Self-denial’s clearly an important element of tonight’s reading. That isn’t something that’s really compatible with life in the 21st century. I suppose it’s about as popular a topic as defending the ice cream sabotaging super villain from last week’s episode the Great British Bake Off.
However, we cannot avoid that in tonight’s reading Jesus gets right to the heart of his message and calls on his followers to deny themselves.
Some will ask, why should we deny ourselves? In TV dramas we often hear a character complaining about another that, “everything is always about you!” There are those who believe that we are programmed to be selfish, to put ourselves first and that there is no escape; and honesty compels us to recognise the power of our ego, the emphasis on “me”. An author seemingly impossible to identify, once wrote, “Edith is a little country, bounded on the east and the west, on the north and the south, by Edith”.
Every parent knows to their discomfort that at the beginning of life, a baby, though wonderful, is totally absorbed with self, with being comfortable, getting attention and being fed. As we grow older our parents and teachers work to modify that self-centredness. We learn to offer food to others before we serve ourselves, and we are taught manners designed to make us mindful and respectful of others. But it isn’t easy, because putting self-interest first has been key to survival for countless generations. As CS Lewis puts it in Mere Christianity, “repentance means unlearning all the self-conceit and self-will that we have been training ourselves into for thousands of years”. So it is hardly surprising that we still see selfishness all around us, in family life, business and politics, national and international affairs; often with disastrous results for the least powerful.
If we identify and list some of the qualities of selfishness, they add up to a thoroughly unattractive description of humanity; a mug shot, rather like a wanted poster in an old cowboy film, or a modern photo-fit. Self-centredness can express itself in self-pity and complaint, in pride, envy, greed, intolerance and prejudice, in overweening ambition, an aggressive desire to dominate and the pursuit of wealth and power. And when power is gained it is often used to protect self-interest and perpetuate injustice and hardship for those with little or no influence. Are our faces on that poster photo-fit? Hopefully not so clearly that we will be immediately recognised! But if we are at all self-aware, each of us will probably recognise bits of ourselves: attitudes, tendencies, and qualities that make life uncomfortable for others, as well as for ourselves if we claim to be followers of Christ. Many of us know that in our best moments that we haven’t yet denied ourselves as much as we should. So how can we take further steps in that direction?
There is another crucial teaching of Jesus that refers to self. He tells us that a key rule from the Hebrew Bible is to Love your neighbour as yourself. In other words, regard for other people is closely related to how one regards oneself. So, is the challenge to deny oneself at odds with the need to love self in order to love neighbour? The answer is a clear No, as long as we understand that Jesus is setting before us a different way of seeing ourselves in relation to others. Selfishness is about using others, manipulating others, dominating others, for our own ends. For Jesus, loving self is about replacing domination with humility, manipulation with service, fear with understanding, hate with love, cruelty with kindness, harshness with gentleness, and hostility with peace. If these seem like huge and impossible changes then remember that from little acorns great oaks grow. We can gradually grow out of selfishness through conscious small daily actions: a kind deed, avoiding a hurtful remark, not rushing to judgement, patiently bearing with someone who irritates us and giving time to someone in need.
Perhaps the most remarkable quality of Nelson Mandela was the way in which, through the long cruel days and years of imprisonment, he mastered much of his negative self and defeated fear and, with it, desire for revenge and hatred of his enemies. And by doing so, his self respect grew, along with the desire to serve all the peoples of South Africa.
One of the basic triggers of selfishness is fear. We all experience it at times: fear of the dark, fear of failure, fear of loneliness, illness or old age, fear of poverty or loss. Fear can make us aggressive or turn us into cowards; it can fuel anger or turns us in on ourselves. Loving ourselves includes recognising that fear is part of our nature, and that to understand our own fears helps us to go some way to understanding the fears of others, and therefore be more able to turn our backs on hostility and face in the direction of gentleness, compassion and love.
Cardinal Newman wrote, “when we surrender ourselves we are victors. We are most ourselves when we lose sight of ourselves. Just as it is possible to draw up a picture of selfishness and see something of ourselves in it, so too we can draw up a photo-fit profile of lives in which self-centredness has given way to an understanding that we are only ourselves when, in love for others, we lose sight of ourselves”. St Paul talked about the qualities that help each of us to become such a person: Let love be genuine, hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another…be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord, rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer, contribute to the needs of the saints, extend hospitality to strangers. It’s a wonderful catalogue and hopefully we can see in it at least some reflections of ourselves. But the face which appears clearly on the resulting poster is that of Christ himself.
In all our wrestling with self, as we seek to replace selfishness with a Christlike understanding of self-giving, even more important than the challenging command of Jesus to deny self is his own example, his supreme gift to us. What we see in his life is one who lives out his teaching. Fear, aggression, power seeking, self-assertion and ambition are all defeated and replaced by the closest relationship with God the Father, the profoundest concern for his human brothers and sisters with the deepest compassion for the last and the least, and a love that is prepared to give up life itself for others. The passion and death of Christ is the ultimate denial of self for the sake of the world; the perfect reconstruction of self in the service of others. The cross is an event of revelation because it illuminates possibilities to which we were previously blind; possibilities of turning the world upside down and ourselves around, of denying self and loving our neighbour, of discovering for everyone, life in all its fullness.
So, in our silence let us offer ourselves once again to the servant Christ, who set aside all selfish pride, ambition and power and for us suffered betrayal, mockery, torture and a cruel death. May we learn humility from his self-emptying, draw strength from his faithfulness, deny the selfishness that harms, measure ourselves by his love, and find encouragement and strength so live to serve him, and all his people, day by day.