This week, we continue our series Ask Mission Central, where we tackle real questions on spiritual life from emerging Christian leaders. Subscribe to get the next post in your inbox!
Ask Mission Central: Question Five
“How can I be a “living sacrifice” (Romans 12:1) and “deny myself” (Luke 9:23), while also being emotionally healthy? These Scriptures seem to communicate not considering your own needs—but I do have needs! How do these go together?”
Glen Ellyn, IL
I ponder the shape of self-denial while sitting on the couch, snacking on fresh grapes, and looking forward to catching up on WandaVision after I finish my blog post. But if my couch potato moments make it hard for me to take my own efforts at self-denial too seriously, the other extreme looks just as suspect. We’ve all met a religious killjoy at some point in our lives (thanks, Angela). Christians who think that all fun is sinful may also even be tempted to sacralize self-harm, or a grueling set of duties that amounts to it.
But we know from experience that ignoring our own needs doesn’t end well for anybody. At the same time, those experiences can leave us scratching our heads about what God does want. We need to care for ourselves and we need to deny ourselves. How can we do both?
Self-Denial for Love’s Sake
True Christian self-care and true Christian self-denial are both all about love. In the passage from Romans that you cited, the apostle Paul writes, “Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God” (Romans 12:1 NIV). That “therefore” comes after the first eleven chapters of Romans, a majestic description of God’s good news of salvation in Christ. Starting with this sentence, Paul gives us a way to respond to that news. We respond “in view of God’s mercy,” under the light of the message of God’s love for us. And the response that pleases God is to offer our bodies, our whole embodied lives, to him as a sacrifice.
We need to ponder just how stark that metaphor is. The image of sacrifice would convey some graphic passages of Scripture for Paul’s first readers: priests slashing an animal’s neck so that the blood splashes out against the sides of the altar before the carcass is burned. It’s an image of being totally consumed, with nothing held back. Paul is saying: That’s what your life looks like when it’s set apart for God. Nothing held back.
But how does that kind of offering become concretized in our lives? One way, as your second verse indicates, is through self-denial. It can feel a little abstract to see how self-denial is part of loving God, but in our relationships it becomes immediately clear how it’s part of loving other people. If you wake up on time so that you can prepare well for a work meeting, it serves your co-workers. If you pitch in to do the dishes when your roommate is having a lousy day, it makes you a good friend.
Self-denial forms part of a bigger social picture, too. Consider: it’s a lack of sexual self-denial which adds fuel to the fire of human trafficking worldwide. Conversely, Christian self-denial, even at the personal level, can influence global systems for good. At the interpersonal level and the systemic level, the ways that we love other people through self-denial also bless God’s heart and form part of our love for him. As Jesus said, “whatever you did for one of the least of these . . . you did for me” (Matthew 25:40 NIV).
Self-Care as Receiving God’s Love
If denying ourselves in order to love others is a response to God’s love, then it must go hand in hand with receiving God’s love. “Self-care” can best be understood in theological terms as receiving God’s care for you. Think about it this way. If a mother made her six-year old son stay up late every night, so that he only got four hours of sleep, would she be caring for him well? Of course not. Parents have the responsibility to care for their young children’s sleep thoughtfully. (Hang in there if that’s you!) It’s as though God has delegated execution of his fatherly intentions to each parent for their child. Now that you are an adult, God has delegated a good portion of his care of you . . . to you! It’s true that God “grants sleep to those he loves,” but he doesn’t usually force it on them (Psalm 127:2 NIV). Instead, he allows us to participate in the process of his provision for us.
If that’s true, then offering ourselves totally and unreservedly to God does not translate to a life of refusing every pleasure through willful austerity. Besides sleep, the Scriptures name food, family relationships, the beauty of the world and of human craftsmanship, the life of the mind, and bodily health as good gifts from God to be enjoyed. There is even promise of “eternal pleasures at [God’s] right hand” (Psalm 16:11 NIV)! We hold nothing back from God in part because we know we can trust him to provide for us whatever we truly need along the way.
Self-Indulgence and Self-Harm
Self-denial and self-care emerge as patterns of love when we believe the truth about who God is: both that he’s worth making sacrifices for and that he can be trusted to care for us. In contrast, the unhealthy manifestation of each dynamic—self-indulgence rather than self-care, or self-harm rather than self-denial—spring from false convictions, misapprehensions about God and ourselves.
Self-indulgence can result from believing that a superficial pleasure will bring greater good than the sacrifices that love requires. This is the belief that the serpent introduced to Eve and Adam when he said they would “be like God” if they ate the fruit (Genesis 3:5). Even life with the loving creator in Eden could be made to look like the inferior option when contrasted with the promise of as-yet-undiscovered power and happiness.
It’s a commonplace assumption that those who refuse certain pleasures out of moral conviction are guilty of closed-minded naivete, cute at best and toxic at worst. But the truth is just the opposite. It’s naive to suppose that self-indulgence leads to greater joy than a life of thoughtful discipline under God’s grace. You’re not missing out if you say, “one glass of wine is enough”; you’re missing out if you’ve never drunk deeply of the Spirit. It’s not the “prudes” of the world who are missing out, it’s those who haven’t tasted the passion of God’s goodness and love.
Self-harm operates in a different way. “Self-harm” is sometimes used in a clinical sense to specifically mean physical self-injury. There can be complex reasons that lead someone to act against their own body in that way, and people often need help to identify what’s behind it. Self-harm in that specific sense overlaps with the larger category of self-destructive behavior that we’re addressing here. Something more benign, such as the exhaustion of overzealous self-exertion, can still have real spiritual weight.
Certain self-destructive patterns result from believing that God’s grace is not adequate for us. We may punish ourselves because we believe God can’t really forgive us. We may stifle our hopes for happiness because we believe we cannot be made worthy to experience joy. We may work beyond our limitations because we believe only we can achieve the necessary outcomes. In different forms, each of these beliefs is a form of doubt, whether of God’s power or his goodness. The antidote (along with other means of grace like good mental health care) is to encounter God’s power and goodness, nurturing faith in his love in small, slow, everyday ways.
The Way of Jesus
So, how do we know when a given situation calls for receiving God’s love by enjoying his good gifts, or for self-denial that serves others? There’s no formula to answer that question in advance for every circumstance. There are times for divinely-appointed naps and times for sleepless nights, times to feast and times to fast. But instead of a formula, we have something better: the example and companionship of Jesus.
Today marks the halfway point of Lent, the Christian season of preparation for Good Friday and Easter that’s characterized by practices of self-denial like fasting. That brings us back to your second Scripture passage, when Jesus tells his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23 NIV). He made this pronouncement just after prophesying his own death and resurrection. We take up our cross not because of some abstract sense of duty, but because of the most concrete manifestation of love in human history, when Jesus took up his cross for us and for our salvation.
This is the same Jesus who provided wine at a wedding and was even accused of being a drunkard, yet fasted for forty days, who took naps and yet prayed all night, who was always at home in his Father’s love and so could lay down his life for his friends. As we keep company with him, he’ll teach us how to practice self-denial and self-care like he did, receiving everything from God’s hand and giving it all back to him—and the world—in love.