In our last post, we looked at the harmful way the church usually interprets Jesus’ command to his followers to “take up the cross, deny yourself, and follow me”. We talked about how denying self in the traditional self—calling the self wrong, then pretending it doesn’t exist anymore—is a dangerous untruth that leads to abuse.
Fortunately, it is possible to retain a sense of self, and even uplift the self, while following Jesus’ injunction.
The first step to denying the self is, ironically, admitting we have one. You will never be free of yourself. You will never be able to see with eyes other than your own or speak with a voice other than your own. Your hands are yours, not somebody else’s. Their hands are theirs too, not just extensions of yours.
This is all inherent in Jesus’ command! Jesus says, “Take up your cross and follow me.” If the self doesn’t exist, who is doing the taking up and carrying? Also, by personalizing the cross to each of us, Jesus implies that our sacrifice is part of the journey. If there is no self, what is being sacrificed, and what is the cross for?
“Denying self” by pretending one doesn’t have one invalidates the need for the command. It’s a cheap way of getting the self off the cross by doing some kind of earthly penance that we prefer instead. The more you try to rid of yourself of yourself, the more you’re drifting away from what Jesus is saying.
Jesus command does not deny that we have a self. Instead it acknowledges the self, then claims that the self has a purpose beyond itself. The self exists. The self is intrinsic. The self matters. At the same time, the self is not the center of all things. The self takes a journey beyond itself, through which the meaning of its existence is found.
Notice that this interpretation of the command does not require a value judgment about the self! The traditional interpretation claims that the self is bad (and thus should be gotten rid of). That’s neither necessary nor helpful. Selves are often beautiful. Selves are also broken. Neither the beauty nor the brokenness sufficiently define the self.
This admission solves the terminal tug-of-war in which faith and society are currently engaged. It’s no accident that those who advocate against “organized religion” or the idea of church appeal to the sanctity of the self. The church has all but mandated this by spreading the lie that selves are bad! People who have been hurt by the world (some by the church’s very message) don’t need to hear that! They need to hear a different truth, that the self is precious and worthwhile and has sanctity.
That selves are beautiful is also true. The church should be claiming this as strongly as the “broken and imperfect” piece. If anything, our communal faith journey should uplift as beautiful and beloved those whose selves have been damaged, while reminding those whose selves have been overwhelmingly affirmed by the world that none of us are perfect. Both of these are in line with God’s teaching; that which goes to the cross is beautiful and experiences brokenness all at the same time.
Jesus’ command to deny the self does not speak of the quality of the self as much as its centrality. It is a claim that no matter how beautiful or broken your self is, the answers and meaning to existence cannot be found inside the self solely. Self-beauty, though real, will always be personal, not able to translate perfectly to the universal. Self-brokenness, though real, will warp any solution that relies on the self.
Jesus claims that truth is found when we translate the beauty and brokenness of the self for the sake of our neighbors and the world. The journey of the cross is lived out by Jesus. It’s unique to him, both personal and powerful. But that journey was not made for him, but for the sake of the world.
Jesus’ journey transformed the world, bringing grace to all of us who are imperfect and crying out for hope and relevance in the midst of death. Through the cross, Jesus filled us up infinitely, uniting with our deaths and lives. Along with that filling comes the assurance, “You are beloved. You are beautiful. Your self does matter. Now you can stop worrying about those things and instead pour out this message from yourself for the sake of the people alongside you. Your brokenness is just another avenue through which my grace will pour. Be blessed.”
However we define ourselves in a given moment is less critical to our lives together than how that definition serves the world and each other. All these things are encapsulated in those words, “Take up your cross and follow me.”
Blessings on your beautiful, broken self this day. If you are in pain, be assured that your self does matter. You are loved. To the extent you have power, do not deny it! Try not to exercise that power solely on the basis of the self. Stop. Listen. Ask what this power was given for and who it was meant to help. In neither case do you need to run away from yourself. Instead question and celebrate how God is working through it.