God appeals to our desire. It’s one of the great awe-inspiring truths of the universe, from the warmth of the sun’s rays to cool, refreshing streams. From the everyday pleasures of sleep, food, drink, and family, to the special joys of holidays and changing seasons. From Genesis to Revelation.
How astounding that the divine himself appeals to human desire. When he could simply say, “I am God; just do what I say,” he seeks to win our obedience from the heart. He captures our inner person on the way to transforming our outer person. He gives reasons and rationale and makes his case, and at bottom appeals to our deepest and most enduring joy, rather than treating us as creatures of mere duty.
He does indeed call us to self-denial, but on what grounds? Few have said it better than C.S. Lewis:
The New Testament has lots to say about self-denial, but not about self-denial as an end in itself. We are told to deny ourselves and to take up our crosses in order that we may follow Christ; and nearly every description of what we shall ultimately find if we do so contains an appeal to desire.
Lewis enjoins us to enjoy this Jesus, not to live from a sense of duty: “Consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels.”
Long before Lewis, Jonathan Edwards lent his voice to Jesus’s charming of the human soul, not just commanding of the human body: “Jesus knew that all mankind were in the pursuit of happiness. He has directed them in the true way to it, and he tells them what they must become in order to be blessed and happy.”
Lose Your Life to Gain It
Even when Jesus commends self-denial, as Lewis mentions, he does so in a way that appeals to our holy sense of gain.
Perhaps the most surprising divine appeal to desire is Jesus’s seemingly paradoxical statement on gain and loss in Mark 8:36: “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?” The reason this text is so important is that self-denial is plainly in view: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34). But Jesus doesn’t stop at self-denial and cross-bearing. He has more to say. He gives rationale. He doesn’t just command the outer person, but seeks to allure the inner. He appeals to desire:
“For 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)
Do you really want to keep your life? Then let it go. Release your death grip, and lose your life, that you might gain it. If you love your life in such a way that you are willing to lose it, then you will gain it. But if you love your life in such a way that you are not willing to lose it, then you will lose it.
Paradox of Gain and Loss
How are we not trapped in this matrix of self-love? Because there is a holy sense of gain. And from where does it come? A new heart. If we love our own lives in this world with a natural heart, we will cling to it and lose it in the end. But if we are led with born-again, new hearts, with supernatural desires — fed and empowered by the Spirit of God himself — then we will live from a holy sense of gain, and gain our lives in the process. Not earn, but gain, like Abraham, through the open, receptive arms of faith (Romans 4:1).
The best picture we have of a Christian living from such a heart of holy gain may be Paul in his letter to the Philippians. Twice he gives us a glimpse into the holy hedonism, or Christian Hedonism, that drives him.
Greatest Loss as Greatest Gain
First is Philippians 1:21: “to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” He writes from prison, susceptible to the whims of pagan rulers. This could be it for Paul. At any moment, the word could come, “Off with his head.” But he suspects this is not yet the end for him, and anticipates being released (Philippians 1:25), because he senses Christ still has fruitful labor planned for him (Philippians 1:22, 25). But let the record show that his heart is ready, even desirous, to face the final foe in order to then come face-to-face with Gain incarnate: “My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better” (Philippians 1:23).
Paul has not died to every sense of gain, but is living for pure, righteous, ultimate gain as much as ever.
Losing All to Gain Christ
Second, then, is Philippians 3:7–8, just a few paragraphs later. He has just cataloged the many inherited and achieved reasons he would have for self-confidence. However, he says,
Whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ.
What is the very heart and essence of the eternal, spiritual, supernatural, holy gain Paul seeks? Christ himself. Not mere material gain, but ultimate relational gain. Not the gain of temporal possessions, but the gain of an eternal person. “To be with Christ is far better,” he says. It is “the surpassing worth of knowing Christ” that is the great animating soul and center of his sense of gain, and liberates him from two-bit, short-term, this-worldly gain to pursue and enjoy the deepest and most enduring gain: Jesus himself.
Go Hard After Holy Gain
When Jesus bids us, “Follow me,” he doesn’t call us to die to real joy, but to find it. Finally, at long last, the hidden treasure becomes ours (Matthew 13:44). Jesus doesn’t command us to squash true pleasures, but calls us not to be so easily pleased by our trinkets. He appeals to our desire. He made us for himself, heart included, and he seeks to win us from within, and change us from the inside out.
Will we embrace self-denial in this life? Necessarily. Happily. Eagerly. Because we know that in dying to ourselves, we will live more fully. And as we do, we’ll listen carefully as Christ shouts and whispers his shameless appeals to our holy gain. His promises are staggering and unblushing, and when he opens his mouth, whether in promise or command, he does so to encourage us in the pursuit of happiness and direct us in the true way to it.