What do I deny if I deny self?

Sunday’s readings:  Genesis 7:1-7, 15-16     Psalm 22:23-31     Romans 4:13-25     Mark 8:31-38

Today’s Gospel sounds very stark if we pay close attention. Imagine that someone you love told you that he or she was truly destined to be executed by the people in power in your country. That would be very hard to take. That is why Peter looked at Jesus and said, “No! Can’t be! We can’t let this happen!”

It sounds harsh when Jesus replies to Peter by saying, “Get behind me, Satan!” Why did he reply to Peter that way? One commentator explained it well. Satan did not want Jesus to go to the cross, because Satan knew that the cross was his Waterloo. On the cross, looking like a defeated warrior, Christ would finally and permanently defeat Satan. In the worldview from God’s throne in eternity and infinity, Satan would be finished if Jesus went to the cross. Jesus saw that when Peter spoke so protectively, he became the unwitting dupe of Satan’s wish to prevent the cross and the resurrection. Jesus wasn’t insulting Peter. Jesus was speaking to the real motivator behind Peter’s words. That moment might almost be called an exorcism, because in that moment Satan almost had Peter in his grasp.

It only gets worse. It was bad news for the disciples to hear that their beloved teacher was doomed to die a miserable death. It had to be even worse news to hear they if they followed him, the same fate was in store for them.

It is common to hear Christian people say that they have some cross to bear. They will speak of arthritis as a cross to bear. Or maybe after the death of a loved one, a Christian will speak of that pain as a cross. Jesus was not teaching that we would all need to endure the normal problems of life on earth. When he said we must deny self, he did not mean that we would be stronger Christians if we gave up candy.

Jesus meant that in order to follow him, we need to stop worshiping self.

That is a huge demand. Every time we acquire a labor-saving device, we do it to make life easier for self. Does Jesus mean that we should refuse to use technology and the things that make life easier for us? If we have the income to acquire beautiful things like framed art and well-constructed furniture and a comfortable, attractive home, should we refuse to acquire such things? Does Jesus want us all to embrace poverty? Some Christian teachers have endorsed exactly that attitude. Is there some point in time when the state of the culture and the technology was more conducive to piety than all other times? Amish Christians seem to believe that.

The truth is that it is much easier to decide to give up candy or technology or riches than it is to give up self. Sad to say, but Satan can appeal to the self in a very pious and impoverished human being. Satan can whisper in the ears of that person’s heart and say, “You should be so proud of yourself. Look at all these heathens around you. Go tell them what you think of their wickedness.” That kind of satanic work inspired things like the Spanish Inquisition and the Salem witch trials.

The hard work of following Christ is to topple self off the throne of our hearts and keep self off that throne. God himself, in the person of the indwelling Holy Spirit, wants to sit on the throne of our hearts. When we deny self that throne, then we are available to serve Christ and to serve people as God intended. We can only experience our greatest fulfillment when we can let go of our need to praise our own spirituality. We need to turn our hearts completely over to Christ.

It isn’t easy to deny self the throne. Satan has an infinite bag of tricks to make us feel good about ourselves when we do anything obedient to Christ. When he starts making us feel that we have done something good, that is the moment he is picking up self and propping self up on the throne of our hearts, pushing the Holy Spirit aside. The cross we bear is the necessity to do what Jesus did – put God’s plan ahead of all our own plans.

What comes of doing this? Jesus said that if we do this, we get a real life. We don’t go through life wishing we had done something else. We don’t come to the end of life full of regret that we never really became what we were created to be. If we put Christ ahead of self we get life now and life everlasting. That is a promise worth living by.