Self-Denial in a Selfie World

When we focus on others, everyone wins.

Dorian Gray would have loved living in the 21st century, the age of selfies and Photoshop. In Oscar Wilde’s novel about this narcissist, Lord Henry Wotton tells the young Dorian, “When we are happy, we are always good, but when we are good, we are not always happy.”

By way of explanation, Wotton theorizes that goodness stems from being in harmony with oneself, and it is therefore ill-advised to try to be in harmony with others or concerned with one’s neighbors. Wotton admits there’s a terrible price for living solely for oneself but considers this a source of pride. He concludes, “The real tragedy of the poor is that they can afford nothing but self-denial. Beautiful sins, like beautiful things, are the privilege of the rich.”

Les Allees, Cannes, 1918-1920 (oil on canvas), by Paul Signac
 

We might consider such an outlook shocking, yet Wotton’s attitude is reflected all around us in today’s world. Our social media news feeds are brimming with selfies, carefully touched-up photos of culinary or artistic masterpieces, snapshots of perfect vacations, and—perhaps most ironically—still lifes of devotional times, with an open Bible and steaming mug of coffee arranged just so.

 

Read Luke 4:1-13; Mark 8:34-38

Before opening your Bible, ask the Holy Spirit to reveal what He wants you to take away from these passages. Then read the sections, jotting down your first impressions: What questions do you have? Is anything confusing? Which verses speak into your present situation, and how?

The term self-denial appears to have come into usage in the 1640s, but the practice itself was nothing new. Many Bible stories tell of people who modeled self-denial: To save her son’s life and ensure a good future for him, Jochebed gave up her rights as Moses’ biological mother and handed him over to Pharaoh’s daughter; Ruth humbly attached herself to her mother-in-law after they were both widowed, and went to live among people who were not her own; and Acts 7 describes Stephen steadfastly standing on the truth of the gospel to the point of losing his life.

Jesus understood the immeasurable eternal returns that would result from sacrifice and commitment.

But Scripture’s most powerful example is Jesus. He taught the disciples that to be His follower, one had to deny himself (Luke 9:23). Yet even before teaching the lesson, He modeled it. During His 40-day fast (Matt. 4:1-25), the Lord resisted Satan’s repeated attempts to trap Him in sin. He was offered food, authority, and glory but turned them down for the sake of righteousness. Not only did Jesus understand the weight of sacrifice and commitment; He also understood the immeasurable eternal returns that would result from such a spiritual investment.

Christ’s life, in fact, was a non-stop illustration. From giving up His glory in heaven and being born in a lowly stable, to becoming the sacrificial lamb and, sinless though He was, paying the price for our sins on the cross, He repeatedly exemplified self-denial for our sake.

 

Reflect

Write your thoughts in the space provided for notes or in a journal.

We might think this idea is specific to the Christian life, but self-denial is no foreign concept to unbelievers. Indeed, excelling in just about any field usually requires discipline, sacrifice, and the suspension of pleasure for a while. But when taken out of the context of Jesus’ teaching, denying oneself can have an effect contrary to the Lord’s purpose for it. Anyone, in fact, can fall into this trap—including Christians.

For example, there are people who fast, seek out monastic experiences, or purge their homes, diets, and lifestyles of excess in pursuit of asceticism as a goal in itself. Then there are others who pour themselves into valuable causes like socioeconomic, political, or environmental advocacy; but in discussing such self-imposed hardships, they are at times—fairly or unfairly—labeled as “humblebragging.” People around them can’t help but wonder if their aim in pursuing such things is so they can boast about what they’ve done. How does self-focused sacrifice line up with the kind Jesus was encouraging?

It can be tempting to use self-denial to gain approval and admiration, or to appear morally superior to others.

While the activities mentioned above are not intrinsically bad, it can be tempting to use them to gain approval and admiration, or to appear morally superior to others. Jesus wasn’t promoting austerity, self-torment, or legalism. He created us to experience joy and to delight in His blessings, but not at the expense of others or to the detriment of His kingdom. Self-denial must come, not from a place of pride but from true humility, love, and selflessness. As Christians, we should neither gloss over nor glamorize the call to replace our own desires and will with God’s.

 

Respond

What is your reaction, in general, when faced with situations such as the following?

• A relative calls you in the middle of your favorite television show.
• You are waiting in line at the bank, and one of the tellers is chatting it up with a customer.
• Your coworker gets credit for a project you poured yourself into.

Each day, you have opportunities to make the choice between pleasing yourself or humbling yourself. Some sacrifices will seem more painful than others, but in each case, God will give you the strength you need. Ask Him to reveal how you can make choices that glorify Him.

 

Revisit

Reflect on Philippians 2:3-4 and James 4:10. Write down some specific ways you can follow Jesus’ call to deny yourself. What changes would you have to make in your life? What would happen if you began to exhibit more humility and less self-focus when relating to others?

Consider these modifications to the three scenarios listed earlier:
• You decide to forgo your favorite show to call a lonely relative.
• You let the person behind you in line at the bank go ahead of you.
• You receive praise for a job well done and then give the glory to God.

Think of people in your family, church, school, or workplace who demonstrate selflessness by putting others first. Make an effort to acknowledge the good example they set for others, and thank them.

 
Related Topics:  Humility

Related Stories

What happens to my notes

1 Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led around by the Spirit in the wilderness

2 for forty days, being tempted by the devil. And He ate nothing during those days, and when they had ended, He became hungry.

3 And the devil said to Him, If You are the Son of God, tell this stone to become bread."

4 And Jesus answered him, It is written, `MAN SHALL NOT LIVE ON BREAD ALONE.'"

5 And he led Him up and showed Him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time.

6 And the devil said to Him, I will give You all this domain and its glory; for it has been handed over to me, and I give it to whomever I wish.

7 Therefore if You worship before me, it shall all be Yours."

8 Jesus answered him, It is written, `YOU SHALL WORSHIP THE LORD YOUR GOD AND SERVE HIM ONLY.'"

9 And he led Him to Jerusalem and had Him stand on the pinnacle of the temple, and said to Him, If You are the Son of God, throw Yourself down from here;

10 for it is written, `HE WILL COMMAND HIS ANGELS CONCERNING YOU TO GUARD YOU,'

11 and, `ON their HANDS THEY WILL BEAR YOU UP, SO THAT YOU WILL NOT STRIKE YOUR FOOT AGAINST A STONE.'"

12 And Jesus answered and said to him, It is said, `YOU SHALL NOT PUT THE LORD YOUR GOD TO THE TEST.'"

13 When the devil had finished every temptation, he left Him until an opportune time.

34 And He summoned the crowd with His disciples, and said to them, If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me.

35 For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel's will save it.

36 For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world, and forfeit his soul?

37 For what will a man give in exchange for his soul?

38 For whoever is ashamed of Me and My words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will also be ashamed of him when He comes in the glory of His Father with the holy angels."

23 And He was saying to them all, If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross daily and follow Me.

1 Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.

2 And after He had fasted forty days and forty nights, He then became hungry.

3 And the tempter came and said to Him, If You are the Son of God, command that these stones become bread."

4 But He answered and said, It is written, `MAN SHALL NOT LIVE ON BREAD ALONE, BUT ON EVERY WORD THAT PROCEEDS OUT OF THE MOUTH OF GOD.'"

5 Then the devil took Him into the holy city and had Him stand on the pinnacle of the temple,

6 and said to Him, If You are the Son of God, throw Yourself down; for it is written, `HE WILL COMMAND HIS ANGELS CONCERNING YOU'; and `ON their HANDS THEY WILL BEAR YOU UP, SO THAT YOU WILL NOT STRIKE YOUR FOOT AGAINST A STONE.'"

7 Jesus said to him, On the other hand, it is written, `YOU SHALL NOT PUT THE LORD YOUR GOD TO THE TEST.'"

8 Again, the devil took Him to a very high mountain and showed Him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory;

9 and he said to Him, All these things I will give You, if You fall down and worship me."

10 Then Jesus said to him, Go, Satan! For it is written, `YOU SHALL WORSHIP THE LORD YOUR GOD, AND SERVE HIM ONLY.'"

11 Then the devil left Him; and behold, angels came and began to minister to Him.

12 Now when Jesus heard that John had been taken into custody, He withdrew into Galilee;

13 and leaving Nazareth, He came and settled in Capernaum, which is by the sea, in the region of Zebulun and Naphtali.

14 This was to fulfill what was spoken through Isaiah the prophet:

15 THE LAND OF ZEBULUN AND THE LAND OF NAPHTALI, BY THE WAY OF THE SEA, BEYOND THE JORDAN, GALILEE OF THE GENTILES--

16 THE PEOPLE WHO WERE SITTING IN DARKNESS SAW A GREAT LIGHT, AND THOSE WHO WERE SITTING IN THE LAND AND SHADOW OF DEATH, UPON THEM A LIGHT DAWNED."

17 From that time Jesus began to preach and say, Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand."

18 Now as Jesus was walking by the Sea of Galilee, He saw two brothers, Simon who was called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea; for they were fishermen.

19 And He said to them, Follow Me, and I will make you fishers of men."

20 Immediately they left their nets and followed Him.

21 Going on from there He saw two other brothers, James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother, in the boat with Zebedee their father, mending their nets; and He called them.

22 Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed Him.

23 Jesus was going throughout all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom, and healing every kind of disease and every kind of sickness among the people.

24 The news about Him spread throughout all Syria; and they brought to Him all who were ill, those suffering with various diseases and pains, demoniacs, epileptics, paralytics; and He healed them.

25 Large crowds followed Him from Galilee and the Decapolis and Jerusalem and Judea and from beyond the Jordan.

3 Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves;

4 do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others.

10 Humble yourselves in the presence of the Lord, and He will exalt you.

Background Color:
Light
Aa
Dark
Aa
Font size:
A
A
A