November 26, 2020

Walter Brueggemann: True Self-Denial

He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?”

• Mark 8:34–36

• • •

Jesus’ words are stark and starchy. Let them deny themselves. The saying is loaded and dangerous and has often been misunderstood. In more pietistic and moralistic church traditions, it is often understood as saying “no” to something you really want a lot, of foregoing something you deeply enjoy—like giving up ice cream for Lent, or meat on Fridays, or movies on Sundays . . . perhaps not in themselves bad disciplines, but not the point of Jesus’ saying. The call to discipleship is not a program to make us feel bad or impoverished or uncomfortable. Or pressed more deeply, to deny self is taken too often to mean you should have some self-hate, feel bad about yourself, ponder your failure and your guilt, and reject your worth. But that is surely not what Jesus is talking about.

Rather, he is talking about coming to see that God—the generous creator who gives good gifts—is the center of your life and that the self-taken-alone does not have the resources or capacity to make a good life. To deny self means to recognize that I cannot be a self-starter, cannot be self-sufficient, cannot be self-made or self-securing, and that to try to do so will end in isolation and fear and greed and brutality and finally in violence. It will not work because we are not made that way. It will not work even if all the consumer ads tell us to have life for ourselves. You cannot have the life you want that way.

The alternative to self-focus is to move one’s attention away from self to know that our life is safely and well held by God, who loves us more than we love ourselves, to relish the generosity of God and so to be free of the anxieties and needs and hungers of those who are driven by a mistaken, inadequate sense of self. The self who is denied is the self who is received from God and given back to God in obedience and praise.

God at the center of our lives, our true life is found only in you. May we let go of all that is not life, all that is not you, that we may live in that freedom granted through the cross. Amen.

From: Brueggemann, Walter. A Way other than Our Own: Devotions for Lent (pp. 28-29). Presbyterian Publishing. Kindle Edition.


  1. –> “…deny themselves…”

    One of Jesus’ quotes that’s most likely to be twisted and manipulated into something that becomes unhealthy for the common believer. Beware the preacher who uses this as a guilt-stick.

    • Do you like something? It’s an idol in your life. Deny yourself. You just don’t want God enough. You must love your sin. Why do you want to hurt God.

      Imagine how many years I heard that message, verbatim.

      Oh you just misunderstood.

      • That’s both crazy and sad, Stuart. Some of the stuff done in His name??? Well, Jesus would be rolling over in his grave if he was still there.

      • “Do you have a natural gift? Something that you’re good at? You should go down to the bottom of your garden and dig a deep hole and bury it! God doesn’t want you doing anything in your own strength!”

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      In Medieval and Renaissance times, this was called “Mortification”, and became a “Can You Top This?” to show how Spiritual you were. Hair shirts, whips, gargling lye…

  2. ‘selflessness’ can also mean something positive, something ‘giving’ and nourishing

    volunteering in a setting where no one else wants to go is one way to ‘come down’ from that place where we are so unaware of the needs of others

    there are a thousand ways to ‘deny’ ourselves during Lent, but if we give of ourselves freely in service to those who need help, a balance is restored in us that calms and strengthens

    stop the ‘giving up’ with its semi-pious self-pitying;
    and start ‘giving of self’ and see the difference it makes