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:
1. Self-denial reveals and tests our love for God
In Genesis 22:1-13 Abraham 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.”
2. Self-denial reveals that we truly love other people
It 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.
3. Self-denial indicates we are growing in our love for God and for others
Denying 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.
4. Rightly expressed self-denial is an expression of love.
1 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.
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.