Then He said to them all, “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow Me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will save it… Luke 9:23-24 NKJV
If the commands of Christ could be listed in order of importance, right after loving God, which Jesus said is the “first and greatest commandment”, and loving your neighbor as yourself, which He said was “equally important”, and that, “The entire law and all the demands of the prophets are based on these two commandments” (Mt.22:36-40 NKJV), might be this one, “deny yourself”.
Because an ongoing theme of the New Testament is that there is a battleground in each of us, a war between flesh and spirit, between our selfish, prideful, physical nature, and the new, spiritual nature we are given when we are baptized into Christ and made a new creation in Him. While we are dead to our old nature, it’s power over us is so ingrained, like a bad habit, that we struggle to become truly free. So Jesus says, “Deny yourself, take up your cross daily, and follow Me”.
The temptations of the world are strong and the enemy of your soul will strike you at the exact spot that you are weakest to pull your attention away from Jesus. It is probably a little different for each person, but it never stops, it is an ever-present onslaught. Some people are just self-absorbed and struggle considering anything or anyone outside of themselves. Others are victims of common temptations of the flesh, which include lust, greed, envy, food, drink, excess of a million kinds, anger, hypocrisy. One of the church fathers said one thing he was certain of is that his last waking thought in this life would be some sort of temptation—the enemy will never stop. We must deny ourself constantly, even to our last breath.
For some of us it is one recurring temptation, a “sin which so easily ensnares us” (Hebrews 12:1 NKJV), something that is so engrained and habitual that no matter how hard we try, it is always there to distract us. For me it is self-control, especially regarding eating. I must deny myself, take up my cross instead of my fork, and follow Jesus. The beauty and simplicity of denying yourself is that, when you do resist and cast aside the temptation, Jesus pulls you closer to Him. Following Him changes from being somewhat abstract, to being conscious, purposeful.
When you deny yourself, Jesus brings you deeper into life with Him, and leads you to serving others instead of your own selfish desires.
Think of the time you would have available if so much of your day wasn’t spent on satisfying and pleasing yourself. Think of how much good could be done if you were, instead, mindful of the people around us, the people God says He is “thinking about right now. (Psalm 40:17 TLB)” What if you were thinking about them too.
When we follow Jesus the path will usually lead toward people in need. Maybe a word of mercy or grace, maybe a hand up, whatever it is, you will only become aware of the need to the extent that you are denying your “self” and seeing others through the lens of Christ, Who wants to love and restore every single person you will encounter today.
With that being true, how will you see others today? As usual? That is, from the lens of your selfish flesh? As bad drivers, jerks, gossips, hotheads, and idiots? Or, maybe Jesus heard their heart cry out for help, so He went to them, and you, following Him, crossed their path with the Lord. The timing of your encounter is no coincidence. Be His hands and His feet and love them with the love of the Lord, honoring them, serving them, helping them.
Deny yourself, take up your cross, follow Jesus.