Self-Denial Is Sometimes Self-Preservation
When my youngest daughter was six-years-old, she was compliant to the extreme. She never argued. She never disobeyed. If an older sibling asked for a toy, she gave it to them, no questions asked. If they put up a stink, she tried to appease them and make peace. She’d give them anything they wanted to ensure they were happy. She “died to herself” many times every single day. Everyone loved to play with her, and they told me why: “She lets me have my way. I love her.”
Some might have looked at her and thought, “Now there’s a godly little girl. Surrendering her rights and laying down her life, just like Jesus Christ.” And they would have been wrong. People tend to believe in what they can see and measure. This is why Pharisaism is so prevalent. But it’s the heart of the matter that God is most interested in, because He loves our hearts.
What she did was not spiritual. And what she did was not healthy for herself OR for the ones around her. In reality, what she was doing was self-preserving. It was rooted in her belief that the way to get love and affection is to give everyone around her whatever they wanted. It was rooted in fear. It’s one of the instinctive strategies some children employ to protect themselves, and it’s understandable. But we want to teach our children a better way of protecting themselves so they can grow up and navigate relationships without co-dependence.
Is Self-Denial Biblical?
Is it biblical to meet our own needs? And if so, which of our needs do we meet? And how do we know when our needs have been sufficiently met so that we can now do a bit of Dying-to-Self to meet someone else’s needs? Where do we draw these lines? And can’t we just look at what everyone else around us is doing—and draw our lines the same as theirs? What if we draw our lines in places that bring on disapproving looks and comments from other people? What if our lines cause discomfort and insurrections?
AAAWK. Are we all wringing our hands in confusion and despair yet? This is why there is so much anxiety and fear in Christian circles about where our responsibility starts and ends. And this is why there is so much coercion and control instead of love and freedom and safe space to learn and grow up.
By the way, that six-year-old girl is now twelve, and she is amazeballs. She is still kind and sweet and generous, but she also has awesome boundaries. She says “no” when she doesn’t like something or doesn’t want to do something. And when the other person has a cow, she goes into another room and reads a book. She knows their cow is their problem and has nothing to do with her. At the same time she remains very loving and kind and respectful and generous. But she doesn’t let anyone control her life. She takes responsibility for controlling her own life, and she lets others control theirs.
What Does the Bible Say About Self-Denial?
We’ll start with what the Creator says about this concept of dying to ourselves – and what it means and what it doesn’t mean to die.
“I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. The man who loves his life will lose it, while the man who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” John 12:24
“In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus.” Romans 6:11
“And those who belong to Christ Jesus have put to death their human nature, with all its passions and desires.” Galatians 5:24
“Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it.” Matthew 8:34-35
When I read verses like these, I see that God is using analogies to describe salvation. The seed dies in order to be raised to new life. We consider ourselves dead to sin so that we can live in Christ. We naturally have passions and desires, but we deny ourselves, or lose our lives (giving up those passions and desires) and actually exchange them for something greater: Christ and the gospel.
In other words, God is trying to tell us that we have a golden opportunity to give up our plastic baubles for a diamond necklace. Sort of a no-brainer from God’s perspective.
These verses are not saying that we need to cater to the wishes of every person around us. They are not saying we have to serve until we drop dead from burn-out and exhaustion. They are not saying that we have to meet every need that prances in front of us. They are not saying that if a job needs doing, it’s our responsibility to do it. Period. (The folks who tell you that’s what these verses mean are only telling you that because they want you to cater to THEM, serve THEM, do THEIR jobs, and take THEIR responsibilities. They are using the Bible to manipulate you in order to get their own needs met. God has a better way for them to get our needs met.)
These verses are not talking so much about death as they are about LIFE. LIFE. LIFE. God’s plan for you and me is not DEATH, sisters! Isn’t that good news? He isn’t up there with a frown on His face because you didn’t do enough today. He doesn’t look at your kitchen or your toilet and wonder what you did all day that you wouldn’t be able to get it cleaned up to His standards.
God is not like us. And we aren’t God. Maybe it’s just me, but I feel like I have to learn that lesson over and over again. The older I get, the more I am finding true freedom and rest in my gracious, encouraging, kind, Heavenly Father.
Self-Denial Doesn’t Mean Self-Ignorance
Self denial means knowing only Christ, no longer knowing oneself…only when we have really forgotten ourselves completely, when we really no longer know ourselves, only then are we ready to take up the cross for His sake…
At first blush this sounds like lovely, holy, lofty, spiritual advice. You can almost hear the angels bursting into song. But think about it. We aren’t supposed to know ourselves? We can only take up our cross for His sake if we aren’t self-aware? If we are oblivious to ourselves?
I have hundreds of quotes like that in stacks of journals written by respected, famous, godly human beings. I’m just a small, unknown housewife. Why, I’m not even a pastor’s or missionary’s wife. I’m a nobody. So I would take these quotes as if they were the Word of God. They aren’t. Some of them are taking God’s Word to extremes, but, after all, if it was good enough for Dietrich Bonhoeffer or Fenelon or Oswald Chambers, it had to be good enough for a no-account like me.
If obeying God’s Word was good, then taking it to the nth degree would be even better, right? That would for sure ensure that I was on the right track, pleasing my Heavenly Father via all the authorities in my life. (I got that bit of wisdom from Bill Gothard – a molester of young women.)
Pathological Self-Denial in Real Life
This meant that every time I was in a situation with another person and there were needs on both sides, I was expected to set mine aside to meet the needs of the other person. Every single time. That was the Christian thing to do. Never mind that the other person was also a Christian. The mature one gave way (and I wanted to be the mature one), plus I desperately sought to please God, grow more Christ-like, and help others to grow. (Of course, it never crossed my mind that if I made someone uncomfortable by my refusing to give them their way – they might be forced to – well – grow up too, and that would be a good thing in a few cases.)
This plays out in a million different ways.
Let’s say you just had a baby, and you’re also recovering from four months of bed rest. Your body is weak, you’re getting very little sleep at night, your toddlers need you, your husband needs you, and now the in-laws need you to travel three hours away to visit them. They don’t want to come visit you. Inconvenient. They want your family to drive to their place and stay for as long as possible. Let’s say your husband wants to go, too. Let’s say everyone wants this to happen, not once, but several times in the next three months. Let’s say the onus is on you to make this recurring event happen in order to keep everyone placated.
So, knowing it is your duty as a woman and a Christian to cater to the needs of everyone around you, you gut it out, pack everyone’s suitcases, make sure you have all the extra stuff you need to take care of a nursing baby, your postpartum body, and two toddlers for three days. You might feel despairing. You might feel alone. You might feel angry. But it is your Christian duty to die to your desires and fulfill the desires of your husband, in-laws, and children, so you grit your teeth and “pick up your cross.”
Alternatively, you could kindly inform your husband and in-laws that while you would love to visit with them, and they are welcome to come to your home for a visit, this isn’t a good season in your life to make a trip. If they express disapproval of your decision, you can let them know you don’t enjoy disappointing them this time, but that you will look forward to making a trip in the future when you are in better health and your baby is older. You can also remind them of their other options; namely, that they can come for a visit, or perhaps your husband would like to make the trip without you and the baby.
If they are still expressing disapproval, look at it as an opportunity to learn how to tolerate the disapproval of others. This takes inner strength and character. It’s uncomfortable, but you grow stronger for it. Sort of like exercising. Also, they get the beautiful opportunity of learning how to manage their own thoughts and feelings. And if they don’t, well, that’s not your responsibility.
Do you see how this response is honoring to others and to yourself? It is not a sin to say “no.” When others are upset, it doesn’t always follow that you have sinned against them or God. Also, this alternative response enables you to be free from anger and frustration.
Let’s say you have a friend. She is outspoken about her needs and desires. You tend to go along with what this person wants to do when you get together. You’ve tried suggesting other ideas, but this person always seems to have a persuasive argument for why your ideas are not desirable at that time. You want to put the interests of others ahead of your own, but because you know the meek inherit the earth, you meekly give in each time you get together.
She monopolizes the conversation and also expects you to pick up the tab most of the time. But this is your duty as a Mature Christian. To pick up your cross along with that tab, die to yourself, and be a cheerful giver. You know God loves you when you do this.
Alternatively, you could be honest with your friend and let her know that you’ll no longer be picking up the tab when you go out. If you want to go out somewhere that she is not interested in, then tell her it’s not a problem. You’ll find someone else to go with. If she wants to go somewhere you don’t want to go, it is OK to say, “No thanks.” If she is upset, you haven’t sinned. Learn to tolerate her disapproval. This doesn’t mean you never compromise. It just means you share that burden with her. If she is truly a friend, she will respect that. If she’s not, then you’ll know you both need to find a better friend-match.
Let’s say you have a relative who is never wrong. In 99.9% of your conflicts with this person, it turns out that you were mistaken. You misunderstood the situation. You judged unfairly. You made wrong assumptions. You maybe even fabricated entire conversations in your head, according to this relative. But whatever the case may be – you are the one to blame, while the other person is an innocent victim of your insanity. Never mind that this is only the case with this one relationship. We could call this Selective Insanity, and you’ve got a bad case of it.
So knowing that a Godly Woman will be the wind beneath everyone’s wings, and realizing that you are a sinner too, and you can get pretty angry with this person sometimes. And being convicted (and guilt ridden) that anger is a sin, and as far as you are able, you must be at peace with all men, and you definitely don’t feel at peace with this person unless you’ve reassured them that it is, indeed, NOT their responsibility to take responsibility for their sin – but it is YOUR responsibility to take responsibility for their sin AND your sin. Being convicted and realizing and knowing all these things (deep breath), whenever you have a conflict with this person, the only way to resolve it in a Christ-like fashion is to go to them, take full responsibility for all responsibilities and beg for forgiveness, hoping that they will graciously bestow it upon you so you can once again be in good standing with God and man.
Alternatively, when you have a conflict with this person and they are placing all the blame, once again, on your shoulders, you can let them know that you are disappointed that you’re unable to have an adult conversation that resolves the issue. It takes two people to create a conflict, and it takes two people working together to resolve a conflict. Take responsibility for your end of things, but that’s all you can do. If the other person lays more responsibility on you than is true of the situation, there isn’t a whole lot you can do. Leave it with God who is the Just Judge. The Bible says in Romans 12, “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” I used to think it said, “Because it is all up to you, you must live peaceably with all.” See? Even God knows it is not possible to live peaceably with all.
Is this resonating with anyone out there?
Teaching Our Children the Truth About Self-Denial
What are we teaching our daughters? That they are only good for what they do? For how they keep everyone around them happy? That their purpose in life is to be someone’s blow up doll? That they won’t be loved or accepted or admired unless they are meeting everyone’s needs?
When I see my kids catering to another sibling’s selfish demands, I try to nip it in the bud. I tell them both that there is a time to give and a time to take. That there is a time to let others take a turn and a time to say “No, I’m going to take a turn now. If you don’t like it, you can leave.” There is a time to say, “I don’t want to play with you anymore. You want your own way the whole time. That isn’t right. Sometimes you need to let others take a turn. If you want to play right, I’d love to keep playing, otherwise, I’m leaving.”
This video powerfully illustrates the graciousness of God juxtaposed with our belief that we have to work to win His love and approval. It set me free in many ways.
“I pray that you, firmly fixed in love yourselves, may be able to grasp (with all Christians) how wide and deep and long and high is the love of Christ—and to know for yourselves that love so far beyond our comprehension. May you be filled though all your being with God himself!” Ephesians 3:18-19