Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Understanding Self-Denial

“Jesus said to his disciples, ‘If anyone wants to follow in my footsteps he must give up all right to himself, take up his cross and follow me. For the man who wants to save his life will lose it; but the man who loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 16:24-25 PHILLIPS).
“When young we must not mind what the world calls failure; as we grow old, we must not be vexed that we cannot remember, must not regret that we cannot do, must not be miserable because we grow weak or ill: we must not mind anything.  We have to do with God who can, not with ourselves where we cannot; we have to do with the Will, with the Eternal Life of the Father of spirits, and not with the being which we could not make, and which is his care.  He is our care; we are his; our care is to will his will; his care, to give us all things.  This is to deny ourselves”—George MacDonald.

It is undeniable that self-denial is required of any and all followers of Jesus Christ.  It is also undeniable that many either confuse the meaning of biblical self-denial or understand it but refuse to obey its demands.  To the latter type of person I have nothing to say; to the former—the confused—let me clarify.  First of all, I take MacDonald’s quote above as perhaps the best explanation of Biblical self-denial I have ever heard (and at the ending of this writing I again quote MacDonald quoting an inner dialogue with himself).  Self-denial is not self-flagellation nor a correction of any kind; rather, it is a complete break away from self in any sense of following its inclinations.

“If you have died with Christ to the elementary principles of the world, why, as if you were living in the world, do you submit yourself to decrees, such as, ‘Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch!’ (which all refer to things destined to perish with use)—in accordance with the commandments and teachings of men?  These are matters which have, to be sure, the appearance of wisdom in self-made religion and self-abasement and severe treatment of the body, but are of no value against fleshly indulgence” (Colossians 2:20-23 NASB).

God is not a cruel taskmaster; the Egyptian world spirit was broken at conversion for all His children.  God has forever crucified the old man and broken our bondage to flesh and carnality, but we experience it only as we cooperate with His will on a daily basis.  The work of the cross of Jesus Christ is the work of the circumcision of the heart once and forever, but daily applied as a fact—not necessarily to the intellect or imagination—but rather pleaded in the conscience and addressed to the will.  That which merely appeals to the intellect and imagination is unredemptive whereas that which appeals to the conscience and will moves a man to action.  We must apply what God has done whether our intellect is brilliant or dull and whether our imagination is colorful or black.  The intellect and imagination are more like dessert than supper; only after the main course of conscience and will are satisfied, are intellect and imagination to be indulged. 
To merely think and imagine is a spectator sport, whereas to see and/or hear God (the function of conscience) and obey what we see and/or hear (the function of the will) is to participate on the playing field.  Yes, those who participate might also spectate as arm-chair warriors on occasion—perhaps when injured or exhausted and replacements are available—but remember that David’s sin with Bathsheba happened “in the spring, at the time when kings go out to battle” (1 Chronicles 20:1).

The daily taking up of our crosses and following the Lord Jesus is often relentless, gruesome and tiresome.  Only when He brings us to still waters and fragrant lilies are we to pause and repose.  Spring is no license to leisure however much it is okay and even pleasant to smell the roses while we walk along the way.  Spring-cleaning requires work and is as much about removal as about replacement; dirt, grime and unpleasant odors exchanged for cleanliness, spotlessness and a pleasant bouquet of freshness.  In spiritual terms, however, spring-cleaning is not about spring; in season and out of season we must be cleansed, revitalized and refreshed.  Only daily application maintains the spring in both our house and step.
Nonetheless, and notwithstanding our responsibilities, it is not for us to clean house except in cooperation to His lead.  Independent house cleaning might leave the house “unoccupied, swept, and put in order” (see Matthew 12:43-45), but it also opens the house to seven times the demonic possession.  If it is time to battle we must battle; if it is time to rest, we must rest.  Bathsheba might have been David’s destiny if properly widowed and met in divine order.  Uriah, Bathsheba’s husband before David killed him and took his wife to himself, might have died in battle despite David’s treachery.  Once David put himself outside the will of God, however, his eyes saw her unwrapped and desired her.  Abusing the power of his position as king, he set in motion an evil scheme to steal Bathsheba away from her husband.  Being outside the will of God is itself the issue.  Only self-denial accomplishes the will of God.  True peace is only enjoyed in the house of one will.  Independence is self-will, unbridled and rebellion; self-denial not self-pact is required however right it seems to the human eye.

I end on the inspiration of this writing of mine—the sublime words of George MacDonald’s dialogue with his Self:

“Self, I have not to consult you, but him whose idea is the soul of you, and of which as yet you are all unworthy.  I have to do, not with you, but with the source of you, by whom it is that any moment you exist—the Causing of you, not the caused you.  You may be my consciousness, but you are not my being.  If you were, what a poor, miserable, dingy, weak wretch I should be!—but my life is hid with Christ in God, whence it came, and wither it is returning with you certainly, but as an obedient servant, not a master.  Submit, or I will cast you from me, and pray to have another consciousness given me.  For God is more to me than my consciousness of myself.  He is my life; you are only so much of it as my poor half-made being can grasp—as much of it as I can now know at once.  Because I have fooled and spoiled you, treated you as if you were indeed my own self, you have dwindled yourself and have lessened me, till I am ashamed of myself.  If I were to mind what you say, I should soon be sick of you; even now I am ever and anon disgusted with your paltry, mean face, which I meet at every turn.  No!—let me have the company of the Perfect One, not of you!—of my elder brother, the Living One!  I will not make a friend of the mere shadow of my own being!  Good-bye, Self!  I deny you, and will do my best every day to leave you behind me.”