The biblical commands to deny one’s self can be some of the most puzzling to understand and difficult to live out. Yet obedience to these commands is essential to the work of sanctification, which is empowered by the Holy Spirit. In addition, surrendering one’s life to these commands breeds genuine satisfaction and joy in life.
I Corinthians 10:24 says: “Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor.”
Similarly, Philippians 2:3-4 proclaims: “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests but also the interests of others.”
On the face of it, these commands can be a bit daunting; how and why would I even begin to think of others before myself? Some have in fact thought that Jesus’ commands in this vein are simply ludicrous, after all, how could it possibly be rational for me to put anyone else’s wellbeing above my own?
Ayn Rand was such a thinker. The novelist and philosopher, most well known for her bestselling novels The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, is famous for defending the idea that the chief virtue in life was selfishness. Rand considered all “traditional” morality and especially the Christian ethic, to be completely counter to what she saw as the meaning and purpose of life – the promotion and benefit of the self. She saw it as the devaluation of one’s own life. In fact, to her acting for the benefit of another was not just irrational, but wrong, if it was not motivated by a deeper selfish motive.
Many today assume that Christian morality is all about the squashing of all of one’s desires and the casting away of all benefit, pleasure or joy for oneself. To put it simply, some have absorbed the idea that God desires every person to essentially lose ones-self such that one’s individuality, desires, passions, etc., are to be discarded altogether.
However, this is simply a misunderstanding of the Biblical perspective.
Jesus’ words in Matthew 16:24-26 are difficult, but they reveal the heart of God for the flourishing and joy of those who would surrender their lives to Him.
“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world but loses his soul?”
The paradox is that when we trust God we do not lose ourselves but rather we become who we truly are. The paradox for those who live life only according to what they can get and for their self-interest is that they are generally the least happy and satisfied with life. Although admittedly anecdotal evidence for this, it would be worth one’s time to run a Google search for the perceived happiness of people who have won the lottery. The results are generally not good.
When I convince myself that what I need most to be happy is anything else other than God and his will for my life, the irony is that if and when I get that thing, I will find myself even less satisfied and happy than before. I will find that my true self is always being starved and choked out by desires that are out of touch with what I truly need. My true self needs to be sanctified to live and breathe freely.
For Ayn Rand, Jesus’ words are utterly irrational and silly. For Rand, to follow Jesus and deny herself seemed like a recommendation to hate herself. However, we should be wise to not confuse Jesus’ commandment with a recommendation for self-hatred. Jesus’ own life demonstrated the opposite. Jesus was profoundly self-giving and humble, yet he was not self-loathing, emotionally withdrawn and insecure.
For those that have placed their faith in Him, Jesus’ words are light and life and the revelation of one’s true self. Only then will our individuality, desires, passions, etc. reflect that which is truly good and beautiful. May our lives be reflections and testimonies of the joy, satisfaction and flourishing that comes from surrender to God.
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