Self-Denial is not Self-Hatred

Jesus doesn’t hand out Get Out Of Hell Free passes—he hands out crosses. With his typical candidness, he said, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and pick up his cross daily and follow me” (Matthew 16:24), and, in another turn of phrase, “Whoever does not hate his life is not worthy to be my disciple” (Luke 14:26). He warned it would not be those who merely profess his lordship over their lives that inherit the Kingdom of heaven, but those who demonstrate their love for God by doing the will of God (Matthew 7:21).

And what is the will of God? In his letter to the Thessalonians, Paul wrote:

“Finally, then, brothers, we ask and urge you in the Lord Jesus, that as you received from us how you ought to walk and to please God, just as you are doing, that you do so more and more. For you know what instructions we gave you through the Lord Jesus. For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality; that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor, not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God; that no one transgress and wrong his brother in this matter, because the Lord is an avenger in all these things, as we told you beforehand and solemnly warned you. For God has not called us for impurity, but in holiness.”– 1 Thessalonians 4:3-7

The apostle specifies the sin of sexual immorality at the start of this passage, but he broadens his scope in verse 7: “God has not called us for impurity, but in holiness.” We know from the totality of Scripture’s teaching that God’s will is for us to abstain from all forms of sin. He calls us to love him with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. Such love entails keeping ourselves from what grieves and dishonors him.

However, I think we would all admit that desires to do things that dishonor God still exist within us—and this is where Jesus’ command to “deny yourselves” comes in. Though our flesh influences us to sin, we are expected to resist its influences and “present our members to God as instruments for righteousness” (Romans 6:13). God doesn’t expect us to do this perfectly. “He remembers we are but dust” (Ps 103:14), and, through the inspired writing of John, he anticipated we would still commit sin (1 John 2:1). But God does expect our lives to be characterized by self-denying, cross-bearing submission to him.

I don’t know if you guys have experienced this, but as I have borne the cross of repentance, unbelieving onlookers have frequently accused me of hating myself. Believing my self-denying pursuit of Christ is poisonous to my wellbeing, they warn that the longer I continue down this road of wretched “self-deprecation,” the deeper I will descend into all kinds of mental madness.

However, it is no self-hating thing to embrace the Christ’s call to self-denial. Sure, he used the phrase “hate your life.” But as I wrote a few months ago, he was speaking in hyperbole. He no more meant we should literally hate our lives than he literally meant we should hate our mothers, fathers, sisters, and brothers. With dramatic language he was beckoning us to love God supremely. He was calling us to prioritize God’s will above all else—obviously including (but not limited to) our fleshly desires to sin.

Is Jesus inviting us into a dark and depressed state of existence when he calls us to abstain from the passions of the flesh? No—he is inviting us into his joy! The demonically ruled world contends that we must satisfy every desire of our heart to lead a fulfilled life (as long as we don’t harm ourselves or anyone else). But Jesus, who is unmatched in knowledge and wisdom, contends that freedom from self-centered, sinful living leads to true fulfillment. The darkened mind believes self-denial is detrimental to our emotional health, but the omniscient God asserts that our souls are most healthy when we flee from sin and indulge ourselves in God.

If you are a disciple of Jesus, I am certain you will agree with me when I say that a self-denying pursuit of Christ really does lead to joy. Before I knew Christ, I lived according to the world’s wisdom and feasted on every iniquitous meal for which my wicked heart hungered. And it was fun. I found great pleasure in my revelry. But it wasn’t until God quickened my heart, led me to his Son, and gave me the power to resist my sinful urges that I began to taste the soul-satisfying pleasure I was created to experience. Picking up my cross and following Jesus does not lead me into despair; it leads me into inexpressible happiness and wholeness! The person I am today—seven years removed from my unbelief—is far healthier than I ever was while living at the whim of my sinful desires.

I do not deny myself because I hate myself. I deny myself because I love both God and myself. Living for the will of God is not only right; it is what is best for me.

  • Lyle Nelson

    I love the fact that you say self-denial LEADS TO joy. And freedom from self-centered, sinful living LEADS TO true fulfillment. Also, I BEGAN TO Itaste the soul-satisfying pleasure I was created to experience. And it LEADS ME INTO inexpressible happiness and wholeness!

    All of these seem to indicate that there is a process going on. Self-denial is painful AT FIRST. This joy and fulfillment and happiness etc. do not occur instantaneously. Our corrupt flesh is not going to give up that easily It will fight back for awhile. So don’t get discouraged if you don’t experience the results Matt is describing iimmediately It will take time. But they will come!

    • Regan DuCasse

      Hi Guys!
      This is something I’ve thought about before. It’s got a historical context, that doesn’t just apply to being gay.
      There are of course, double standards when it comes to women and women denying themselves.
      Something expected, but at the same time, females haven’t always had as much self determined control over this issue.
      We’ve had to exercise more self control and delayed gratification, because the physical risks have always been greater.
      Not only from pregnancy, but literally the rape culture and expectations, and mostly betrayals that males indulge and are allowed to, even against a female’s own better instincts, that the male isn’t worth her time.
      So, in witnessing also, similar expectations for gays, that they are EXPECTED to control themselves, but with more coercion and threat to do so, at the ready from the greater society.
      That is, by way of socio/political exclusion, discrimination and prejudice.

      Let’s be very clear though: Relationships with people, especially the most romantic and intimate, aren’t easy. In a way, they take practice, they take a level of character, that most people aren’t emotionally mature enough to deal with. Let alone deserve.
      Unrealistic expectations being the reason most people’s relationships don’t even get started, let alone endure.
      Gay people weren’t challenged as much to be emotionally mature, and certainly societal expectations have been unrealistic, based on the very aspects of religious expectation and control, that’s been thought that gay people deserve.
      The relationship you have with God and Christ, doesn’t demand as much of you, as a tangible human being does.
      Similar to the way children, never seem to come out the way their parents expect. Some parents are willing to mature and be unselfish in that endeavor, but most check out as they find out the relationship isn’t what they were told to expect.
      Most people become parents who really shouldn’t.
      Perhaps most people shouldn’t be religious either, but one can always leave a religion.
      One should not have a child, then abandon them.
      God and Christ can handle it, a child shouldn’t be expected to.

      I think my point is: the unfortunate reality, that society at large, still doesn’t know gay people very well, or as well as they should.
      Due to the teaching they’ve gotten, mostly from religious lessons.
      And the way you’re relating to people in your respective churches, still keeps people at a distance from who and what gay people really are.
      Your personal experience can’t be argued, but essentially you’ve all reported it as negative.

      I could say the same about the relationships I’ve had with men, and being married. And I really don’t think I’ll ever marry again, because dating or any other relationships hasn’t been an option much either.
      But I’ve never liked the stereotypes, or expectations that people have about black women, while also never really trying to know them, without some kind of unrealistic expectations about us.
      It’s not easy being us.
      It never was.
      But people need to learn, and perhaps they won’t still be harboring the same prejudices, expectations or denials of us also.
      I don’t know how you’d reconcile this thought, with the newer order of fearless gay youngsters going about their lives and the opportunity people have now to know gay people better.
      Not by what religion teaches, but by what reality actually does.

      I’d like to know how you could possibly reconcile this.
      I’m listening.

  • Thanks Matt for this. As you have seen with certain detractors on this blog, I get ridiculed and called a self loather because I deny myself. I am told that I am causing irreparable harm because I live for the Lord and not passions. They don’t seem to understand that I did live for my passions and was miserable. The true joy in my life began when I started self denial living for the Lord.
    Yes, it can be uncomfortable and those people are just waiting for me to fall so they can throw it back in my face. It only serves to increase my resolve and maintain my celibacy, knowing that I have a greater reward coming to me.

    • Stacy

      If you do, indeed, descend into mental madness, it won’t be because of self-loathing or self-denial. More likely, it will be due to the headaches from the detractors and the haters. But you know that the only voice that matters is God’s.