Matthew 16:24 Then Jesus told his disciples, "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.
The Bible has much to say about denying the self, not allowing the temptations of the world to influence our thinking and behavior. Titus 2:11-12 For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people. It teaches us to say “no” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age.
The grace this verse refers to is the redemptive power of Christ, the healing and comforting power of the Holy Spirit, and the all-sustaining energy of God throughout all Creation. Grace, or unmerited favor of God, imbues our hearts, minds, and souls and directs us in deciding ‘yes’ or ‘no’. When we are attuned to Spirit, we have the strength and wisdom to align with God and allow the fruits of Spirit to express: Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
A more modern word for ‘self’, as used in this verse, is the ‘ego’. In our opening Bible verse Jesus is asking that anyone who wants to follow him must deny the desires of the ego. The temptations of the world have no affect on us until our ego tells us to pay attention to them. Greed, pride, power, lust, sloth, gluttony, anger, envy, revenge, and other well-known negative ambitions have no control over us until we accept them, embrace them, and walk with them. The Ego will lead the way, all the while yacking at us and telling us how much we deserve to feel those energies.
The Ego will also slip in other qualities that don’t seem that destructive, but actually play a large part in how we view the world and are reasons why we don’t experience all of Gods Good, Love, Peace, and Joy. These may include – certainty. The attitude of certainty, with its close relative, rigidity, create immense barriers in connecting to God’s love through others. When we are certain about what we believe, certain that we are right and that our thoughts on a subject are the only ones that are worthy and relevant, and we are rigid in our opinions and perspectives … well when uttered that way, I believe you can see the challenge.
Other negative attributes include seeking superiority rather than equality; being seductive rather than attractive; preoccupied instead of aware; and bigoted rather than tolerant. Many egoistic qualities have familiar names: hoarding, pedantic, contrary, gullible, divisive, disruptive, deceptive, indulgent, and judgmental. We are familiar with these qualities because we have each felt at least one of them at some point in our lives. That is nothing to be ashamed of, or to feel guilty about, which by the way, are emotions that the ego loves to throw our way in order to control us.
We are human beings, and we will experience the full range of sensations and emotions. But will we deny the self and follow Christ’s lead, or will we cling to the negative, destructive, and limiting energies of the ego? Will we pick up our cross, which means to abandon doing things our way and commit to Christ, allowing Love to lead the way, or will we remain trapped in the world’s clutches? Yes, we are human beings, but we have the gift of free-will and choice. Christ will illuminate our way, but we must choose to walk the well-lit path or the shadow-filled alley.
As I considered this topic, I came to the realization that this choice is difficult for many people. Most crimes are ego based: robbery, murder, rape, domestic violence, assault, fraud… can’t these all be traced back to the demands of Ego: wanting things our way and satisfying the desires of the world?
We must have differing opinions in our world in order to uncover alternatives, possibilities, perspectives, and find common solutions. But as soon as the ego inserts itself into the discussion it becomes an argument. Where resistance, rigidity, and biased certainty exist, common solutions cannot. When the ego insists on having things its way, there can only be one solution, and that is mine. This is true from siblings playing and marital relations, to artistic and business dealings, to governmental and international interactions.
Self-denial is part of spiritual maturity; it is part of accepting ourselves as a Child of God. Self-denial means subordinating the small self and affirming our Higher Self. It is not easy, and we will stumble. But Spirit will whisper, “Good effort Patrick. Try it again, and this time with more Love,” while Ego will whisper, “Patrick, you look like a fool. You should be ashamed and feel guilty for that poor bumbling behavior. No wonder nobody likes you.”
God has created all things, and as Children of God, wants us to delight in Creation and feel its Joy. So, it is a mistake to believe that self-denial involves abstinence from all earthly pleasures. As 1 Timothy 6:17 tells us: Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment.
When we get the small self out of the way, we can enjoy all of God’s Creation with wisdom and self-control. We can discern between the lure of the Ego and the beauty of God’s Creation. People ruled by ego seek desires without regard for God’s laws. Self-denial requires that our desire to obey God overrules our destructive cravings to find satisfaction within the world.
Well, Patrick, how can we tell what is right and what is wrong; what is directed by ego and what is directed by God? It is a good question, and the answer is that it is within our very being to know the difference. 1 John 2:20 tells us that the Holy Spirit provides an anointment or a spiritual intelligence, which reveals all things true to our spiritual natures; we can differentiate between right and wrong, God’s nudges and Ego’s assault.
Regardless of who we are, we feel it within us; we know when we are embracing evil or good. This inner struggle can result in various psychological issues. One is called projection. When the battle between the unconscious impulses of the Ego and the guidance of Spirit are fierce enough, we may try to protect ourselves by denying that we are feeling, thinking, and doing those dark things. In defense of the ego, we unconsciously project those feelings onto others and accuse them of feeling what we are feeling and being what we are being. We are not aware that we are doing it, but it creates challenges. Rather than face the darkness that is created by our egos, we transfer ownership of these troubling and undesirable feelings and thoughts to an external source.
For instance, we can do this with feelings of misguided attraction toward someone when we are already in a relationship. Our inner values tell us that our lust for someone is wrong, so we project this feeling onto our partner and accuse them of being unfaithful. This blame is just the ego diverting attention. We don’t want to face our errors and the guilt, so we pass it off onto someone.
This can happen if we don’t feel good about our bodies, our looks, our abilities, or skills. When we don’t feel confident, or see ourselves as flawed, we redirect our feelings of self-loathing and project it onto other people. We criticize them, finding fault and flaws in them that are really within us.
Our egos are expert at projecting our fears, anger, vulnerabilities, failures, and irresponsible behaviors from ourselves and onto other people. We’ve seen people do this. When we do this ourselves, we create havoc in relationships, and … well, we are not making friends or endearing ourselves to anyone. Although projection is usually unconscious it can be a planned strategy. And of course, not all accusations are false, undeserved, or psychologically based; they just add to the mix of our ever more complex human behavior.
The solution is to uncover the buried pain and honestly admit the thoughts that lead to the unwanted behavior. This is a difficult part of being human – admitting that we are less than what we want to be or what people expect of us. But we must remember that we are in good company; nearly everyone has these feelings and tendencies to some extent. Talking to a therapist or confidant can help. Taking it into prayer and verbalizing our shortcomings and emotional pain to Spirit can help. These methods can bring the repressed issues to the service where they can be dealt with, loved on, and finally released.
The more prudent approach is to face immediately the pains that we experience. When we take our challenges to God as we experience them, we find them less draining and damaging. The Light and Love of God already knows our situation and is ready to heal us. Psalm 30:2 states: “Lord my God, I called to you for help, and you healed me.” But we must make the call first.
So, it is my prayer that we can follow the advice of Proverbs 3:5-6 - Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths. I pray that we will deny our small self, balance the ego, commit to Christ, and allow Spirit to guide our steps to do what is right, productive, helpful, and loving.