Jesus said, in no uncertain terms, we MUST deny ourselves to follow Him. “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” (Luke 9:23) It is very clear what God expects of us. However, this is very hard for many to follow since most people live life to have as much of the awesome worldly comforts of earth they can get which isn't what self denial is about. Self denial is choosing to go without and is how we follow God. For some this seems impossible. However, following God is easy for those who have been given enough grace. "For My yoke is easy and My burden is light." (Matthew 11:30) Therefore, pray, fast and perform works of mercy (be kind to others) for the grace you need to truly follow God and keep on working hard to obey His Word.
Many people don’t understand what it means to deny yourself. Some have said, “God doesn’t want me to know myself?” No, that isn’t the kind of “deny” God is speaking about.
God wants us to intentionally turn away from our comforts, our wants and our desires and willingly deny ourselves (give those things up) for the sake of His sorrowful passion (to unite with Christ’s suffering). To many people, that sounds very unenjoyable. Who wants to willingly give up the stuff they want, have or would like to do on a daily basis? Are you doing that? Nonetheless, that is the path to Heaven since God said it is and Jesus lived it. “Jesus stated…. “You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me” (Mark 10:21).
To understand this whole concept of how we are to follow Jesus, we must understand what is holding us back from following Him. Sadly, it is the “things” and “wants” of this world, our desires (outside of God) which keep us from knowing Him. God made everything and it is good, but because of our sin, we turned all of God’s good creations into distractions which keep us from knowing, loving and following Him. So, it isn’t the “things” that are bad; it is our desire to have them. Our only desire should be to know, love and serve God. That is the reason for our existence. It isn’t to live this life to the fullest--in an attempt to make this life “Heaven on Earth”. What a painful insult it is to God to profess that life is worth living for things, attention and the praise of this world which angers our Father. These lines of thinking are completely opposite to the teachings of the Gospel. There isn’t anywhere in the Bible where Jesus or his followers are “living it up.” The only remote times of worldly enjoyment were during moments of celebration; all other times were of sacrifice. Jesus and his disciples lived a sacrificing life of self-denial which is what we are instructed to do too. This life is supposed to be our time to make reparation, (make amends) for our sins, console God for His great suffering, and live God’s plan for our life.
We must willingly love God enough to listen to Him, die to ourselves (our sinful nature), and die to the things of this world. Obeying God and denying ourselves of our worldly pleasures is hard at first, and is quite the sacrifice (which Our Lord wants). However, those who are living God’s word know that by making daily sacrifices for Christ, they will become joyful sacrifices for Jesus, and with God’s grace, you will begin to grow in joy when you make more sacrifices to our Lord, in atonement (satisfaction) for your sins and for those of the whole world, just like the Lord did. Peter added to keep on rejoicing with our sufferings so we will be overjoyed when His glory is revealed (cf. 1 Peter 4:13).
Denying yourself doesn’t make sense to most people. Therefore if you struggle to understand how denial could bring you to Jesus, the Bible says to not trust in our own understanding, but to trust in God with all of your heart (cf. Proverbs 3:5). Therefore, you don’t have to understand, you just have to be obedient and love God. We are called to obey.
You see, cunning Satan has tricked most people into thinking that living a rich life full of good friends (bring us popularity and approval), good food, good vacations, and good things is the “good” life. Hmm. I don’t think so. The life of Jesus and that of the saints will steer you in the opposite direction. Listen to them!
Most people have no problem accepting that they are called to love as God has loved us. Now we need to know what way Jesus actually loved us by examining the true life of Christ, and the true meaning of love, so that we can be obedient to Him and model His life. Love is not about getting what you want. It is not making a “great” life for yourself on Earth. Love is hating this life, not loving it. “Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life” (John 12:25). That doesn’t mean you hate yourself, just the things of this world; you need to love and forgive yourself, for Christ is within you and loves and forgives you. Satan has us confused. He convinces us we must LOVE the things of this world. Satan has distorted most of our desires, and we have made the things of this world our idols. Life is about loving God. Jesus has not once raved about the awesomeness of the “things” of this world. Rather he has told us to deny ourselves of such things, and to ONLY seek the things of Heaven. “For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world, and forfeit his soul?” (Mark 8:36). It is of the utmost importance that we seek what is pleasing to God, store up treasures in Heaven, and live a life of self-denial in order to inherit the eternal reward (cf. Matthew 6:19).
Perhaps you don’t believe Jesus when he said you will receive a hundred times as much now in the present age, and in the eternal life, for whatever you give up for the sake of Him (cf. Mark 10:28). Well, believe it! The saints know that when they surrender their wants of this world, they are given blessing upon blessing and joy upon joy. Those are the rewards we are talking about. That is what we live for and strive for. Now that is the “good life” isn’t it; God’s GOOD LIFE!
You can go out and eat the most fantastic dinner of your life and rave about its awesomeness claiming, “Now that is what life is all about.” Or you can go on the greatest vacation of your lifetime, leaving you awestruck at the marvels you just saw and experienced, and claim, “Wow, that was Heaven on Earth…I would give anything to live like this.” Then someone hits your car, you lose your job, you get too little sleep, you have too much work, you are running late, etc., and now you are a miserable mess. What happened to the awesome dinner and the marvelous vacation? Well, the false momentary joy, the joy received from the “good things of this world,” are all gone. You received no grace (God’s help) for indulging in fine eating and vacationing. So you crumble under the weight of your cross.
However, if you would have intentionally denied yourself that fine eating and the relaxing vacation, then God would have rewarded you with Great Grace, and then when someone hits your car, or you lose your job, or you get too little sleep, or you were running late, or received too much work you would be calm and cool, loving the cross and joyfully accepting whatever God chose to bring your way. That is why we live the Gospel because God, who loves us, rewards us with so many gifts (the gifts that really matter, the ones which last); the gifts that bring true joy. If you buy another pair of shoes, for how long are you happy? Oh, that false happiness doesn’t last long, it isn’t pleasing to God, and no grace is given to you.
We justify liking and wanting the things of this world because Satan has tricked us for so long into thinking we should seek more relaxation for ourselves (outside of prayer which is how Jesus relaxed), more fine dining (which should only be for celebrations, that is what Jesus did), more technology, more attention, more, more, more…which winds up being less, less, less love for God. Yes, all of the wants of this world hurt our Lord who is calling us to Him. We have become so accustomed to sin; we think four hours of TV a day and ten minutes of prayer/Bible reading is a fine balance of putting God first in one’s life. Really! What do you think God thinks; do you think He agrees? God wants dedicated prayer and works of our Lord. That is where the true knowledge and love of God will grow from. There is no greater way to entertain ourselves than prayer, but Satan has us convinced we need the riveting life of drama and distraction from God, with all of the technology that exists today. That is not what Jesus would do. Yes, the finer things in life have become a great joy to many, but that isn’t the life of self-denial that Jesus claims we MUST live to follow Him. Yes, we are called to take care of our temple (where the Holy Spirit lives), to eat well, to exercise, and to live in moderation while trusting in God to take care of our needs. However, denying one’s self of worldly pleasures for the eternal reward, and to please our Lord above all is living the Gospel! That is living the life of Jesus!
Now, some will say, “Well, that kind of life is for priests and nuns.” No, that isn’t what God said. Jesus didn’t leave Heaven and humble Himself to become His creation, and die an agonizing death for us so that we can say what He preached and taught was for the “religious.” That is really an abomination of the faith. God came to save all of us, and if you love God, you will listen to Him. “If you love Me, you will keep My commandments” (John 14:15).
We are called to live for God alone, but the world lives for things and the glory of this world. We are called to live for Jesus. “He died for all, so that they who live might no longer live for themselves, but for Him who died and rose again on their behalf” (2 Cor. 5:14-15). Fortunately, God is full of mercy and is constantly calling us to Him. So it is never too late to find God and follow Him. Simply ask God for help and forgiveness, and Our Loving Lord will give it and forgive any sin at the asking. Then you too can be truly happy on Earth and in Heaven.