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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.