It is an observation requiring little perception that self-indulgence dominates western society in the twenty-first century. Over the past fifty years increasing material prosperity has not satisfied men and women, but rather increased their appetite for more and more. The culture now flourishing puts the individual first and asserts that "What I desire I have a right to get" is the basis of an acceptable way of life. No matter what the cost, and no matter how individuals must live to achieve this goal, the lives of many, if not the majority, are motivated by the drive to seek satisfaction for every desire and craving.
It is against this background that the attention of believers must turn to the teaching of the Lord Jesus in relation to discipleship. In response to the rebuke administered by Peter when the Lord declared that He would die at Jerusalem, the Lord sets out the three pillars of discipleship. Any individual, He states, who would be His disciple must "deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me" (Mt 16.24). This is diametrically opposed to what is acceptable in the world and comes with challenge to all who profess to belong to Him.
Following Him will lead us to glory, for that is where He has gone. This prospect has brightened the days of many a saint during difficult times. But occupation with the end of the pathway must not cause us to lose sight of the beginning of it. His pathway to glory involved Him in denying Himself, as He left the realm of eternal glory and came to earth as a man. He is asking us to do in a very small way what He did in the greatest stoop down that has ever been known. The journey that ends with glory starts with denying ones self! Not a popular concept in a society drowning in a sea of materialism and immorality!
But what does "denial of self" mean? Many have denied themselves the comforts of home and the presence of their families to work far afield in the gospel; others have given generously of their substance, putting the needs of others before their own; some have made their local assembly the great work of their lives and devoted their time, energy, and resources to that. In every case that which could have been for their own satisfaction or pleasure has been given to the Lord, and He has noted every sacrifice.
The reader may be asking, "What does this mean for my life. What great thing can I deny myself?" An example from the pen of Harold St John may help. He was speaking at an assembly conference that extended over a number of days. The weather was very warm and one afternoon he was approached by a teenage girl who stated that she would not be present at the meeting that afternoon because she was going off swimming. Mr St John spoke to her of what she would lose by being absent from the meetings and when that did not seem to sway her, he added, "You will lose a precious opportunity". "What opportunity is that?", responded the girl. "The opportunity of denying yourself just a little thing for the Lord". Denying ourselves for Him does not always mean something "big"; it also makes its call on the apparently insignificant issues of life. It can therefore be put into practice by all those who profess to be His followers.
Denying oneself is not turning away from sin, for every believer is expected to do that. It is, rather, giving up for the service of the Lord, what can be legitimately held and kept. If it involves only the sacrifice of that which has little attraction for me, it will not be self-denial. It is giving up what is dear to me, with no suggestion that it is sinful. The call of the Lord impresses on the servant that to put oneself before Him retards development of Christian character.
The question with which we are all faced is, "What have I denied myself? What legitimate thing have I been prepared to lay aside for the Lord?". It may be that I have never been prepared to give anything up for Him, or have denied myself, unwillingly, only that which had to be given up so that I could keep up appearances before others. Let us heed the call of the Master ringing down through the years. Those of us who have expressed the desire to "come after" Him must ask ourselves if we have taken the first vital step.