Self-denial or denial of self? (or how to become truly human)

Christians often make much of the concept of self-denial, of submitting your own wishes and even needs to those of others and/or to the will of God. We quote various Bible passages to back this up: ‘Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves…’ (Matt 16:24); ‘in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests…’ (Phil 2:3).

I’m not saying we should ignore these passages. But I am suggesting that we sometimes try to put the cart before the horse, seeking to deny self before we’ve truly owned or acknowledged the self we’re denying. To truly say no to the self, we first have to truly know the self.

It also seems to me that we’ve confused two senses of ‘denial’ of self. Proper denial of self simply means saying ‘no’ (or ‘wait’) to our impulses when appropriate, or to our natural human desire to assert our own rights and needs above those of others. It’s basically parenting ourselves; it’s what mums and dads do to their young kids. ‘You can’t play until you’ve tidied your room’; ‘You can’t have it all yourself, you need to share’, etc.

But all too often we mean ‘denial’ of self in the sense of Peter’s denial of Jesus – a refusal to own someone or something, in this case our own self. This is denial that we have a self to deny; denial that we actually have selfish impulses, desires and needs. It’s an attempt to jump straight to perfection without passing through being human in all its reality and mess.

We know that we’re not supposed to be selfish, so we pretend to ourselves and others that we don’t have selfish thoughts or feelings. We know we’re not supposed to have bad, selfish, greedy, angry or lustful thoughts, so we simply suppress and deny them. But in the process we deny key parts of our humanity and ourselves, and we deny reality – never a good idea.

When we try to deny parts of our self that we or the church have deemed unacceptable, those parts don’t go away. They simply lurk unacknowledged and dangerous out of sight, quite possibly to surface unexpectedly at some point and derail our lives. Only by facing and owning them as part of ourselves can we truly learn to deal with them and master them.

Let me suggest to you, for example, that you almost certainly have some unacknowledged racism, sexism, classism or other prejudice that you won’t admit even to yourself. Our society and church have rightly taught us that these things are not good, but have also wrongly taught us that they are taboo, unmentionable, so terrible that to acknowledge them in ourselves would make us unacceptable and bad.

Similarly, let me suggest that (at times) you probably have unacknowledged murderous feelings towards your parents, siblings, spouse, children or work colleagues. Or you may have lustful or envious or other unacceptable feelings towards others which you disguise even from yourself.

Becoming worse to become better

I’m sure you’ll already have come across the idea that meekness is not doormat-like subservience but is rather controlled strength, power held in check rather than used to control or oppress. It’s in this sense that Jesus was meek, not that he was wet or wimpish or just ‘nice’. You have to have owned and tested your strength before you can be master of it and use it for good.

There’s a similar principle at work with selflessness and self-denial. You have to know your self and own your self, including the ‘nasty’ or unacceptable or taboo parts, before you can truly master your selfish impulses and desires. It’s not quite saying that you have to be bad before you can be good, but rather that you have to really know that you can be bad – and still be accepted – before you can truly and freely be good.

Of course, there are dangers in this path; no pathway to life and freedom is without its inherent perils. There’s a real danger that in owning and acknowledging our dark or ‘shadow’ side, our selfish desires and taboo emotions, we end up accepting them too much, indulging them and being ruled by them rather than questioning and learning to tame and master them. We can all too easily excuse our rudeness, selfishness, cantankerousness and downright nastiness by saying that we’re just being ourselves; we’re being ‘honest’ or ‘authentic’.

Nonetheless, we may well need to go through a temporary phase of being ruder and nastier and apparently more selfish than we’re used to, on the road to healthiness and wholeness. We may for at time actually have to become worse or nastier to become finally better and lovelier. But this ‘nasty’ phase is not the end of the road; it’s only a transitional stage on the pathway to self-control, to true and biblical self-denial.

A painful transition

From my vague memories of ante-natal classes, childbirth and labour has three main stages – dilation contractions, transition, and then final pushing contractions to get the baby out. The transitional phase is brief but excruciatingly painful, and often accompanied by screaming, swearing, and squeezing the birth partner’s hand to breaking point.

It seems to me that the Christian life is a little like childbirth. To reach the end goal of new life, at some point we generally have to go through some kind of painful transitional phase – call it the desert experience, or the Dark Night of the Soul, or the Chrysalis phase or the Holy Saturday experience or whatever. You’ll know it when you hit it. Darkness closes in, nothing seems to make sense any more; you shout and scream and swear at life and God and the encircling chaos. But in the process – which can feel more like a death than a birth – we may, if we stick at it, actually be becoming human. We may be shedding our old false skins.

It’s something like this that I mean when I say we have to become human before we can be perfect. We may have to go through a painful period of transition where we become temporarily horrible to live with as we get in touch with and express all the nasty and unacceptable bits in us. But this is only the prelude to childbirth. True authenticity is not just expressing all the nasty stuff in us, though that may be part of the process. True authenticity is like meekness; it’s mastering the nasty stuff, along with the other stuff, so that we are fully integrated, whole and truly loving people rather than just pretending.

What’s my scriptural basis for this? If that means a proof-text, I don’t have one, nor (as a non-believer in sola scriptura) do I see the need for one. What I do see though is countless examples of this in the lives of people of faith from the Old Testament through to today. It also seems to me to make psychological, emotional and spiritual sense.

We’re all imperfect, and we all fail to see some of our faults and hide other flaws under a veneer of niceness and respectability. On the pathway to wholeness we have to expose and come to terms with all our shadow side, all the parts we’ve buried and denied. We have to learn that certain things we thought were wrong and unacceptable are actually part of being fully human, while other things that we thought were fine are actually getting in the way of our humanity. It’s not always an easy or painless process, but it is rewarding, releasing and redemptive. I believe it’s the only way to authentic wholeness – or to being a saint, if you prefer.

So don’t deny the reality of yourself; rather learn to accept yourself, be yourself and then find out which bits of that self you need to control or say no to in order to be fully human, fully Christlike, a full giving-and-receiving participant in Christ’s community of love. That’s surely what self-denial is really about.

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About TheEvangelicalLiberal

Aka Harvey Edser. I'm a web editor, worship leader, wannabe writer, very amateur composer and highly unqualified armchair theologian. My heroes include C.S. Lewis and Homer Simpson.
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13 Responses to Self-denial or denial of self? (or how to become truly human)

  1. Terry says:

    Quite an appropriate post to read on a day when we celebrate the Transfiguration.

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  2. Eric says:

    Interesting thoughts.

    I think there’s a sense in which self-denial, properly understood (which is generally isn’t in a culture which asks for it so rarely), is a denial of the self in a different sense than the one you (rightly) worry about. Instead, it’s a denial to the self of the right to be, a choking off of its life. Is your self an unpleasant, sexist, leering boor who thinks only of his next paycheck, his next drink, and his next nubile companion? Then cut him off and let him wither on the vine. The point isn’t to restrain him, it’s to kill him completely, it’s to deny him existence so that you are left without him and (hopefully) without a replacement except the light of Christ.

    Of course your advice to know your self is critical to all of this because it’s possible that your ugly self goes all the way to the core and needs to be kicked out of there before you can think of isolating him and letting him starve. I recommend solitude for that. You rapidly learn whether or not you can stand yourself.

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    • Thanks Eric, that’s a good point and one I need to think about further!

      “Is your self an unpleasant, sexist, leering boor who thinks only of his next paycheck, his next drink, and his next nubile companion?”

      I’m not sure that anyone’s self is just this, but I think we probably all have aspects of this that we’ve learnt to restrain and hold in check most of the time. It’s the ‘Id’ in Freudian terms, or the flesh/‘sinful nature’ in more biblical ones. However, you could argue that all of these ‘fleshly’ desires have a valid aspect; there’s nothing inherently wrong with wanting pay, drink or a nubile companion! The problem is surely in our attitude to these things, and to our self and to other people. In which case we need to change our attitudes and priorities – which I suppose you could call ‘repentance’.

      “Then cut him off and let him wither on the vine. The point isn’t to restrain him, it’s to kill him completely”

      I’m just not entirely convinced that we can cut off parts of ourselves in this way. I know the idea has good biblical and evangelical precedent: ‘If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away’ (Matt 5:29); ‘Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh [sinful/earthly nature] with its passions and desires’ (Gal 5:24). There’s clearly an important concept in all this, but I think it’s one we need to be slightly careful about interpreting.

      My own view is that, in Christ, our whole self needs to be ‘put to death’ in a sense. Every part of us, better and worse, needs to be submitted to Christ; included by proxy in his death and resurrection. I think that even the worst in us contains some good that can be redeemed in Christ; and even the very best in us has some bad which needs to be removed or transformed. For me it’s about incarnation – letting Christ live more and more in every part of us, transforming each aspect so that it reflects his likeness.

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      • Eric says:

        “However, you could argue that all of these ‘fleshly’ desires have a valid aspect; there’s nothing inherently wrong with wanting pay, drink or a nubile companion! The problem is surely in our attitude to these things, and to our self and to other people. In which case we need to change our attitudes and priorities – which I suppose you could call ‘repentance’.”

        There’s also nothing inherently good about these things. If all you ever aim for is to be able to deny them enough to never embezzle, get sloppy drunk, or cheat on your wife then you’ll be chopping the heads off the dandelions forever because you haven’t pulled out the root. I would argue contrary to you that evangelicals don’t overdo self-denial. they underdo it. Most evangelicals, for instance, don’t fast because food is morally neutral. But fasting builds discipline, it practices giving things up that are hard to give up, and it shapes your inner person into the sort of person who can do what needs to be done. We tend to do outward behavior-modification instead of character transformation.

        All of us project a shell, an outer self, to the world. This outer self deals with surface concerns – food, drink, pay, entertainment. (The outer self, by the way, probably lives on Facebook.) We need to not only reform our inner self that can be shaped into Godly character but we need that inner self to take the reins from the outer self. We need to weaken the outer self.

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        • Okay, interesting to see your different take on this. I don’t think we’re going to agree on this one, but I certainly need to think it all through a bit more.

          It seems to me that desires for food, drink, pay, entertainment and sex can all be perfectly good and healthy, even godly, things. To seek to pull them up by the roots sounds to me rather like an asceticism based on a rejection of the goodness of the body and of material creation – but I imagine that’s not quite what you’re suggesting? 🙂

          The same Paul who tells us to put to death our carnal desires also tells us not to submit to seemingly holy rules of ‘don’t touch! don’t taste’ etc (Colossians 2:20-23), and exhorts us to do all – specifically including eating and drinking – to the glory of God (1 cor 10:31). That suggests to me that the issue is not with food, drink (including alcohol), sex or whatever; it’s how and why we engage with these things.

          By the way, I strongly agree that spiritual disciplines like fasting can be helpful, but not because I think eating is bad.

          I think I do agree that we need to weaken the outer self, but I’m not quite sure how you see that as relating to killing the old self – is it part of the same thing?

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  3. Eric says:

    “It seems to me that desires for food, drink, pay, entertainment and sex can all be perfectly good and healthy, even godly, things. To seek to pull them up by the roots sounds to me rather like an asceticism based on a rejection of the goodness of the body and of material creation – but I imagine that’s not quite what you’re suggesting?”

    Correct. There are a few things going on here. Let’s take sex since that’s an easy one. Here are the components that I see:
    1) Can you enjoy sex? I hope you can!
    2) Are you ruled by sex? This is where self-control comes in. I don’t care if you have a great marriage and your wife is always as randy as you are, if you couldn’t go without sex for, say, a month then you have a problem. This is the first part of our general falling short – we have discipline sufficient for what we need now but we are not internally well-disciplined. To use an eating example, when I was making far less money I couldn’t ever afford good steak and so I ate meat about once a week and never good steak. I had discipline. Now I can afford to pay more for food and so my discipline has slipped to keep pace – it would be very hard for me to revert to my poor-man’s diet again.
    3) Are there creepy things that live alongside this desire and are sometimes hard to tell apart from it? Probably. So, for instance, let’s take the common sex-based sin of looking down the waitresses’ blouse when she leans over to take your order. Part of that is a lack of discipline a la #2. Part of that, though, is much creepier – you think of this person as a thing who exists to fulfill your desires and whose own desires can be ignored. This part just needs to die.

    Essentially, I see the best self control being one where you’ve completely broken the rule of desire over you. You could eat bread and water for months and be fine (aside from the nutritional issues) but also accept and really enjoy a good meal cooked by a friend. You could be really happy that your wife wants to have sex with you but if she gets sick for a long time and can’t have sex you’ll be fine, not eaten up inside. I really see this as breaking desire – not enjoyment, but desire. Perhaps it would make more sense to also frame it as a hierarchy of desires: God first, all else far, far behind. For instance, if you desire to win a sporting event enough your desire not to be hurting and sore and sweaty just isn’t up to the task of stopping you. In the same way, one would ideally desire God to the point where all other desires were take it or leave it, but if God gave you a good thing you would still enjoy it just as a runner might enjoy a cool breeze on a hot run even though they would never skip the day’s run just because it was hot.

    That may not have clarified anything.

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    • That’s interesting – thanks for clarifying.

      It seems to me like there are at least two separate factors at work in our instincts or drives (sex, hunger etc). One is the natural element which is basically good but needs to be trained and brought to maturity like a healthy plant – that’s the self-control part (a more Iranean perspective). The other is the more Augustinian perspective – the ‘creepy’ element of sin or corruption which taints all our impulses and needs to be killed off… or (just possibly) healed.

      I do take your point about the need to break the rule of desire (or at least to relegate our desires to their rightful second place behind God). I suppose I’m just not totally convinced that abstinence can really achieve that in most cases. But in some ways it’s maybe a question of terminology – I prefer the language of incarnation, and of being included in Christ’s sin-overcoming death, but perhaps in the end we’re both getting at similar concepts.

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      • Eric says:

        I would point out that I don’t think anyone can figure out in advance what they’ll get out of some of the more ascetic disciplines. When I started fasting I did so because it’s the long tradition of the Church, especially amongst some of the groups of people I felt had the best grasp on how to do personal holiness. I rapidly realized how much time I spend thinking about food when, suddenly, every thought about what to eat dead-ended immediately in “nothing” or in some very restricted set of allowed items. I didn’t know how I worked until I changed it. In fact, I think this is one reason the disciplines are falling by the wayside. You pretty much have to do them in good faith before you understand why you would do them and our autonomous culture is not very keen on that.

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        • Just to clarify, I’m very much in favour of the spiritual disciplines of fasting and solitude. I fast fairly frequently if a little sporadically (I’m not all that disciplined in my approach to the disciplines). I find fasting very helpful, but perhaps not in quite the same ways as you, or with quite the same outcomes.

          I suppose I’d also want to say that spiritual disciplines themselves can be approached in healthier and less healthy ways. Both abstinence and eating can be holy or unholy activities depending on context, motivation, attitude etc.

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  4. Anthony says:

    I appreciate these perspectives and respect them. The one thing that is missing is Jesus. There is no purpose in fasting without love if Him. There is no value in self denial without uniting if to His sacrifice. Works without faith are empty. Faith without works is dead. We can do nothing good without Him, apart from Him. Jesus wants us to be conformed to Him, perfect selfless love. Acting like a Christian will not pass the Lord’s test. Only Love, total self donation, obedience to His teaching, including that of the Church He founded ( to which He gave the power to bind and loose) to the best of our ability, matters. Only those who do what the Father commands. Love one another as Zi have loved you. God bless.

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    • Hi Anthony, thanks for commenting. I agree with you, to a large extent. It is all about Jesus ultimately, and I’ve written plenty elsewhere about the need for Jesus to be incarnate in our lives – living in and through us, forming us in his likeness. But this post was simply to deal with one particular point about what I felt was a misunderstanding of the concept of self-denial, so there will be aspects I’ve assumed as implied and not spelt out in full.

      I suspect I probably do have a different emphasis to you, and perhaps a slightly different understanding of what it means to be a Christian. But either way, Christ is central.

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