Tag Archives: Deny self

Something to Die For

People who eat decadent desserts sometimes sigh, “It’s to die for.” A woman might be shopping for a dress for a wedding or a gala event and find one that she says is “to die for.” Chocolate is such a beloved flavor in large segments of the population that anything dipped in chocolate is supposedly “to die for.”

In today’s culture, however, nobody is actually supposed to die. Continue reading Something to Die For

The Spiritual Worldview

A persistent complaint about Christianity is the “hypocrisy” of Christians. I recently met a lady who told me she was Buddhist, even though faithful Christian parents reared her. She said that three different times in her childhood, she was sexually assaulted by Christian clergy. Those experiences marked her, and she wanted no part of Christianity. Most of the Christians I know who have attempted to speak to unbelievers report stories about Christians who lie, cheat, steal, and behave in a generally disreputable manner. Christians who do not act like Christians lead non-Christians to believe that there is no good reason to become a Christian.

On the other hand, one will rarely hear someone criticize a Christian for un-Christlike behavior when that person says, “If you can dream it, you can do it.” This little empty aphorism is just as un-Christlike as sexual assault or theft, but non-Christians do not recognize that fact, because this notion is quite popular among secular thinkers. Yet even Christians often do not recognize that this statement makes self, not God, the center of life.

This idea is one of many statements that fall into the general category of “moralistic therapeutic deism,” a term coined by Rod Dreher, a cultural analyst who contrasts this philosophy with a Christian worldview. Facebook posts are full of MTD. They are often posted as text added to gorgeous photos of sunrise, galaxies, and the like. They look quite inspirational, but the inspiration is to look at self, the god within, rather than God Almighty, our Creator.

Here is another example of such a post, a statement attributed to someone called The Kamarpa:

“Ask yourself what kind of person you want to be in the life that you will live today. Throughout the day, remind yourself that your life is happening right now.”

When a secular thinker reads such words, he feels good. He sees in such a statement a reminder that he is his own god. He need not be in submission to anyone, because he can simply ask himself what to be. He can ask himself each day, and the answer may be different each day. He need not get in a rut. No perseverance required here. If it doesn’t feel good, then leave it alone.

Sad to say, when Christians read such a statement, they, too, feel good. Some Christians do not really see any conflict between this statement and the Christian faith. How could such a nice idea be un-Christlike? Shouldn’t we examine ourselves each morning and try to live better lives?

Of course we should, but the idea of asking ourselves, rather than God, what needs to be done each day is alien to the fundamental teachings of Christianity. A fellow Christian asked me one day, “Why shouldn’t I go ahead and align myself with the universe and pray to God at the same time? What could it hurt? After all, I’m just putting myself out there for whatever opportunity I can find.”

The ancient Israelites are the most well documented example of what happens when people believe that they can serve both God and gods. They had no problem marching into the Temple with lambs and bulls for sacrifice to God and then marching out to the high places to worship Baal. God had given them Ten Commandments which were to shape their lives forever, and the first one was “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:2 NIV84). The prophets repeatedly called them to repentance and faithful lives, but it was just too tempting. Why did they have to be the only people in the world with only one god? All the other people had many gods. It was much more fun. Those gods were much more accommodating. To worship those gods, one visited temple prostitutes, and that was much more delightful than all that talk about sin.

The ancient gods and the book The Secret all teach that people ought to get what they want. The ancient gods, which are resurfacing today in all their glory, did not necessarily yearn to give people what they wanted, but they were not averse to being persuaded by gifts and orgies in their honor to fulfill people’s wishes. Of course, if the wishes were not fulfilled, it was always a simple matter of human failure to fulfill the god’s expectations. In consequence, the Israelites, and people today as well, thought that God’s failure to grant their wishes was about some failure to say the right word or do the right ritual. Those ancient gods had minimal expectations of human behavior and no expectation of real commitment. Daily life had little to do with those gods, and the Israelites, as well as people today, liked it that way.

The Secret teaches that the universe wants people to get their wishes. People like my friend believe that the universe is “star stuff,” as Carl Sagan used to say. That means that they don’t think of it as a false god. However, that does not keep them from swallowing the thesis of The Secret, a thesis which makes the universe into a god. Ancient pagans have no problem with the universe being a god. The teachings of The Secret are no different from any other form of pantheism. They are also no less dangerous that any explicitly named religion that teaches pantheism. My friend had fallen for the notion that he was just playing the odds, hoping that one way or another, he would get what he wanted.

Faith in Christ is not one among many options for a happy life. Adding Christ to the mix of powers one petitions for a good day or wisdom or wealth will not add positive weight to one’s case. Trying to worship Christ and worship self at the same time will not work. To worship ancient gods, the universe, or any other power in order to get what one wants is to worship self. Jesus said, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself.” Jesus is exclusive. Believe him, or don’t believe him. Never try to play the odds. Never try to bundle up as many gods as possible in the hope that one of them will fulfill your wishes. The need for wish fulfillment is worship of self.

Martin Luther’s Morning Prayer is a good model for starting the day with self-examination in the light of one’s relationship with God. Rather than asking oneself what the day ought to be, Martin Luther recommended looking first to God:

Martin Luther’s Morning Prayer

In the morning, when you rise, you shall bless yourself with the holy cross and say:

In the name of God the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Amen.

Then, kneeling or standing, repeat the Creed and the Lord’s Prayer. If you choose, you may, in addition, say this little prayer:

I thank Thee, my Heavenly Father, through Jesus Christ, Thy dear Son, that Thou hast kept me this night from all harm and danger; and I pray Thee to keep me this day also from sin and all evil, that all my doings and life may please Thee. For into Thy hands I commend myself, my body and soul, and all things. Let Thy holy angel be with me, that the Wicked Foe may have no power over me. Amen.

Then go to your work with joy, singing a hymn, such as one on the Ten Commandments, or what your devotion may suggest.

From Martin Luther’s Small Catechism

In this manner of prayer, the first thing one does is to address God, not self. This prayer points to God each morning. It does not invite us to ask ourselves what we want. It addresses the Father, Son and Holy Spirit and doesn’t ask for anything until after worship in God’s presence. The next step, recitation of The Creed is a testimony of faith beginning with the words, “I believe in God . . . .” After that, praying the Lord’s Prayer points to God with words of both worship and petitions. All these practices point to God, not self. Finally, one offers up one’s own concerns for the day ahead in a prayer that asks, “that all my doings and life may please Thee.” Compare this practice of beginning the day by turning to God and offering self to God with a habit of beginning the day by turning to self to ask self what self wants.

After the Transfiguration, Jesus came down the mountain to find his disciples in disarray. A man had brought his demon-possessed son to them for exorcism, and they were failing. Jesus rebuked their lack of faith, and then he took care of the problem. Later, after they had escaped the crowds, the disciples asked, “Why couldn’t we get rid of it?” (my paraphrase) Jesus did not tell them that they didn’t use the right words or the right ritual or the right potion. He reworded his rebuke about their lack of faith by saying, “The only thing that works for this kind is prayer.” (my paraphrase) The problem was that they were asking themselves what they needed to do instead of asking God. They trusted themselves to know what to do. They trusted in self. They did exactly what Kamarpa recommends: Ask yourself.

I believe that the greatest deficit among self-identified Christians is faith in Christ. Poll after poll confirms that many, many self-identified Christians do not believe that Jesus is “the Way.” They believe that he is “one of the ways.” A Christian worldview begins with Christ, and if anyone wants to call himself a Christian, he must begin by recognizing that Christ is the only Way. Rod Dreher believes that “moralistic therapeutic deism” (MTD) is replacing biblical Christianity across our culture. That is sad, because moralistic therapeutic deism will not save anyone from demons or transform anyone into a powerful servant of God. The reason self-identified Christians often do not act like Christians is that they do not follow Christ. To practice moralistic therapeutic deism is not the same thing.




A Verse for Meditation

Torah ScrollIf anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. Matthew 16:24


  • Right before Jesus said the above words to all the disciples, he said to Peter, “you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.” (Matthew 16:23) How does what Jesus said to all of them contrast with what he said just to Peter? \
  • hat exactly did Jesus tell people to deny?
  • Jesus made attempt after attempt to tell his disciples what was ahead of him. One and all, they either shut their ears and refused to talk about even among themselves, or they insisted they would not let it happen. Now he says that anyone who follows him must deny self and carry a cross. What does this tell them? What does it tell you?
  • For generations Christians have been told that crucifixion is an ancient custom that isn’t done anymore. In Syria and Iraq, Christians are actually being crucified today. How does that news make you feel? ISIS has declared that it will invade the USA. What if it happened to you in the USA?
  • Until recently, being a Christian was a very comfortable choice in the USA. However, even though there are no public beheadings or crucifixions here, the news is full of lawsuits against Christians who speak of their faith and act on their faith. Do you feel comfortable being a Christian? When you feel uncomfortable, what do you do about it?
  • Do you feel that you are truly able to let go of your own dreams of comfort and peace and stand firm for your faith even if someone takes you to court or threatens you with torture?

Palm Sunday

Jesus entering Jerusalem on a donkey

Isaiah 50:4-9a     Psalm 31:9-16     Philippians 2:5-11     Mark 11:1-11


The events we remember on Palm Sunday are very important events, but they are not the most important events of Holy Week. We all recognize that Easter Sunday is the moment we are eagerly anticipating, but it is easy to get caught up in the pageantry of Palm Sunday.

Palm Sunday is actually a lot like the events of a campaign year. While the candidates are campaigning, pomp and pageantry are the order of the day. They focus on appearances and sound bites. Palm Sunday looks quite similar.

In the weeks since Christmas we have talked about Jesus’ earthly ministry. After the word got around that Jesus could heal lepers and madmen, crowds gathered. They sat through his sermons and storytelling in order to be able to give him the sick and the possessed for miraculous healing. Jesus was a celebrity. Whispers and gossip made him a candidate for the fulfillment of prophecies, and the most desirable story was the one that made him a candidate to be a king who would take David’s seat at the head of a triumphant, independent, glorious kingdom. The rumors suggested that he might overthrow Roman rule and send the hated oppressors back to their emperor. When Jesus showed up at Jerusalem for Passover, he was greeted the way supporters today greet their favorite candidate for president.

Interestingly, Jesus did not pander to their expectations. If he had wished to look kingly, he would have chosen some steed other than a donkey or a colt. The gospel writers differ as to the precise biological classification of the animal Jesus rode, but they all agree that it was not a mount fit for a king. Jesus was treated like a king, because of the rumors and speculation surrounding him, not because he wanted it that way.

The Jesus who rode into Jerusalem to the shouts and accolades of the crowd was the same Jesus who told prospective disciples that he had no home. He is the same Jesus who told his disciples that not only would he be tried, tortured and executed, but that if they followed him, they could expect the same fate. As he rode into town on that donkey, he may have been thinking about the days yet to come when the crowd around him would shout very different words.

The procession into Jerusalem points to two very important truths:

  •          Jesus was truly the fulfillment of God’s promise that there would be a descendant of David whose glory would eclipse even David himself, and
  •          The enthronement of the Christ would be very different from the parody of royalty presented by Jesus’ procession into the city.

Today’s reading in Isaiah reminds us that one title in common use for Jesus was “Teacher.” In Isaiah, the Teacher is subjected to torture and humiliation. As people shouted “Hosanna” to the man riding on the colt, some may have thought about the teachings they had heard, and they may have wondered if a simple teacher could possibly be the real fulfillment of God’s promises of a Messiah. Isaiah’s words remind us that this day was like the climb to the top of a rollercoaster. The climb up is full of anticipation, but once you reach the top, the rest of the ride is downhill and completely out of your control. Jesus knew that the adulation of the crowd would soon spiral downward under demonic control.

The reading in Philippians reminds us how pitiful was the emulation of a kingly procession in Jerusalem compared to the magnificence and glory of Christ’s heavenly throne room. The man who rode a colt into town did not bask in the popularity of that moment. He knew what real glory was. And he knew that if people were actually focused on his chances to sit on a human throne in the city of Jerusalem, they had completely missed the point. The man who rode into Jerusalem that day was the incarnation of God himself, and he had lovingly and willingly accepted not only the limitations of human flesh in a world bounded by time, but he had also committed himself to endure torture and death, monumental pain and suffering and shame, for love of the very people who would soon turn from fans to foes crying out “Crucify him!”

In one of John Piper’s sermons there is a statement we should examine and think about. Piper says, “Jesus was not accidentally entangled in a web of injustice.” He did not enter the city as the flavor of the day and then simply get suckered when one of his disciples sold him out. Jesus didn’t go to the city to get more fans. He went there, the Bible says he “set his face” to go there, because it would glorify God. He knew before he set foot on that path that he would suffer and die there, and he went there anyway. This is the sort of thing he meant when he told his disciples that it was necessary to deny self in order to follow him.

Jesus was a real human being and Jesus was really God. How that works I don’t know, but I am sure that when Jesus the human being contemplated what Jesus fully God knew about the cross, he felt afraid. He didn’t want to do it. In Gethsemane, we hear his one last plea for God to find some other way to redeem the human race. It makes sense to think it could have been in his thought as he rode into Jerusalem on that little colt. As Paul tells us so eloquently in Philippians, Jesus showed us what it means to deny self. It is hard to do that, and none of us wants to do it, but Jesus showed us how.

What will we do if we deny self and act like the Jesus who rode meekly and humbly into Jerusalem on an unbroken colt? What will we do when we see people in need or sick or lonely like the people Jesus helped? What will we do when people behave spitefully and abusively toward us and toward churches in general? What will we do when people make fun of us and our faith? What will we do when government tells us we are forbidden to express our faith? Will we be able to deny self and accept pain, suffering and humiliation as he did?

Palm Sunday looks like a celebration, but I doubt Jesus felt very festive that day. We should examine ourselves as we are enjoined to do throughout Lent and ask ourselves where we are accommodating self instead of serving Christ. We must dethrone self, take self off its fine knightly steed with all the trappings of royalty and put it on a little donkey. The only king in our lives should be the King of Kings, now seated at the right hand of the Father, who will one day return, not seated on a donkey, but in true power and glory.

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.