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There’s an old story about a Roman soldier named Caius. He was one of the footmen in the ever-advancing Roman army. Caius had a sickness that he knew was terminal. He knew that there was no medicine or doctor, at least not one he could ever afford, that could reverse the course of his illness. Despite his condition, Caius continued to serve the empire as a soldier. In fact, he seemed to care little for his life and was often found in the thickest and bloodiest parts of the battle. Caius reasoned that death already had a hold on him, so he might as well bring down as many of Rome’s enemies as he could. And if he perished in the fight, it was just as well. He would be honored to die for the empire.
Caius’ commander noted the fearlessness with which Caius fought and sought out the reason for his soldier’s valor. When he learned that Caius was terminally ill, the commander reasoned that certainly such a warrior was an asset to the empire, and he determined to seek out a cure for his soldier’s sickness. After conferring with the best doctors in the empire, a cure was found, and Caius’ health was restored.
The commander was glad to have preserved such a worthy warrior, a soldier who had often been instrumental in the legion’s victories. However, a curious thing happened. Caius, who now had the prospect of a long and healthy life, was no longer found in the thick of the fray. Now that he had something to lose, he was no longer unafraid in battle. His desire to preserve his life made him less valuable in his post.
When you think about people who have changed or impacted the world, a common thread that weaves its way throughout many of their lives is that they were not self-preserving. Jesus, His first disciples, the apostle Paul, Joan of Arc, Martin Luther, Martin Luther King, Gandhi, Aung San Suu Kyi, Nelson Mandela, and countless others are known for their fearless commitment to their beliefs, regardless of personal cost.
Paul said, “But my life is worth nothing to me unless I use it for finishing the work assigned me by the Lord Jesus—the work of telling others the Good News about the wonderful grace of God.”1 What gave Paul’s life value in his mind was not the promise of a long and comfortable life, but fulfilling the task that God had given him. To that end, he endured hardship and was beaten, stoned, shipwrecked, imprisoned, ridiculed, and finally executed.
What Paul was trying to impress upon his listeners was the fact that we will never experience the satisfaction of knowing that we were used by God to the full if we are only out to preserve our lives. The resolve to live up to our personal calling will always come with some sacrifice or risk, but also with the reward of knowing our life counted for God.
During the course of her trial, Joan of Arc said, “One life is all we have, and we live it as we believe in living it. But to sacrifice what you are and to live without belief, that is a fate more terrible than dying.” When Martin Luther was standing before the Diet of Worms (1521), he also made a strong testimony of his dedication to his beliefs when he declared, “I cannot and will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand; I can do no other, so help me God.”
Of course, Paul, Martin Luther, and Joan of Arc each had a special calling and a God-given ability to fulfill their particular life’s work. God may not have called you or me to be a martyr, but He does call us to be courageous.
When Jesus told His disciples that if they wanted to follow Him, they would have to deny themselves and take up their cross,2 I suspect the disciples didn’t fully grasp His meaning. After all, Jesus had not yet taken up His own literal cross. It is when they later reflected on what He had told them that these words would have an even more powerful impact.
In that same talk, Jesus went on to say, “If you try to hang on to your life, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for my sake, you will save it.”3 I have found that it’s important for me to periodically ask myself if I am seeking to hold on to my life or to give it up for Jesus’ sake.
This doesn’t mean that I need to seek to do the riskiest, most painful thing I can think of doing, but rather making sure that I’m not holding back from what God needs me to do, whatever that may be.—Mara Hodler4
Self-denial for the Christian means renouncing oneself as the center of existence (which goes against the natural inclination of the human will) and recognizing Jesus Christ as one’s new and true center. It means acknowledging that the old self is dead and the new life is now hidden with Christ in God.5
From the moment of our new birth into Jesus Christ, self-denial becomes a daily exercise for the rest of this life on earth.6 ... Only by God’s grace and the power of the Holy Spirit can we learn to deny self: “For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people. It teaches us to say ‘No’ to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the blessed hope—the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ.”7
Through daily self-denial and crucifying the flesh, our life in Christ grows, strengthens, and develops more and more. Christ now becomes our life. These famous words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer help us understand the meaning of self-denial: “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” A follower of Jesus must be prepared to die if death is where the path of discipleship leads: “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”8 …
Denying yourself means seeking the good of others before looking out for yourself.9 When Ruth followed Naomi, she practiced self-denial for the benefit of her mother-in-law.10 When Esther put her life at risk to save her people, she demonstrated self-denial.11 …
When you are willing to sacrifice your time, energy, rights, position, reputation, privileges, comforts, and even your very life for the sake of Christ, you exemplify what it means to deny yourself: “Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it.”12—Got Questions13
The deep joy of self-denial
Jesus gives us commands—“demands,” we might call them. They are words issued to us from his comprehensive authority in all of heaven and earth, all linked together in some way, forming a beautiful tapestry of what it means to live under his lordship.
But the question remains for us in how they are connected. How do we understand them in relation to one another? Take, for example, the commands to rejoice and renounce. Jesus tells us in Luke 6:22–23, “Blessed are you when people hate you and when they exclude you and revile you and spurn your name as evil, on account of the Son of Man! Rejoice in that day, and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven; for so their fathers did to the prophets.”
This command is to rejoice. Paradoxically, we are blessed when we’re reviled on account of Jesus. And when that happens, “in that day,” Jesus tells us, we should rejoice and leap for joy. Why? Because our reward is great in heaven. ...
Then Jesus says in Luke 14:33, “Any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple.” This command is to renounce. In fact, if you want to be a disciple of Jesus you must renounce all that you have. This is good old-fashioned self-denial—the stopping, quitting, halting of anything and everything that might impede our fellowship with God.
So Jesus demands that we rejoice in our heavenly hope, and renounce all that we have. Rejoice and renounce. Is there a connection?
It has to do with the true meaning of self-denial. In What Jesus Demands from the World, John Piper explains that the command to renounce all means to abandon our pursuit of everlasting joy in earthly things. It is, as Jesus says in Matthew 13:44, our selling all we have in order to buy that field which possesses a treasure of infinite value.
“Renounce everything on earth,” Piper writes, “in order that you might have Jesus. ... Jesus’s demand for self-denial is another way of calling us to radically pursue our deepest and most lasting joy.”14
So rejoicing and renouncing are two sides of the same coin. If we are to rejoice in our heavenly hope—the fact that our reward is great in heaven—it must be because we ultimately have renounced our vain hopes in the things of this world. … We renounce them, and we set our eyes on heaven, even through the things of this earth, for behold, “[our] reward is great in heaven.”—Jonathan Parnell15
Published on Anchor August 2022. Read by Gabriel Garcia Valdivieso.
1 Acts 20:24 NLT.
2 Matthew 16:24.
3 Matthew 16:25 NLT.
4 Adapted from a Just1Thing podcast, a Christian character-building resource for young people.
5 Colossians 3:3–5.
6 1 Peter 4:1–2.
7 Titus 2:11–13 NIV.
8 Galatians 2:20.
9 1 Corinthians 10:24.
10 Ruth 2:11.
11 Esther 4:16.
14 Pages 85–86.