Following Jesus requires that I come to the end of myself; understanding how to get to the end and live beyond is the key to discipleship. Jesus lays out a clear sequence to follow that begins with, “let them deny themselves…” What he doesn’t say here is as important as what he does communicate. Notice that he does not state, “Let him hate himself.” Christ is not asking us to deny our basic humanity, our personhood. If you take it that way, you have missed the point. The word “deny” means to “disavow any connection with something, to state that you are not connected in any way with whatever is in view.” Interestingly enough, it is the very word used to refer to Peter’s denial of Jesus a little later on. As he was standing in the courtyard of the high priest, warming himself at a fire, a little maiden asked him, “Do you know this man?” (Mark 14:66-72). Peter denied that he had any connection with Jesus, said he did not know him, and affirmed his disavowal with oaths and curses. This is exactly the word Jesus chooses for our first step in following him.
During the years I taught undergraduate ministry students, I encountered what I consider to be a common misunderstanding of this essential component of discipleship. Perhaps by default, the frequent interpretation communicated to church-goers is that self-denial equates to self-rejection. Somehow we confuse denying self with rejecting or at least avoiding self-understanding. The difference is colossal, since knowing one’s self is paramount to obeying Christ’s command. Daily denying of self invokes an ongoing process of self-discovery, for only when I embrace the way God has fashioned me am I ready to relinquish all that I am to Christ. How can I offer to Christ what I am unaware is mine to give? Such a scenario is more akin to hypnosis than surrender. Self-denial is a self-inflicted wound that heals. The more I acknowledge my God-granted uniqueness, the better able am I to surrender and use that uniqueness in serving him and others.