The Christian life is a journey to the greatest joy that exists. But “the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few” (Matthew 7:14). Why is that? Because, paradoxically, as Jesus’s disciples learned in Mark 8, in order to pursue our greatest joy, we must deny ourselves.
It was a moment of euphoria for the disciples. Jesus was the Christ. Peter had confessed it and Jesus had confirmed it. The long-awaited arrival of Israel’s Messiah had come! And the Twelve relished their place alongside him.
Then, oddly, Jesus started talking about suffering many things, and being murdered by his enemies, and rising again from the dead. The disciples were confused: how could defeat be the path to the Christ’s glory? The Christ was to be victorious.
So Peter brought correction to Jesus, and Jesus called his correction satanic. Peter was stunned. What could be satanic about wanting the Christ to be victorious? Jesus’s answer was, “you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man” (Mark 8:33).
Jesus Wants Us to Die?
Jesus knew that all the disciples, as well as the crowd following him, were thinking the same thing. So he gathered them all together and let go with one more wrecking ball to their worldview:
If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. (Mark 8:34)
The crowd stilled, a sea of bewildered faces. A cross? They all knew what that meant: Roman execution of the most horrific, fearful kind. They were all hoping that Jesus would conquer their enemies, free them from such tyranny, and “restore the kingdom to Israel” (Acts 1:6). Carrying a Roman cross did not sound like the Messianic kingdom they were longing for. It sounded like death. Jesus wanted them to die?
Jesus’s kingdom was not of this world — not of the geopolitical world that these first followers knew (John 18:36). His kingdom was far broader in scope than any of them yet realized. And their true enemy was far more powerful and deadly than Rome. Rome was a drop in the bucket (Isaiah 40:15). Their real enemy dwelled in them and all around them. Jesus had indeed come to conquer that enemy. In just a few days, he was headed to Jerusalem to strike the decisive blow.
So now Jesus was preparing them for the cross — his first and foremost, then theirs — and the multi-millennial mission to call out true Israel from all peoples into his kingdom. Jesus was teaching them to intentionally move toward death.
All present that day would die physically, some as martyrs. But all his followers would also have to die spiritually, to themselves. They would have to die to the desire for self-glory, die to the desire for worldly respect, die to the fear of man, die to the desire for an easy life, die to the desire for earthly wealth, and a thousand other deaths. Finally, they would have to die to their desire to save their earthly lives.
A Hedonistic Death
But Jesus wasn’t calling his followers to some stoic life of self-sacrifice. He was inviting them to joy beyond their imagination. The broad road of the world was lined with seductive false promises, appealing to and blinding sinful human heart-eyes and leading many to a horror beyond imagination. So Jesus was calling his followers to deny themselves the world’s paltry, brief joys so that they might have overflowing eternal joy. He was calling them to deny themselves hell, that they might take up heaven.
For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? For what can a man give in return for his soul? For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels. (Mark 8:35–38)
The Christian life is hard, sometimes agonizing, but we shouldn’t be surprised (1 Peter 4:12). The Christian life is hard because denying our fallen selves is hard. Our lives are our most precious earthly possession. Nothing displays the worth of Jesus more than our willingness to give away our lives (in small and large ways) for his sake.
The only things that Jesus asks us to deny are what will rob us of eternal joy. Like Moses in Hebrews 11:25–26, we are called to deny ourselves the passing pleasures of sin and consider the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the world’s treasures. How? By looking to the reward! This kind of self-denial is hedonistic.
Years ago, in a lullaby for my oldest daughter, I tried to capture, for her and for me, the heavenly logic of this paradoxical pursuit of joy:
There’s joy beyond your wildest dreams if you will just believe:
This aching thirst for joy you feel God only can relieve,
And that eternal life is what’s in store
For all who will believe that only he’s worth living for.
More on self-denial: