One of the great themes of Lent is self-denial. It is one so contrary to our culture today. Yet it is what brought about the mighty act of salvation in Jesus Christ.
This present generation is driven by instant gratification and seeking to pursue one’s passion because “YOLO” (you only live once). After all, what is wrong about wanting to satisfy your personal desires when life is moving at super-speed such that there is no time to stand, stare and enjoy the beauty around us?
Indeed, after one has invested so much, you cannot begrudge indulging oneself in the fruits of success that have also come about through sweat and tears. In fact, one would have had to deny brief pleasures in order to taste the sweetness that has come.
Yet this sentiment runs contrary to what Jesus prayed: “Father, if You are willing, take this cup from Me; yet not My will, but Yours be done.” (Luke 22:42) It is a prayer that lies at the centre of what it means to deny oneself. It began much earlier, when He decided to leave heaven. Charles Wesley understood it with the words of his famous hymn ‘And Can It Be that I Should Gain’:
He left His Father’s throne above (so free, so infinite His grace!), emptied Himself of all but love, and bled for Adam’s helpless race. ’Tis mercy all, immense and free, for O my God, it found out me!
The person who practices self-denial in order that he can further improve himself is not in the same boat as Jesus in the journey. Such a person is denying himself so that he can be better, and cannot compare with Jesus who denied Himself, not for His own benefit, but so that the rest of the world can receive the best that God has for them.
Paul caught hold of this truth when he realised that even though Jesus was God, He “didn’t think so much of himself that he had to cling to the advantages of that status no matter what … when the time came, He set aside the privileges of deity and took on the status of a slave, became human! Having become human, He stayed human. It was an incredibly humbling process. He didn’t claim special privileges.” (Philippians 2:6-8, The Message)
By not claiming His divine rights, Jesus practised self-denial of the supreme kind. Should we ever think that such self-denial was only possible because He was divine, then we have missed the point. He practised self-denial as a human being.
But, still, is that really humanly possible? The secret lies in a paradox. Self-denial is not about numbing ourselves to all desires. To really deny oneself in the manner of Jesus, one must allow one particular desire to supersede all else. This desire must captivate our whole being. Jesus encapsulates this when He summed up the law as: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbour as yourself.” (Luke 10:27, ESV)
We do not practise self-denial in order to be better disciples. To do so would mean that we are still motivated by self-interest. Self-denial is the evidence that we have matured as disciples. It is the result of a relationship where the love of the greater One so overcomes us that we desire no One else. Then we desire to be like no One else but Him who gave His all for us so that we may receive the best.
While self-denial is not readily evident today in many, there are a few who, on the other hand, mistakenly believe that the best way to express it today is by seeking martyrdom. However, one does not seek to be a martyr. Martyrdom comes to those whose peaceful lives of loving commitment to their God become a threat to those who live otherwise.
May this Lent be a season of nurturing our desire for God in such a way that we may practise self-denial without even realising it.
Picture by Halfbottle/Bigstock.com
Bishop Dr Wee Boon Hup was elected Bishop of The Methodist Church in Singapore in 2012. He has been a Methodist pastor for 30 years.