charles Spurgeon said, "I have now concentrated all my prayers into one, and that one prayer is this, that I may die to self, and live wholly to Him."
The three protagonists-- Dietrich Bonhoeffer, John Calvin, and Daniel-- from the beginning anecdotes, proved faithful by denying themselves at the crucial moments of their lives. What if these types of prayers helped these giants of the faith to deny themselves in the little moments, which lead to faithfulness in the crucial moments?
Nathan Ecarma studies Bible, culture, and language. He serves on the Worldview Initiative and as a Managing Editor on the school newspaper, the Bryan Triangle. In between theological conversations, he enjoys binge watching Netflix and attempting to sing his favorite songs.