This article is part of the What Does It Mean? series.
Following Jesus and Denying Self
“And he said to all, ‘If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.’”
Jesus seeks disciples—people who respond to all that he is and all that he offers with a faith that says, Wherever you take me, I’ll go. A closer look at Luke 9:23 shows us that Jesus calls his followers not only to embrace the costs of commitment but to experience staggering levels of grace and freedom.
First, Jesus offers us the privilege of becoming his life-apprentices. In the first century, this meant asking a teacher to form one’s entire heart and life. Jesus flips the script, extending his invitation to “all”—including those who are already his disciples as well as the crowds. Together, the two make up a “faithless and twisted generation” (Luke 9:37–41) that is spiritually dull (Luke 9:13, 33, 45), self-centered (Luke 9:46–56), and susceptible to flawed understandings of Jesus (Luke 9:18–19). Yet he, the Messiah (Luke 9:20) and the Son of God (Luke 9:35), is willing to have them—and us—as his own. Further highlighting his grace, the form of the verb “he said” implies ongoing activity: Jesus extends this offer again and again, despite our deep need.
Second, when Jesus calls us to self-denial, he frees us from the burden of self-definition. Listening recently to an interview with a teenage boy, I realized that behind his life experiences was an implied argument: 1. I have a true self. 2. No one has access to my true self except me. 3. Therefore, the task of discovering and living out this true self is mine alone; no one else can help me. What unspeakable pressure for any person to bear! Yet in such a context, Jesus’s call to self-denial can sound equally suffocating: You have a true self, but I am telling you to keep it hidden. That could be taken to mean that Jesus cares little about us, that our “self”—our identity, the core of who we are—matters so little to him that he doesn’t want us or anyone else to bother with it.
To hear the true freedom Jesus has in mind, we need to understand what he intends by self-denial. Notice that Jesus calls us not to deny a proposition (“I deny [the claim] that the earth is flat”), nor to deny a desire (“I want to sleep in, but I will deny myself [that pleasure]”), but to deny a person: “let him deny himself.” To illustrate, consider Luke’s account of the apostle Peter. When Peter denied that he knew Jesus (Luke 22:34), he was also denying Jesus (Luke 22:61, “you will deny me”).1 Peter was saying about Jesus, I am not defined by my relationship with him. He doesn’t have any say in what is most important to me or about me. Jesus calls disciples to adopt a similar posture toward ourselves: Jesus, I am not the most important person in my life. I am not the one who says what is most important about me. I am not the one who defines myself.
How does this kind of self-denial represent freedom? It’s a choice between two alternatives. When human beings define ourselves—when we say, this is the core of who I am, the most important thing about me—we typically employ categories that lead to crushing burdens. If I am defined by my successes, I have to constantly generate more of them. If am defined by my failures, I am paralyzed by the fear that I can never erase them. If I am defined by my experiences, I either lament the fact that they will never measure up (Can I have enough adventure, enough luxury, enough sex, enough relational affirmation in the age of Instagram?) or I chase the next big thing. Or perhaps I define myself by the ability to know my true self and to live that out courageously—another way of saying that I am defined by how much success I am able (or unable) to achieve.
Being joined to Jesus in discipleship means that one day we will share in his resurrection life.
Jesus offers another way. “Deny yourself” means, Stop trying to define yourself. From now on, entrust that role to me! Jesus invites us to hand over to him the questions of who we are, of what matters most to us and about us. We don’t have to discover these things alone or continually prove them to a watching world. Self-denial is the freedom to say, Jesus, the only self I want to be is the self that is joined to you. I will be defined by your willingness to have me as your disciple. This freedom is costly, demanding that we trust someone else with everything that we are. But the end result, Jesus says, is that our “self” is saved: “. . . whoever loses his psuche [self, life, whole person] for my sake will save it” (Luke 9:24).2
A third feature of Jesus’s call to discipleship reinforces what we’ve seen so far. Jesus says, “take up your cross daily.” Jesus isn’t saying that pain, shame, and death are good. We know this because he has just said that after his suffering and death he will “be raised” (Luke 9:22). Being joined to Jesus in discipleship means that one day we will share in his resurrection life—a destiny so glorious that it is worth enduring daily shame, weakness, and rejection to attain it. On the way to the place of crucifixion, when every other voice cries out, He is worthless, she is an imposter, they are enemies of what is good and true!, Jesus’s voice calls out, Follow me to resurrection joy, to fulness of life and love forever. Taking up a cross is not about gritting our teeth to prove our toughness; it is about courageous confidence that says, every day, Jesus, you are so good that we are safer in your hands than in anyone else’s—even our own. Why wouldn’t we daily accept this offer from the one who has walked the way of the cross for us? Why wouldn’t we want to help others hear it and heed it as well?
- Notice that Luke 22:57 is more ambiguous in Greek than in English: when a woman observed that Peter had been with Jesus, Peter “denied it, saying, ‘Woman, I do not know him.’” Where the ESV supplies the word “it,” the Greek has only the verb, “he denied.”
- While psyche can sometimes refer to a person’s “soul”—the inner life or inner being—it often refers, as here, to the entire person.
C. D. “Jimmy” Agan III is the author of Luke: A 12-Week Study.
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