Developing Christlike Character through Self-Denial
As ministers, one of the greatest problems we face because of the Fall of Adam and Eve in the Garden, is called the “Adamic Nature”--the nature of Adam in each one of us. This Adamic nature, our innate sinfulness and rebelliousness, is a result of the curse of the Fall of Adam that has plagued the human family since the “original sin” was first committed in the Garden of Eden. And the consequence of it is that we wear the stain of original sin--every man, woman, and child on planet Earth is born with a human nature that lives under the dominion of sin and is rebellious against God. The tragedy of the Adamic nature is that it works against us developing true Christlike character. But one particularly effective tool to develop Christlike nature is self-denial. Self-denial is one of the defining elements of all true followers of Christ. The Lord Jesus stated in Luke 9:23, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.” If we think of our Christian lives as buildings, then self-denial is part of the foundation work. The Apostle Paul was aware of Jesus’ self-denying servant heart and way of being. And he says it needs to be our way too. Here’s how Paul describes it:
Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross! (Phil 2:3-8)
What is Christian self-denial?
1) Self-denial is the principle of bringing our self-willed nature into subordination to God’s will. As you might imagine, this is the hard part of being a disciple--though you are given Holy Spirit power, resurrection power, to do it. Why is it so hard? Well, our human wills, the ability to choose, think and act, are like the great wheels in our souls that move all our affections, all our desires. You can imagine your human will as the spoke around which your desires spin and turn. Well, a long time ago in the beginning of creation, human will was innocent. In this innocence, human will was aligned with God’s will. But what happened? Well, things got out of alignment. Our wills became spiritually depraved. Morally corrupt. And because of the spoke (our wills) being broken, our affections and desires turn to sin, turn to self-interest, turn to rebellion against God. Self-denial then is like using the power of Christ to re-train our wills to come back into alignment with God’s will. The tool of self-denial is like this crooked stick. If a crooked stick is laid upon the ground that is level, we don’t try to bring the ground even with the stick, but to make the stick even to the ground. So God's will is not to be brought to ours, but our will being crooked must be brought to God's will. That’s why we are told to pray in this way: "Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven" (Matt 6:9-10).
2) Self-denial is not fully accomplished in our conversion--it is a lifetime discipline. When we think of self-denial, we shouldn’t imagine that there is a once-for-all moment of surrender to Christ after which our lives will be naturally obedient to God’s will. Our sinful nature is not instantaneously removed when we first repent for our sins and believe in Jesus Christ--even though God sees us sinless through the lens of Christ and we are justified. We still battle with our sin nature in a lifelong period of struggle called sanctification. (Lat. sanctificare from two Latin words sanctus “holy”; and ficare from facere ”to make.”) So sanctification is the process of God’s continuing work in us to make us holy by purifying us from sin. And it’s a lifetime discipline. And it’s a lifetime battle that we wage in the power of Christ. Notice how often it is waged: Jesus told his disciples they must take up their cross daily. Yes they were his disciples, but they still had to deny their sinful nature daily and submit to doing God's will.
3) Self-denial is the denying of anything in our lives that opposes full faith in and obedience to God and his Word. There are times when a Christian must deny her appetites, ease, finances, even her life, in order for our will to no longer oppose God. Why is this so hard? It is because the three greatest enemies which oppose full faith and obedience to God and his word are these:
Self-wisdom. The reality is we think we know better than God what is best for our lives
Self-will. Therefore we make our own plans for our lives and we harmonize these plans with God’s will only when it is convenient for us.
Self-righteousness. At the end of the day we believe entirely in our own ability to do good and we do not rest upon the meritorious obedience and satisfaction of Christ our certainty before God.
Four truths are helpful to remember as we strive by God’s grace to deny ourselves:
1) We must esteem others as more important than ourselves. Thinking of others more than yourselves. The New Living Translation in Phil 2:3 puts it this way: “Don’t be selfish; don't try to impress others. Be humble, thinking of others as better than yourselves.”
2) We find help when we remember we only deny ourselves by the Spirit’s power. By his regenerating power, the Spirit shows us the foolishness of our own wisdom and lack of righteousness, and he reveals our wisdom to be in the person and work of Christ Jesus. When we are tempted to despair at our failure to deny ourselves, we have the sure strength of the Spirit of Christ to encourage us. You’ll never achieve the self-denial without the Spirit’s power.
3) We find help in denying ourselves in prayer. Prayer demands we give up self-wisdom, self-will, and self-righteousness. Praying to “our Father which art in heaven,” confessing his name to be “hallowed,” and asking him to “lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil” requires that we set aside our wisdom and trust his. You’ll never achieve self-denial without prayer.
4) If we would deny ourselves, we must focus on Christ.
Remember, Jesus wasn’t calling his followers to some stoic life of self-sacrifice. He was inviting them to joy beyond their imagination:
For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels. (Mark 8:35–38)