On his way to the cross, Jesus said,
taught us to deny ourselves,
because anyone who wants to save his life loses it,
but those who lose their lives for (Jesus’) sake find them.”
How do we go about denying ourselves?
Does that mean depriving ourselves of happiness?
To those of us who have read self-help books
that prescribe pampering ourselves, standing up for ourselves,
and discovering ourselves,
it doesn’t sound all that healthy to deny ourselves.
So is Jesus saying anything we can even consider? Maybe so.
The expression “self-denial” has gotten a bit twisted.
A lot of what passes for self-denial isn’t so healthy,
but it isn’t really self-denial either.
When someone goes around abstaining from this and abstaining from that,
it can have a bit of spiritual pride in it.
That sort of thing is to self-denial as iron pyrite is to gold.
It’s shiny, but not the real deal.
Too much bad religion amounts to denying myself a material pleasure
in the hope of getting a spiritual reward.
A religion driven by staying out of hell
or winning a ticket to heaven is still self-centered.
That kind of religion just replaces material self-centeredness
with spiritual self-centeredness.
A spirituality that is all about achieving a placid state of mind
is still spiritual self-centeredness.
It’s another ego-project.
Frankly the material self-centeredness was more honest.
So what is this self-denial Jesus is talking about?
How can we find our lives by losing our lives?
Let’s start with the words Jesus used.
He didn’t say to abstain from anything.
Abstaining from things may be a good idea.
But that’s not what self-denial means.
He said deny yourself.
The word we translate as “deny” means “renounce the claims.”
Renounce the claims of your self-interest.
One of our best New Testament scholars, Eduard Schweitzer,
translates this verse, “he must forget himself.”//
In other words, stop fretting over yourself.
Stop making yourself so important.
Stop trying to advance your self-interest,
because that is not your life.
That is not living.
It’s a waste of your precious years
and it will not make you happy.
St. Augustine said, “I have become a great problem to myself.”
I know what he means, and maybe you do too.
I have my share of problems of course.
But even when things are going better than par
by anyone’s standards,
my mind spins out complications.
I still manage to tangle the lines of my relationships.
And the harder I work at making myself happy,
the more frustrated and anxious I become.
It is a dreadful thing to be self-obsessed.
In my case, I’m not even that interesting.
It’s like being addicted to a bad sit-com
and watching re-runs.
Modern culture promises freedom
but it has double crossed us.
It liberated us from a lot of things.
It liberated us from political tyranny, religious straightjackets,
obligations to extended families, and duties to uphold tradition.
But all that liberation did not set us free.
It delivered us into hands of the harshest taskmaster of all
– the self: the constant demands of our insatiable self-interest.
We work so hard at making ourselves successful and secure,
we don’t see the sunrise, feel the air on our face,
or even taste our food.
And so we lose our lives by trying too hard to find them.
How do we get out of this?
It is tricky,
because if I set out to forget myself for my own sake,
the contradiction ties the knot even tighter.
Two stories from my days as a parish priest
– one dramatic, one small.
The dramatic one first.
My parishioner, Carol, lost her 20-year-old daughter
in the crash of TWA 800.
Her purpose for living was not at all clear after that.
She was absorbed in her grief.
I don’t mean this as a criticism.
Her response was absolutely natural and to be expected.
But being absorbed in one’s grief is a form of being absorbed in oneself.
It is the most miserable self-trap.
Then, Joanne, another woman in the congregation
became terminally ill,
and she had no family to care for her.
So Carol and a few others took charge of her care.
Carol had to set her grief aside to care for a dying friend.
She says today that Joanne saved her life.
“Those who lose their life for my sake, find it.”
Carol lost her life defined as grief to find a new life
defined as service.
Now the not so dramatic story, the small one.
Norma, another of my church members,
fell into a depression.
She was weighed down by it, miserable,
obsessed with all that was missing in her life.
Mired in despondency, she still managed
to buy groceries for the week,
and as she was in the checkout line,
the cahier gave her a rose.
And in that instant, she forgot herself.
The beauty of the rose
and the beauty of the act of giving her the rose
filled her with delight.
That is the essence of Christian spirituality.
Grace means a stranger handing you a rose on a bad day.
These two stories are examples of the two ways
of liberation from self.
The two ways are compassion and delight.
We have all had glimpses of them.
We encounter something beautiful or holy,
or someone whose fragility or need touches our hearts,
And we forget ourselves.
The beauty of nature or art or music captivates us
and for a moment, at least, we forget ourselves.
Someone needs us to visit them in the hospital,
bring them a meal
or just drop our plans and listen to them.
So we put our ego-projects on the shelf for awhile
and give a little piece of our lives to someone else.
Either way, we come more fully alive.
We get these glimpses of grace now and then.
To fully and finally forget ourselves,
our attention will have to be captured by something
powerfully – even ultimately – engaging.
Something awesome enough, beautiful enough,
fascinating and delightful enough,
to make us want to gaze upon it forever.
That would be God.
“How lovely is thy dwelling place,” the Psalmist sang.
“How late I came to love Thee O Beauty, so ancient and so new!”
St. Augustine prayed in the 5th Century.
In the 6th Century, Dionysius said that God is “infinitely beautiful,
the splendor that draws all things into itself.”
We can lose ourselves in the contemplation of that splendor.
Two movements of the Spirit set us free.
They are compassion and delight.
In compassion and delight, we forget ourselves
and step into a larger reality.
Compassion and delight are, of course,
the left and right hands of love.
Loving the world, loving other people,
is how we forget ourselves and follow Jesus.
There is a cross in our path.
It is the cross of self-forgetting, which is a kind of dying.But it is also the way to life itself.