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.