Then he said to them all, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.” (Luke 9:23)
The call to deny ourselves often sounds like a Lenten discipline. It conjures up images of people denying themselves chocolate, Cheetos, or cheeseburgers. But Jesus is talking about something more fundamental. It is a call to subordinate our lives to God. And it is a call to put the needs of other people first.
Humans are profoundly selfish beings. We are all born that way. It is the natural state of every infant. A baby is only aware of his or her own needs and insists that those needs be met immediately. As we mature we learn to balance our needs with those of others—family, friends, spouse and children. And yet we still feel a powerful pull to put our own needs first. This is particularly true for men, but also true for women.
If you want to think about children being born in a state of sin, this is it. Selfishness is the fundamental state that Jesus wants to save us from—because it leads to nearly all other sins. It is the foundation of every breakdown in human relationships.
As humans, our hearts are filled with worry, insecurity and self-concern. We are anxious about the future. We perceive the world as a cruel place, and realize that in a largely selfish world, people will surely be indifferent to our needs and welfare. We thus believe we must care for ourselves first and provide for our future security. The self thus pursues goals that attempt to insulate and protect it from a seemingly random and harmful universe. We search for a sense of security through wealth, possessions, pleasure, prestige, power, family and personal-centered religion. In the process, our hearts become centered in our culture and the things that our culture says are important.
This focus on the self often leads to alienation, isolation, and separation from others and from God. A life lived for one’s self results in a hard and cold heart. It drives out compassion and concern for others. It often spawns a desire to dominate and control others in service to the self. It can lead to systems of injustice and the use of violence. In this context the internally-focused self is the spirit or being that opposes God and God’s will for human existence. It is the spirit of Satan.
under Satan’s control
The gospel writers tell us that the nations of the world are under Satan’s control. They saw that the social attributes associated with God—peace, justice, harmony, compassion—were usually absent from international affairs. Therefore, they concluded that another spirit was in control.
In the story of Jesus’ temptation in the Judean wilderness, the author of Luke’s gospel describes the following scene.
Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. (Luke 4:5-6)
“The Devil” or “the Satan” is the term the biblical writers used to describe the spirit or force that stands in opposition to God. The name “the Satan” means the adversary. We can debate the existence of the Satan as a spiritual reality existing outside and apart from the human sphere. There is no doubt, however, that Satan is a symbol or personification of a powerful force at work in human affairs.
Perhaps, however, this evil force is not external. It may be that the Satan is the personification of a very real spirit we observe at work in ourselves and in the behavior of people around us. Satan may be the spirit of self.
When one’s life is lived for one’s self to the exclusion of others there are many manifestations: self-absorption, self-interest, self-concern, self-centeredness, and selfishness. These are signs of the presence of the kingdom of Satan in the world and its powerful influence over the lives of human beings.
from self toward God and others
The values of the kingdom of God are most clearly identified with concern for others—compassion, service, and sharing. Jesus has, in fact, been called “the man for others.”
Following Jesus involves a movement away from the self and toward God and other people. We begin the journey of discipleship by denying ourselves and emptying our hearts of self-centered ambition. It involves a fundamental transformation of deep-seated cultural values.
Marcus Borg has said, “We live our lives much of the time in a self-preoccupied way, in a burdened way that feels cut off from the vital center of energy. And so the central spiritual-psychological issue in the Christian life is the need for internal transformation from a selfish way of being to a way that is free from that.”