Deny Thy Self
By Hal Knight
While John Wesley used the term “disciple” rarely, the great exception is his sermon on “Self-Denial.” There Wesley explores the meaning of the words of Jesus in Luke 9:23: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.”
Wesley argues that these two things—“denying ourselves and taking up our cross”—“are absolutely, indispensably necessary” for discipleship.” Here this why: “If we do not continually deny ourselves, we do not learn of Him, but of other masters. If we do not take up our cross daily, we do not come after him ... If we are not walking in the way of the cross, we are not following Him... ”
This makes it essential to understand what self-denial and taking up our cross actually mean. With regard to self-denial, Wesley notes that while “the will of God is a path leading straight to God,” because of sin our human will “is now another path, not only different from it but in our present state directly contrary to it: It leads from God.” Therefore, “to deny ourselves, is, to deny our own will, where it does not fall in with the will of God ...”
In this sermon Wesley speaks of our denying ourselves “any pleasure which does not spring from, and lead to, God.” In other places, he identifies things that we pursue—the esteem of others, pride in our accomplishments, wealth, success—as taking us away from God. Even things that are good—church, family, honest work—can take us from God if they become our overarching concern, that is, if they move into the center of our lives where only God belongs.
As for taking up a cross, Wesley says a “cross is anything contrary to our own will, anything displeasing to our nature.” We take up our cross when we voluntarily follow the call of God even when it is not something we would enjoy or choose on our own. Wesley often speaks of it in terms of serving others; in his day visiting the poor or the sick or those in prison could place one in a very disagreeable environment. Yet love for neighbor requires it.
Wesley believed it was always due to the lack of self-denial or taking up one’s cross that we do not fully follow Jesus. What I want to suggest is what Wesley is saying of persons can be applied to churches as well. How do churches faithfully follow Jesus? Is it not by denying themselves such that their overriding concern is not what they want but what God wants? Is it not by taking actions or making changes that they might not prefer, but are done for the sake of reaching and welcoming others, or caring and advocating for others?
Of course, just as it is the case for each person, the particulars of what self-denial and taking up a cross means varies from church to church. But we know that whatever form it takes, it always involves loving and serving God, loving our neighbor, and discerning God’s will in this time and place.