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Self-Denial as a Strategy for Self-Control
Self-Control Word Study, Lesson 8
Over the last several weeks, we’ve seen that we can use self-control to moderate our passions and desires. This moderation is the mark of a Christian, and it helps us keep a clear mind to focus on the eternally important issues rather than the things that feel good in the moment. We’ve learned that self-control requires the Holy Spirit, and it is a process of learning that comes over time as we learn from others. Now, we want to take this one step further. In this lesson, we’ll look at self-denial as a form of self-control.
What is self-denial? The verse that comes to my mind is when Jesus is talking to his disciples and he says: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.” (Luke 9:23). What does it really mean to deny yourself? In this lesson, we’ll look at three ways the Bible talks about self-denial:
Removing barriers to following Christ
Crucifying your old self
To help you process your thoughts as you go throughout this lesson, a reflection journal sheet is available. Paid subscribers can access it by clicking here.
In the Old Testament, the phrase “deny yourself” is primarily found in the context of the instructions for the Day of Atonement in Leviticus and Numbers. Leviticus 16:29-31 says:
“This is to be a lasting ordinance for you: On the tenth day of the seventh month you must deny yourselves and not do any work—whether native-born or a foreigner residing among you—because on this day atonement will be made for you, to cleanse you. Then, before the Lord, you will be clean from all your sins. It is a day of sabbath rest, and you must deny yourselves; it is a lasting ordinance.”
In this passage and in similar passages in Leviticus 23:26-32 and Numbers 29:7, footnotes indicate that “deny yourselves” refers to fasting—not eating food (and sometimes even not drinking water) for a specific length of time. While this lesson is not intended to discover all the Bible has to say about the practice of fasting, in general, the Old Testament uses fasting as a practice that involves confession of sin and returning to the Lord. People also fasted when they wanted to petition God for something.
The Hebrew word for “deny yourselves” in these verses about the Day of Atonement is ‘ānâ. According to Mounce’s Complete Expository Dictionary, this word means “to be afflicted, to stoop down, to humble oneself.” In other words, we can use self-denial as a way to humble ourselves before God by denying ourselves something that is essential to life—food and water—and depending on God for physical life. When this concept is applied to things other than food and water, this spirit of humility and total dependence on God that comes from fasting can help us give up the things that are standing between us and God so that we can rely on God for wholeness in our spiritual life.
Daniel and his friends Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego are a prime example of this humility in action. In Daniel 1, Daniel and his friends were captured by Babylon. They were chosen for the king’s service, and they were given choice food and wine. But Daniel 1:8 says, “Daniel resolved not to defile himself with the royal food and wine.” Daniel felt that eating this food and wine from the king’s table would be a barrier in his relationship with God. When Daniel and his friends were faithful to God in this small way, God blessed them physically, mentally, and spiritually, as we see throughout the rest of the book of Daniel.
Removing Barriers to Following Christ
In the Old Testament, much of the discussion about self-denial revolves around fasting—denying yourself food and water. In the New Testament, Jesus gives a new twist to self-denial. Three of the gospels report this story. We’ll look at Mark 8, but a parallel passage can be found in Matthew 16:24-27 and Luke 9:23-26. Mark 8:34-38 says:
Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels.”
This sounds a lot more extreme than just giving up food and water for awhile. What did Jesus mean that anyone who wants to be a disciple must “deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me”? The Greek word here for “deny themselves” is aparneomai, which Mounce’s Complete Expository Dictionary defines as “to deny, disown, renounce, reject.” This word is used in the Matthew and Mark passages. The Luke passage uses a similar word, arneomai, which has a similar definition of denying, disowning, and renouncing.
In this verse, Jesus is essentially saying that you must push away or reject anything that might stand as a barrier to total devotion to Christ. Nothing in this world should be as important as obedience to Christ. This makes me think about the rich man that Jesus encountered in Mark 10:17-22:
As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. “Good teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
“Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone. You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, you shall not defraud, honor your father and mother.’”
“Teacher,” he declared, “all these I have kept since I was a boy.”
Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth.
For the rich man, the thing that stood as a barrier between him and a relationship with God was his wealth. When Jesus asked him to deny himself by giving up his wealth, the rich man chose self-indulgence instead, even though he had been obedient to the law in every other way. Does this passage mean that God is calling all of us to give up all our material possessions? No. But he may be calling you to give up something else that you hold close. After this encounter, Jesus tells the disciples that they may be called to give up family, career, or possessions to follow him. Whatever that thing is that you are clinging to that gets between you and truly following God, that’s the thing you need to give up.
Crucifying Your Old Self
The concept of denying yourself and taking up your cross to follow Christ reminds me of several passages that talk about crucifying our old self—our sin nature—like these verses in Romans 6:5-7:
For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly also be united with him in a resurrection like his. For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body ruled by sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin—because anyone who has died has been set free from sin.
The Greek word here for crucified is systauroō, which has the connotation of being crucified with another, especially in a spiritual resemblance. For us, this spiritual resemblance refers to giving up our old way of life before Christ—our lives that were filled with sin. And who do we crucify that sin nature with? Jesus, of course. Just like Jesus was nailed to the cross, we need to nail our sins to the cross. Jesus paid the penalty for those sins, so as a new creation in Christ, those sins are paid for and gone forever.
In the story of the rich man, Jesus called people to give up the one particular thing that stands between them and a relationship with Jesus. That’s before we accept Christ as Savior. After we accept Christ, we are called to give up all our sins. The Bible tells us in John 8:34-36:
Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, everyone who sins is a slave to sin. Now a slave has no permanent place in the family, but a son belongs to it forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.
Don’t you want that freedom? If you want that freedom, then you have to be willing to give up those sins that you cling to. Jesus promises freedom if we crucify those sins on the cross with him. This is more than just self-control, or moderation in our actions. This is a complete self-denial of those things that cause us to sin against God.
Throughout the Bible, the concept of self-denial tells us that we must give up our old way of life—our sin nature. We reject anything that stands as a barrier between us and God. What is that barrier in your life? Like the rich man, is that wealth, status, or power? Like Daniel, are you being called to give up certain types of food? Maybe your barrier is sexual immorality or alcohol, as we discussed in Lessons 5 and 6. Or perhaps your barrier is something we haven’t even touched on yet—gossip, laziness, anger, or something else. Only you, with God’s help, can identify what stands between you and following Christ wholeheartedly. And when you identify what that is in your life, I encourage you to pursue self-denial in that area.
To help you process your thoughts as you go throughout this lesson, a reflection journal sheet is available. Journal sheets can be downloaded and used now or later. They can be printed and filled in by hand or saved and filled out electronically.
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