Once upon a time a man named Jesus told his friends that in order to find their lives they must first lose them. That to follow him, one must first deny himself and pick up his cross. For those who seek to preserve their lives will lose them, but those who lose their lives for his sake will find them.
What an upside-down way of thinking.
I think Jesus takes delight in saying things that run so opposite to normal logic partly because it’s a great way to discover who is serious about following his example, who is hungry enough to defy reason in order to find a life they can’t find any other way.
I’ve been mulling over this whole idea of denying myself for a while now, and I’m seeing it in a whole new way. Earlier this year at the Re:write conference I attended, I was standing with a group of attendees as we were having a conversation with author Ted Dekker. He started talking about this passage in response to a comment someone made. In listening to him, I realized for probably the first time that this verse is really all about identity.
The other night I had a revelation. I missed an opportunity simply because I didn’t speak up—and it hit me. I just denied myself. See, there are two sides to denying ourselves. I denied my true self by depriving myself of a good opportunity that God would have used to bless me. I denied the self that is valued and beautiful and good. This, friends, is not the kind of denial Jesus referred to.
I believe what he was asking us to do was to deny our false self (something Dekker brought to light.) So in fact denying the false self while picking up our cross is the most freeing thing we could ever do. We renounce our false identity—the identity that tells us we’re sinners and will always be deserving of death and hell. We renounce the imprisoned state we used to be in, and then, by picking up our cross, claim the victory and freedom unleashed by the reality that that self has died. Therefore, it is no longer who we are.
Jesus asked us to do this for the sake of our own freedom.
We often allow ourselves to grow comfortable with our old selves and therefore we’re afraid to step out—to believe that another self even exists. So we seek to preserve our lives and build safety nets that give us the illusion we are secure. Yet we are trapped. When we lose our old selves, it is then we find his life.
I want to link this conversation to another passage in the gospels. Another somewhat strange, opposite idea that Jesus proposed to his friends and followers. He said that the only way to really enter his kingdom was to become as little children.
This doesn’t make sense. Isn’t our whole physical as well as spiritual journey all about growing up and maturing? But Jesus asks us to become simple again. Probably because his way is so radically different that only the simple would be foolish enough to walk it. To become simple, we must, in a sense, forget about everything we’ve ever learned. We must let go of what we think we know, let go of all the things we’ve built in our lives and our minds that make us who we are.
Denying myself, in the way that Jesus meant it, means I’m becoming more like a child. We tell ourselves all sorts of things about who we are. We accept all sorts of things from other people about what defines us. But we must unlearn some things to be free. Children are insecure because they don’t yet know who they are. We don’t like to feel insecure, so we hide in knowledge and reason and endeavors that give us a sense of value.
But I believe we must let go and admit that we know nothing.
I have only just begun to do this, and I’m finding more freedom than ever before in my life. Because when we come back to the base level as little children, Jesus can teach us anything. And he can get to our hearts, which is what he’s after. When he gets to our hearts, we can see the freedom of his way.
I am sick and tired of denying my true self. Of twisting Jesus’ words with actions that stunt the part of me that is glorious and confident and beautiful. I want to start denying my false self, pick up my cross in victory, and walk with Jesus so I can know the freedom that harmonizes with his life.
And I will live happily ever after.
Will you join me?