Denial is a concept found in virtually every major religion. Various ideas on the practice of self-denial can be found in Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity and other religious and philosophical streams. In most religious practices, like Buddhism, self-denial is a means to achieve an end. Ironically, self-denial is a means of attaining something for oneself - selflessness. Some have thought that the Bible teaches something similar, noting as one example Jesus’ words in Matthew 10:39, “Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” Are these concepts similar? Not in the slightest.
Unlike Buddhism and the other major religions of the world, self-denial in Christianity is not a means to an end, nor is it a religious practice. Self-denial is a loving expression of benefit for others, in obedience to God.
There are three great differences between most religions and Christianity regarding self-denial:
Buddhism & Other Religions
- Self-denial is a means to spiritual enlightenment,
- Self-denial is a religious practice,
- Self-denial is performed for the benefit of oneself.
- Self-denial is an indicator of pre-existing character,
- Self-denial is not a religious practice, rather it is an expression of love for others and for God,
- Self-denial is not performed for personal spiritual benefit, it is always performed on behalf of others.
Let’s take a look at the Bible’s teaching on self-denial, and how the biblical concept of self-denial is firmly rooted in the expression of love.
Self-denial is not an end unto itself. The scripture commands that we deny ourselves of sin, and sometimes of things that are not sin but fall under the realm of conscience. Self-denial as modeled in the Bible usually has three purposes, pointing to a much greater fourth purpose:
- Self-denial reveals and tests our love for God In Genesis 22:1-13Abraham was commanded by God to sacrifice his son Isaac as a burnt offering. Abraham was heartbroken, but trusted God’s character. God’s response to Abraham’s obedience was to prevent the sacrifice and declare, “Now I know that you fear God.“
- Self-denial reveals that we truly love other peopleIt is impossible to express love for another person without denying oneself in deference to the other person. In I Samuel 23:17-18 Jonathon, the heir to the throne of Israel willingly sacrificed his right to rule because of his love for his friend David. Jonathon didn’t simply give up the throne to pursue something else for his own benefit, rather he recognized the better man and denied himself the throne because of his love for David.
- Self-denial indicates we are growing in our love for God and for othersDenying oneself for oneself is not an expression of selflessness, rather it is a misguided expression of selfishness. I Corinthians 10:23-33, and I John 3:16 teach a much better expression of self-denial: The benefit of others.
- Rightly expressed self-denial is an expression of love.I Corinthians 13:3 states, “If I give away all that I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.” Every facet of self-denial, from denying sin, to personal pleasures, to God giving us His Son, and giving away our own lives is wrapped up in love. Self-denial without love is a self-denial without substance and is meaningless.As a manifestation of love, self-denial has certain conditions. It must be truly selfless. Self-denial exercised to gain some kind of spiritual standing is merely the replacing of one personal desire or goal with another. It is nothing more than a “trade” as opposed to a true denial. True self-denial puts down our own hopes, desires, and goals to submit to God’s will, or the desires, hopes, and goals of others. Jesus modeled this in the garden before His crucifixion when He prayed, “Not my will, but yours be done” (Luke 22:42). The Apostle Paul expressed that his life was literally nothing to him (Acts 20:24, 21:13, Philippians 3:4-11). Paul took his example from Jesus who “made himself nothing, taking the form of a bondservant, being born in the likeness of men” (Philippians 2:7).
Biblical self-denial must cost us something. Giving from extra is good, but it is not denial. Biblical self-denial invokes personal loss, and may require suffering. Unlike many so-called faith preachers today, the Apostle Paul denied himself financial benefit from his preaching (I Corinthians 9:11-23) which sometimes put him in a difficult way. In order to fulfill God’s will, Moses denied himself food and drink for 40 days (Exodus 34:28). King David set the standard when he said he would not offer any sacrifice “that cost me nothing” (II Samuel 24:24).
More than costing us something, or as a sacrifice, self-denial must benefit others, God, or both. In religious practices like Buddhism, self-denial is practiced as part of achieving enlightenment. In other words, a person denies self in order to gain something for himself. This is a spiritual oxymoron. The model from the Bible is radically different, and far nobler. We deny ourselves in order to benefit other people and God’s kingdom. Nor is self-denial a means to some spiritual end, rather, it is a signpost of what is already in the heart.
Ezekiel 18:5-9 describes a man who denies sin, denies excessive pleasures, makes sacrifices to benefit others, and obeys God. The Bible calls such a person “righteous” because his behavior signifies what is already in his heart. He does not practice these things to become righteous (i.e., “spiritual” or “enlightened”) rather, because he is already righteous he practices these things. “Love does not seek its own…” (I Corinthians 13:5).
There are certain times when the scriptures enjoin us to deny ourselves that at first glance seems to be for our personal benefit – a “trade” so to speak. But closer examination of the text reveals that which is deeper. Matthew 16:24-26, John 12:25-26, and Romans 6:12-14 encourage us to deny sin and ourselves, in order to attain salvation. But this form of self-denial is not a religious practice, rather it is an acknowledgement of our sinful condition and need for a Savior. We deny ourselves that we might give ourselves to Christ and become His instrument for the benefit of others.
We are required to deny ourselves “anything” which might cause a brother to stumble or violate his conscience (Romans 15:1-3, 14:13-17, 21, I Corinthians 8:9-12). Here again we see that self-denial is directed for the benefit of another as an expression of love.
We are required to deny ourselves “anything” (not just sin) which might hinder our walk with God (Hebrews 12:1). This expression is directed toward God.
Self-denial is engaged by some as a religious practice to attain enlightenment or some greater spiritual standing. In such cases it is nothing more than a form of “self”-expression. The Bible teaches something far nobler, and more practical. Jesus said that the one who “loses his life for my sake shall find it” (Mark 8:35). The key to understanding Jesus’ meaning is found in the words, “for my sake.” Immediately after saying this Jesus went on to declare, “For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels” (Mark 8:38).
The correct path of self-denial is not to deny oneself for ones own benefit; rather it is to deny oneself for Christ. Jesus Christ denied himself that we might have eternal life. How small a thing it is for Him to ask us to sacrifice ourselves for Him and for others considering all that He has already done for us.