When many hear Jesus’s blunt command to deny yourself and take up your cross (Mark 8:34), they hear another voice alongside our Lord’s. “In other words, be miserable,” the voice says. “Lose everything you love. Take your little portion of happiness and trample on it. Become a martyr.”
We might call this ever-available voice the New Serpent Translation (NST) of the Bible. The devil was, after all, the world’s first Bible translator and interpreter. “No eating from the tree, did he say? Yes, let me tell you what that means . . .” (Genesis 3:1–5). The experience is rarely so conscious for us as it was for Eve, of course. We don’t realize we’ve fallen under the serpent’s spell; we just walk away from hearing Jesus with the subtle sense that his commands are burdensome.
But what Satan leaves out is that Jesus came “to destroy the works of the devil” (1 John 3:8), including the blasphemous lie that “deny yourself” means “be miserable.” And so, he silences the serpent’s voice by telling us where self-denial really leads. When we deny ourselves, Jesus tells us, we find ourselves. We defy the devil. We join heaven’s side. We destroy our sorrow.
In a society that prizes individualism as much as ours does, perhaps one fear looms largest when we hear “deny yourself”: the fear that we will lose ourselves. We will be deprived of everything that makes me me. Our dreams will be trashed, our desires blunted, our personality erased. We will become one more drop in a sea of endless gray.
“If you want to delight the devil, refuse to deny yourself.”
The fear is understandable. “Deny yourself” requires, after all, self-denial. We must lay the axe to the root of every tree that bears bad fruit in us. Every sin must be slain, every part of me that does not reflect him must be renounced — and not just once, but “daily” (Luke 9:23). “See,” the serpent says, “lose yourself.”
To which Jesus responds, “No, find yourself — your true self.” He says, “Whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it” (Mark 8:35). The kingdom of heaven holds secrets of which the devil knows nothing. Where Jesus reigns, the way up is down, the first are last, and the only way to save your life is to lose it for his sake.
The life we find on the other side of self-denial may look far different from the life we’ve always known. But it will not — it cannot — be worse. It is a life where we gain a hundredfold more than we ever give up (Mark 10:30). It is a life where we are no longer a broken note in the symphony of the universe, but are rather sounding the part God created us for. It is a life with Jesus: maker of all beauty, redeemer of all brokenness, fountain of all joy.
When you deny yourself, you will not lose yourself — not ultimately. You will find yourself.
Defy the Devil
The devil, of course, is not in favor of anyone finding himself. He prefers theft, murder, and destruction (John 10:10). So when we come to a place where we know we must deny ourselves, he will suggest, in one way or another, that we save ourselves instead.
Here in Mark 8, Peter was the devil’s pawn. When the disciple tried to steer his Master away from the cross, Jesus responded, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man” (Mark 8:33). The temptation to save our sinful selves rather than deny them may come from a thousand places — from our own indwelling sin, from our society, even from a beloved friend like Peter. But at bottom, “save yourself” is serpent talk. It is the gospel of Gehenna.
“Where Jesus reigns, the way up is down, the first are last, and the only way to save your life is to lose it for his sake.”
How many times have we had an impulse to deny ourselves — put down the drink, give away the bonus, go talk to that neighbor, confess the embarrassing sin — only to have some part of us, like Peter, begin to question our good resolves? “Now, now, there’s a more comfortable way to glory, isn’t there? Surely we can grasp the crown without bearing this cross? No need to be so extreme. Moderation in all things, remember.” The devil may be a lion, but we rarely hear his roar; more often, he appears in our most plausible reasons to avoid self-denial.
If you want to delight the devil, then refuse to deny yourself. But if you want to defy your ancient foe, if you want to scorn the one who hates your soul, if you want to cut off the arms that would drag you to hell, then bend down and pick up your cross.
Join Heaven’s Side
For some, the greatest cost of self-denial is not the loss of private pleasures, but the loss of public reputation and relationships. Jesus was “rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes” (Mark 8:31) — not to mention scoffed at by his neighbors and criticized by his family (Mark 3:20–21; 6:1–6). If we follow him, rejection will fall to our lot as well.
Yet notice how Jesus puts the cost into heavenly perspective. Whom are we leaving when we rise up to follow Jesus? “This adulterous and sinful generation” (Mark 8:38). In our sin, we kept company with adulterers; we ourselves were one of them, in fact (James 4:4). This is the fellowship we must forsake. And when we do, whom do we join? “The Son of Man,” who will one day return “in the glory of his Father with the holy angels” (Mark 8:38). In other words, we join heaven. And it is always better to be on the right side of heaven than on the “right” side of history.
No doubt, the relational alienation that comes from following Jesus can be enough to make us weep, especially when the cross we bear separates us from dearest friends and family. But can you see who is waiting for you on the other side of self-denial? You go to a Father, ready to make merry over his repentant people (Luke 15:7, 10, 22–24). You go to multitudes of holy angels, marveling at the grace that is yours (1 Peter 1:12). And you go to Jesus, the Son who has become closer than a brother, dearer than a friend.
As Elisha said to his fearful servant, so we might say to our fearful souls, “Do not be afraid, for those who are with us are more than those who are with them” (2 Kings 6:16). And those with us are not only more in number, but better by far.
Destroy Your Sorrow
We come now to perhaps the most surprising promise of self-denial. If you deny yourself, you will not only find yourself, defy the devil, and join heaven’s side; you will be happy. For, as Jonathan Edwards once preached, “Self-denial destroys the very root and foundation of sorrow.” All the world’s sorrow, grief, trials, and trouble find their beginning in our first parents’ choice of self over God (Romans 5:12; 8:20). So many of our own sorrows grow from the same bitter root. If we are going to destroy our sorrow down to the bottom, the self that loves sin must be denied.
“The deepest joys in this world come only on the other side of self-denial.”
Jesus knew that his was a mission to destroy all sorrow. Don’t be fooled by the face set like flint toward Jerusalem (Luke 9:51). As Jesus looked toward the whips, the nails, the cross, the crowds, the spear, and the tomb, he saw something beyond them all worth dying for: “glory” (Mark 8:38). And part of that glory, Hebrews tells us, was “the joy that was set before him” (Hebrews 12:2).
As it was for Jesus, so it is with us. The deepest joys in this world come only on the other side of self-denial. In fact, the joy is so rich, so expansive and generous, that often it meets us in the very midst of our self-denial. The new life rises as the other dies; the new plant sprouts while we are still hacking at the root of the old. Just as we are “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing,” so too we are “self-denying, yet always rejoicing” (2 Corinthians 6:10).
In his call to deny ourselves, then, Jesus breaks the serpent’s spell and beckons us toward the joy he made us for. “Come,” he says, “leave the safe and small pleasures of a self-protected life for the wild delights of following heaven’s King. Leave darkness for light, hell for heaven, and the life you want to save for a far better life of loving me.” For all the pain that self-denial brings, it is the only path to “exceeding joy” (Psalm 43:4) — because it is the only path to Christ.