Friday, October 21, 2022

Self-Denial? You Gotta' Be Kidding.

The following is the latest review of the adult Sunday School class I've been teaching on Spiritual Disciplines. 

Session #6 -- Self-Denial & Self-Control

“Then Jesus said to them all, “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow Me.” (Luke 9:23)

The sixth class in our series covered a difficult subject – not difficult to understand, just difficult to consistently apply.  Indeed, the spiritual disciplines involving self-denial are often the reasons why Christians avoid the matter altogether.  Yes, some have twisted the Scriptures and have also thrown their own errors of pride, legalism, even asceticism into the mix.  But the false teaching of some cannot be allowed to discredit the clear teaching of the Scriptures regarding the profound and ongoing need of Christians to practice disciplines of self-control.

“For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men, teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly in the present age, looking for the blessed hope and glorious appearing of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ.” (Titus 2:11-13)

Please note, however, that the biblical teaching of self-denial is never mere negation. The spiritual disciplines for the Christian are not a matter of “Just Say No” but rather the joyful embrace which “Just Says Yes” to the glorious life God offers us. It is never an end in itself but always the pathway to the positive, the pure, and the enduring.  The Christian never exists in neutral; he or she is either living “in the flesh” (their own power and their own desires) or living “in the Spirit” and making choices based on God’s Word.  The sanctified life is a constant choosing to walk in the light rather than darkness; to act in love rather than self-interest; to show mercy rather than meanness; to exercise faith in God rather than wallow in unbelief, worry, or fear.

The life of the genuine disciple of Jesus Christ is founded upon the same exchange of faith that brought us our salvation.  We repented of our sin and the ownership of our life and, in turn, we received redemption, adoption, and the power of the Holy Spirit.  And in the sanctified life, we continue to live for the Lord in the same way, wisely exchanging our ways for God’s.  To use the Scriptures above – we deny ourselves (the negative) but then take up His cross (the positive).  We deny ungodliness and worldly desires (the negatives which are a curse to us) and choose instead to live sensibly righteously, and godly (the positives which yield peace, power, and heavenly reward). And the plainest proof of all? Self-control is a fruit of the Spirit. (Galatians 5:23) So, as we abide in Christ, His power enables us to make the right choices and to follow through.

Viewed in this perspective, all spiritual disciplines are practices of self-denial.  They are all practices in which we walk in God’s way, rather than our own, trusting in Him to always give us the best and brightest of His blessings.  And as we noted last week, we can never outgive God.  So, the life of self-control should never be seen as a binding, bothering thing.  It is for our good – now and forever.

So why do we not see this?  Well, a basic reason is that our sin nature is a stubborn, stupid beast and it requires a constant check.  And living in America where the advertisement-driven culture works alongside our sin nature is another strong motive for selfishness.  We become insistent on comfort, pleasure, status, having our own way.  We want what we want it now.  In fact, we are constantly told by advertisers that we deserve it!  And so, like Felix who became so frightened by the apostle Paul’s comments about righteousness and self-control (Acts 24:25) that he rejected the opportunity, we too prefer the scanty perks of this life over the bountiful and beautiful blessings offered us by God. 

And about those blessings that flow from a believer’s exercise of self-control? I count three broad categories. 1) A more godly character as noted, for instance in these Scriptures: 

“Discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness.” (I Timothy 4:7)

“Now for this very reason also, applying all diligence, in your faith supply moral excellence, and in your moral excellence, knowledge, and in your knowledge, self-control, and in your self-control, perseverance, and in your perseverance, godliness, and in your godliness, brotherly kindness, and in your brotherly kindness, love. For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they render you neither useless nor unfruitful in the true knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (2 Peter 1:5-8)

“But solid food is for the mature, who because of practice have their senses
 trained to discern good and evil.” (Hebrews 5:14)

2) The heightened value of our service to Jesus.  Being a holy vessel.  Righteousness increasing the efficiency of our prayers.  More consistent consecration to the Lord’s purposes.  And all the other ministry benefits which come from maturity.  

And 3) Heavenly rewards as emphasized in such Bible passages as these:  

Moses was “considering the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures of Egypt for he was looking to the reward.” (Hebrews 11:26)

“And men will say, ‘Surely there is a reward for the righteous. Surely there is a God who judges on earth.’” (Psalm 58:11)

“Watch yourselves, that you do not lose what we have accomplished, but that you may receive a full reward.” (2 John 8)

Another way of looking at self-denial, self-control, and God’s “exchange program” is to consider the many Scripture passages relating to the avoidance of traps and snares; rejecting the appeals of temptation; “growing up” in our knowledge so that we’re not pushed around by the devil or the world or our flesh.  There’s also the momentous exhortations using the phrase “lay aside” that we see in Romans 13:12 and Hebrews 12:1. In the former, the things we are to “lay aside” (self-denial) are the deeds of darkness which include falsehood, wickedness, and other preoccupations of the “old self”.  But, in the second passage, we are commanded to “lay aside” anything that might encumber us (weigh us down or obstruct our purposes).  Those sins that “easily entangle” us are specifically stressed in that verse. A simple way to picture it?  If it’s not a wing, it's a weight!  So drop it and fly free.  Again, we see that the Bible’s view of self-denial is actually a very positive, proactive perspective.  It’s freedom and confidence and joy…with a whole host of rewards tossed in.

Finally, the class concluded with a brief look at the self-denial discipline of fasting with several important points underscored. For example, there is no biblical commands for the disciples of Jesus to engage in such “extreme fasts” as that practiced by the Lord in his desert temptation.  Instead fasting is presented to us as a discipline that is to be of brief duration, designed for specific purposes, and conducted with humility in contrast to the Pharisees’ tendency to boast of their bold religiosity by making their fasts well known to others.

There are quite practical benefits to the discipline of fasting. These include an increase in the Christian’s ability to delay gratification, thus becoming a more patient, persevering, and focused servant.  It helps redefine the word “need” (which is important in this oh-so-demanding culture) and it helps one orient one’s mind to heavenly realities rather than the incessant, unhealthy pressures surrounding us.

It should be observed also that, though we are not to “show off” our devotion to God by our fasting, it doesn’t mean that our fasts need to be completely private.  Indeed, many of the fasts spoken of in the Scriptures are of a corporate nature.  Esther called on others to fast prior to her risking her life to intercede for the lives of the endangered Jews.  The prophet Joel urged the faithful to fast to accompany their prayers that a plaque of locusts be removed.  The elders at Antioch fasted (apparently as a group) before conferring their blessing on Paul’s missionary activity. And so on.

Consider too that the principle of fasting doesn’t exclude things other than food.  Paul describes married couples, for instance, as abstaining from sexual relations for a short time as a special prayer project.  And Daniel’s 3-week fast wasn’t from all food but instead only the rich menus of the court (“the bread of desirability.” Note this too, it was also a fast from the use of ointment. And, especially in keeping with our previous observations about laying aside every spiritual obstruction, I would suggest that Christians strongly consider fasts of other types.  What about the hours spent in front of the TV?  Can you imagine how family life could be revolutionized if husbands fasted from televised sports and instead spent time in the Word, in service for Christ, and in fellowship with their family?

And one last point about fasting, something that is in keeping with the rest of the case we’ve made here about Christian self-denial being a positive exchange of our lusts and burdensome luggage for God’s rewards. 

“Is this not the fast which I choose, to loosen the bonds of wickedness, to undo the bands of the yoke and to let the oppressed go free and break every yoke? 
Is it not to divide your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into the house -- when you see the naked, to cover him and not to hide yourself from your own flesh? Then your light will break out like the dawn and your recovery will speedily spring forth and your righteousness will go before you. The glory of the Lord will be your rear guard. Then you will call, and the Lord will answer.  You will cry, and He will say, ‘Here I am.’” (Isaiah 58:6-9)