Sacred Schizophrenia

A Meditation on Self-Denial

Boyce College Commencement | Louisville


I want to make plain to all the graduates today that, if you are a Christian, you will spend the rest of your life on this earth with a spiritual condition that may be called sacred schizophrenia.

The second definition of schizophrenia in my dictionary, after the medical one, is “a state characterized by the coexistence of contradictory or incompatible elements.” That’s what I mean by schizophrenia. In calling it sacred I mean that it is a condition brought about by the Holy Spirit. It is not a perfect condition but it is a holy condition. A sacred schizophrenia.

Or to put it another way, all of you who are Christians will live the rest of your lives on this earth as two selves. And I want to clarify from the words of Jesus who these two selves are, and which one of them is your true self, and then show you from the words of Jesus two of the major flash points of conflict that you will experience between your two selves for the rest of your life on this earth.

The reason I say “for the rest of your life on this earth,” is because after you die, or after Jesus comes, you will no longer be these two selves. You will no longer have the condition of sacred schizophrenia. You will be one unified self, and all conflict will be over.

But until that day, it is absolutely imperative that you know the condition you are in, namely, sacred schizophrenia, and that you know who your two selves are, and which one of them is the true you, and what two of the major flash points of conflict are that you will experience for the rest of your life on this earth.

Denied and Denying

So let’s turn to the words of Jesus, and let him teach us about the two selves of the Christian. Mark 8:34–38:

Calling the crowd to him with his disciples, Jesus said to them, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. 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.”

Verse 34: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” To be a follower of Jesus is to be a denier of self. “If anyone would come after me let him deny himself.” And if you are denying yourself, there is a you who is doing the denying and a you who is being denied. This means that to be a follower of Jesus is to have a sacred schizophrenia — having a self that must be denied, and a self that is doing the denying.

What’s the difference between these two selves? Jesus explains that the reason the self must be denied is because following him involves taking up our cross. “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross.” And as you know, the cross was an instrument of torture and execution. To take up your cross willingly, intentionally, was to choose a path that leads to opposition, shame, suffering, and death. That’s what happened when a person took up his own cross.

“To be a follower of Jesus is to be a denier of self.”

The Real You

In order to do that, Jesus says, you must deny yourself. Why? Because there is a self in every one of us that looks at the opposition, the shame, the suffering, and the death in fellowship with Jesus, and says, “No way am I going to endure that.” When you hear your self say: “I don’t want opposition; I want approval. I don’t want shame; I want honor. I don’t want suffering; I want comfort and the pleasures of this world. I don’t want to die; I want to be safe and secure and to stay alive. So, no! I will not take up my cross” — when you hear your self say that, you — your other self — must say, “You are no longer in charge! I deny you the right to hold any sway in this matter. So you be quiet. You are not my true self anymore. You are passing away. Your days are numbered. It is I and not you who will live forever. So keep your desires to yourself.”

Who is that talking? Where did that self come from? Where did the self come from who treasures Jesus so much that following him is worth opposition and shame and suffering and death? This is called the new birth, and it came from the Holy Spirit. This is what Jesus told Nicodemus had to happen for anyone to see the kingdom of God (John 3:1–8). Indeed to see Jesus for who he really is — infinitely valuable.

This means that the new birth is the creation of sacred schizophrenia. A new self has come into being that treasures Jesus more than human approval, more than honor, more than comfort and pleasures of the body, and more than safety and staying alive. So now real self-denial is possible. Real conflict can begin. There is the self that treasures Jesus above everything. And there is the self that prefers human approval and physical pleasures.

Lose Your Life to Save It

Sometimes you will hear people describe the Christian teaching on self-denial as though the denied self is the real lover of life — the one who is really committed to joy and pleasure — while the denying self is morose, has a death-wish, carries a cross around like a bludgeon against joy. If you’re inclined to think that way it would be good to consider verse 35.

This is Jesus’s first argument for why we should deny our self, take up our cross, and follow Jesus. Why? “Because whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.” What motive is Jesus appealing to? Listen: Whoever would save his life (here in this world, by avoiding the cross) will lose it forever. And you don’t want to lose your life, do you? No, you don’t, and you shouldn’t. That’s the motivation — you don’t want to lose your life!

He continues: But whoever loses his life (by treasuring me so much the cross is worth it) will save it — and you do want to save your life don’t you? Yes, you do. And you should. That’s the motivation: Save your life forever, whatever it takes — even crucifixion!

“Every one of us is either destined to be great or to be a devil.”

Who’s the real lover of life here? Who has the suicidal death-wish? Jesus is pleading with you: Don’t throw your life away! Follow me! My whole argument for denying the old self, Jesus implies, is that he is a liar, a fool. He thinks that eighty years of human praise and physical pleasures are better the eight million ages of years with fullness of joy and uninterrupted and undiminished and unparalleled pleasures at God’s right hand.

Jesus is pleading with us to love life. “Whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.” So save it. Save it. Save it! Wake up to your sacred schizophrenia! Be the lover of life that you really are! And deny the cross-rejecting, suicidal self.

Flash Points of Faith

Finally, I said there are two major flash points of conflict that you will experience between your two selves for the rest of your life on this earth. Verse 36 and 37 focus on one. Verse 38 focuses on the other.

The Power of Possessions

The argument continues in verses 36–37:

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?

One of your selves will tell you until the day you die — I speak as a 71-year-old warrior with this old self — “Come on! If we can just accumulate more of this world, more possessions, more protections, more insurance policies, more symbols of power, more possibilities of bodily pleasure then we will have real life — the only life there is.” He is a liar. You won’t save your life that way. You will lose it. Even if you gain the whole world.

In the next sixty years of your life scarcely a day will go by when the message: having things is having life. To which Jesus says, no, having things is not life; having me is life. “Whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.” So the first flash point is: do you find Jesus all-satisfying, or is the world your treasure?

The Power of Approval

The second flash point is going to be: Whom will you be ashamed of? Or to ask it positively whose approval do you prefer? Verse 38:

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.

The first flash point was the power of possessions. The second flash point is the power of approval. Whose approval do you crave?

“One day, you’ll have everything you ever wanted — everything that God can be for you in Jesus.”

What is so shocking in this verse is that there is a self in us that actually craves the approval of an “adulterous and sinful generation.” “For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation . . .” That’s what being ashamed means: I don’t want to look like a foolish Christian when all the adulterers and sinners are so cool! I want the approval of an adulterous and sinful generation!

Is there an alternative audience whose approval might matter more than the approval of an adulterous and sinful generation? Only the Son of Man, the Father in all his glory, and millions of angels in sinless holiness. “When the Son of Man comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.” That will be the audience on one side, and the perishing world will be the audience on the other. One of your selves loves the smile of the world. The other loves the smile of Jesus.

Those are the two great flash points of conflict: human possessions, human praise. How you respond to them shows whether you have the condition of sacred schizophrenia.

Destined to Be Great or to Be a Devil

It may be helpful to close with a story warning and hope from the life of the namesake of Boyce College, James Petigru Boyce. He was born in Charleston, South Carolina on my birthday in 1827. He attended Charleston College, then Brown University, and then Princeton seminary. While he was at Charleston College, he was not yet converted. He was more of a prankster and a playboy than a Christian. One day President Brantley saw Boyce hiding behind a tree and said, “There is Boyce, who will be a great man, if he does not become a devil” (Abstract of Systematic Theology).

That is true of every person in this room. You are destined to be great or to be a devil. Those are the only options in the end. Boyce had not yet been given the condition of sacred schizophrenia. That would come later. But that is the only path to greatness, and life.

If you are a follower of Jesus, you have a sacred schizophrenia. It is painful and glorious — and temporary. There is a self that must be denied. And there is a self that denies.

The denied-self desperately seeks life in the pleasures of the world and the praises of man. And, therefore, says no to the cross.

The denying-self loves real life that lasts forever, loves Jesus as all-satisfying, loves meaning more than money, and loves the praise of holy heaven more than the praise of sinful earth.

The denying self is the true you — the you that will live forever. Don’t begrudge a few decades of sacred schizophrenia. It will be over soon enough. There will be only one self someday — your true self. And all self-denial will be but over. Everything you will want you will have — everything that God can be for you in Jesus.