“Then Jesus told his disciples, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me’” (Matthew 16:24).
Self-denial. That’s what we do, as Christians. That’s who we are. We deny ourselves the things of this world—and we call it discipleship, discipline.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer called it costly grace—to renounces your self for the sake of the gospel, to empty yourself of all desires except for God, to deny yourself the things of this world because you have your mind set on heaven. “Costly grace is grace as God’s holy treasure,” Bonhoeffer wrote, “God’s holy treasure which must be protected from the world and which must not be thrown to the dogs.” The vision here is that earthly life is full of corruption, full of distractions from our lives with God. Therefore Christians must be vigilant, obsessive about their purity, our distance from the world, our separation from “the dogs,” Bonhoeffer said.[i]
Bonhoeffer wrote that book before he his thirtieth birthday. He had second thoughts about it a decade later, as he sat in a prison cell in Germany, waiting for his execution at the hands of the Nazis. “Today I clearly see the dangers of that book, though I still stand by it,” he wrote to a friend. “Later on I discovered, and am still discovering to this day, that one only learns to have faith by living in the full this-worldliness of life.”[ii]
Living in the full this-worldliness of life. That’s what he realized he missed, with all of his talk of the dangers of the world. The Christian life, Bonhoeffer began to realize, must be about more than denial—to be Christian must be more than the denial of our earthly lives, the denial of what makes us human, of what draws us into the lives of our neighbors, our connections to one another, our desire for a life together, life beyond ourselves, a way of life that is more than an obsession with the protection of our sense of private morality, our self-righteousness, a way of life that is more than an obsessive vigilance of keeping ourselves untainted by the world.
Another way to put all of this is that it’s become common for church people, for religious people, to be known by what we are against—that we spend our time taking positions against this or that part of people’s lives, that we are preoccupied with moral diseases.
My hunch is that we easily fall into the temptation of an ethics of resentment, bitterness at the root of our morality. We hold up self-denial as central to our lives, our piety defined as the refusal of our happiness, a rejection of enjoyment—and we resent others who live without discipline, without discipline, people who don’t refuse their desires, people who enjoy their lives, who live with joy.
We resent them because we are jealous. We want what they have. And we resort to self-righteousness as a way to justify ourselves, to reassure ourselves that what we’re doing with our lives, and what we’re not doing, is worth it—that our self-denial is worth it.
There are a host of problems with thinking and living like this—with thinking and living as if self-denial is most fundamental to our faith. The obvious problems have to do with thinking that suffering is a sign that we’re doing life the right way—as if suffering is the criteria for knowing that we are living according to God’s purposes, that we’re not faithful unless we are feeling the pain, that life with God is about gritting our teeth.
[Personal story redacted]
“If any want to become my followers,” Jesus says, “let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”
At stake in this verse is what we consider most essential to our lives, to our ethics, to our morality. What does it mean to live—to follow Jesus?
If we start with self-denial, as what to do with our lives, then we’re soon taught that what we want is bad, a distraction—as if our insides are made up of harmful cravings, a mess of self-destructive desires. If we start with self-denial, we convince ourselves that we are dangerous, that we are fundamentally wayward, that we need to be protected from ourselves, that the only good we are allowed to enjoy happens after we endure sufferings, after we persevere through this mess of a world, the kingdom of God as a reward for gritting our teeth in this life, for our determination to get through it all.[iii]
There’s a mistake about what counts as holiness in all of this—as if righteousness is all about us, all about making something of ourselves, as if the point of life is self-improvement, as if faith is a tool to use on ourselves. The mistake happens when we treat our spiritual lives as a workout regime, for the benefit our own fitness before God, our heavenly trainer, getting us ready for heaven, our fitness for the kingdom of God.
There’s an ironic selfishness to all of this: our faith as turning us back to ourselves, to focus on ourselves, on how well we’re doing at self-denial, at renouncing the world—how successful we’ve become at our pieties, our righteousness, our saintliness.[iv]
But the faith Jesus invites us into is a call to love, to love this world like Jesus did, a love so fierce, so powerful, so compelling, that he refused to be intimidated by threats.
The cross was a threat, a deterrent, to keep Jesus and his friends from the fullness of their lives together, a fullness of life shared among sinners, among social misfits, among the ostracized, among the banned and shunned—among people without any hope for moral improvement, people whose very existence offended the moral sensibilities of religious leaders and their faithful followers.
To bear the cross of Jesus is to fall in love with this world that God created, like he did—and to love with his love, a love that brings life, that nurtures life, that commits to make a life together. The cross is what it looks like to love with abandon, to love to the fullest, because God has promised a new world.
We start with a life, the life of Jesus, who shows us what it means to love, and who promises that this love will outlast the crosses of this world—that’s what says at the end of the chapter, the last verse we heard, a startling promise: “Truly I tell you,” Jesus tells his first disciples, “Truly, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”
The kingdom has come, in their midst, in their lives together, because they have shared in God’s love for the world. And that life is for us, now—as we make a life together, as open ourselves to the movement of the Spirit’s love, the movement of the kingdom of God, a power that draws us into God’s love for the world, that same love that empowered Jesus.
This-worldliness, Bonhoeffer called it. Not to renounce our earthly lives, but to deny all the parts of us that keep us from loving our neighbors, from loving each other, from abiding in God’s love for the world—to deny ourselves the protections we’ve erected between us and them, between you and me, so that we, together, might be caught up in the joy of the kingdom of God, this “genuine love” that the apostle Paul describes in our passage from Romans: loving one another with mutual affection, which is life everlasting.
[i] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Volume 4: Discipleship (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress Press, 2001), 45.
[ii] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Volume 8: Letter and Papers from Prison (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress Press, 2001), 486.
[iii] I’m paraphrasing Adam Philips here: “We must be packed with forbidden desires, if so much censorship and judgment is required. We are being encouraged to believe, by all this censorship and judgment, that forbidden, transgressive pleasures are what we really crave. That really, essentially, deep down, we are criminals; we need to be protected primarily from ourselves, from our wayward desires.” Unforbidden Pleasures (New York: FSG, 2015), 116.
[iv] Bonhoeffer: “If one has completely renounced making something of oneself—whether it be a saint or a converted sinner or a church leader (a so-called priestly figure!), a just or an unjust person, a sick or a healthy person—then one throws oneself completely into the arms of God, and this is what I call this-worldliness.” Letter and Papers from Prison, 486.