What Does it Mean to Deny Yourself?

It's Lent, the season leading up to Easter. This is the season when it is typical to give up something, to deny yourself in some way, as we reflect on the reality of our collective brokenness and prepare for the new Life that Easter brings.The 40 days of Lent mirror the 40 days Jesus spent fasting in the desert, facing temptations of every kind. What did Jesus do after this 40-day period of fasting?

  • He preached. (Matthew 4:12-17)
  • He gathered his disciples. (Matthew 4:18-22)
  • He healed people.(Matthew 4:23-25

In short, after his time in the desert, Jesus began the work of healing God's creation. His time of withdrawing to fast and pray and spend time with God was preparation. He came out of that season and began to teach, gather, and heal. This time of turning inward had a purpose. It helped him to step into more of his true self.

What Self-Denial Isn't

The ides of self-denial can be taught in a way that is damaging psychologically and not reflective of the example that we see in Jesus. For example, you may have learned to deny yourself as:

  • Harming yourself.
  • Never thinking of your needs.
  • Viewing your desires as bad.

Specific examples of this toxic form of self-denial occur when you are encouraged to:

  • destroy your health
  • stay in abusive relationships
  • let others take advantage of you
  • bury your God-given talents
  • sit by while friends walk all over you

Do you see any of these outcomes reflected in the life of Jesus?

What Self Denial Is

Based on the example of Jesus in the desert, there are three features of self-denial. Self-denial is:

  • seasonal
  • purpose-driven
  • results in an even clearer sense of who you are.

To deny yourself in some way for a season, such as Lent, needs to meet all three of these criteria. As you consider something you may want to give up, ask yourself these questions:

1. What is a part of myself that I'd like to get some healthy distance from? For example:

  • people pleasing
  • shaming self-talk
  • gossip
  • compulsive need-meeting

2. What is the larger purpose? For example:

  • to grow in confidence
  • to glimpse self-compassion
  • to forge healthier relationships
  • to learn to rest

3. How will I accomplish this each day? For example:

  • I'll pause for 30 seconds before saying yes to any request.
  • I'll log shaming messages each evening in journal.
  • I'll put a hand on my heart and take a deep breath when I sense the urge to gossip.
  • I'll take a deep breath before responding to any request.

Sometimes I think of the idea of "denying yourself" like shedding old skin. It's shedding old ways that you learned to please, perform, or produce to earn love. It's learning to become more real, more you, more alive to the person God made you to become.

Denying yourself for a season might mean shedding old ways you learned to please or perform for others or shedding ways you learned to hide. It might mean coming alive to the person you really are, the person God made.

What "Die To Yourself" Really Means

Jesus said to deny yourself to follow him. Let’s take a look at what those phrases really mean.

First, listen to what Jesus said about what it means to die to yourself. Later in his life, when talking to his disciples, Jesus used a metaphor to describe the process of dying to yourself:“

Listen carefully, unless a grain of wheat is buried in the ground, dead to the world, it is never any more than a grain of wheat. But if it is buried, it sprouts and reproduces itself many times over. In the same way anyone who holds on to life just as it is destroys that life. But if you let it go, reckless in your love, you’ll have it forever, real, and eternal.” John 12:24-25, MSG (emphasis added)

A grain of wheat must be buried deep in the ground in order to become what it is really meant to become. That burial is like a death. That grain stops being a grain when it gets buried. Something old is gone. But what happens to that grain? It sprouts and reproduces itself many times over. That grain becomes even more powerful. It shines even more brightly.In light of this passage:

Denying yourself is a process of letting go of what was in order to become who you are meant to be.

This idea is backed up in other passages, as we learn what it means to follow Jesus. Here’s what John says:But whoever did want him,who believed he was who he claimed

and would do what he said,

He made to be their true selves,their child-of-God selves.

John 1:11-12 MSG  (emphasis added)John is saying that when you follow Jesus, believe in him, and do what he asks, you will become even more of your true self, the beautiful soul that God made. We know from Jesus's words that the process can feel like death, like you are losing all that you have known. Indeed, letting go of old ways can be painful. Change is no small thing. But here's the promise: You are dying to old ways in order to become the fierce, light-bearing woman that God made.

When you follow Jesus, you become your true self, your child-of-God self.

This process is not a rigid form of self-denial. It is not a “grin and bear it” way of being in  the world. In fact, it's quite the opposite. If you are taking that approach, I'll be honest: those parts of you are hanging on to old ways. It's not actually dying to yourself.Instead, consider this.

What if dying to yourself means dying to:

What if dying to yourself means dying to the lie that God does not want more for you?

What if dying to yourself means saying “yes” to doing the work of becoming your true self?What if dying to yourself means saying “yes” to following Jesus as he seeks to heal you and your relationships from the inside out?

This is the what I believe it means to say “yes” to the life God has for you. It is what I believe it means to grow in emotional and spiritual health. It means “dying to” toxic patterns of relating to God, yourself, and others. And, it means saying “yes” to following the Good Shepherd as he leads you to becoming more of your God-created self.

Saying Yes to the Life God Has For You

If you've struggled with that voice of rigid self-denial, try the following exercise. Take out a blank piece of paper and divide it into two halves. Think of a situation or relationship that is plaguing you, and start to pay attention to the messages in your mind.

1.) List your "Die to Yourself" Messages.

On one side of the paper list the "die to yourself" messages that run through your mind. These are the self-denial messages that can show up in any number of ways. They often include the word "should":

  • I “should” do what he wants.
  • I “should” meet that need.
  • I “should” forget about that dream.
  • I "should" be the bigger person in this situation.
  • I "should" pretend that what she did was OK.

2.) List your "What if I could" Messages.

On the other side of the paper make a second list. On this list, give yourself permission to write down what you would like to do if you "could". For example,

  • I would take more space from this relationship if I could get it.
  • I would confront my boss if it wouldn't jeopardize my job.
  • I would ask for help if I thought they'd step up.
  • I would say "please stop" if I knew it didn't come with a cost.
  • I would walk away if I could do it without hurting anyone.

3.) Get Curious.

Take a look at both columns. At this point, don't evaluate which side is "right" or "wrong." Instead, get curious about each of the columns and what it feels like inside to see them in front of you. Simply notice what it's like to get those voices out of your head and onto the page in front of you.Getting curious shifts you out of old patterns of thinking and creates space for new possibilities. It helps you become more aware of habits or behaviors that may no longer be healthy for you.

4.) Invite God to Draw Near.

Prayerfully consider both columns, inviting God to draw near. Are you sure that "should" column is from him? Is it possible he's nudging you toward saying "yes" to what you need and want? Don't rush into making a big change at this point. Simply notice any assumptions you've been making about God.

The point of this exercise is to grow in self + God-awareness. It's to begin to notice messages that you might be listening to that aren't actually what God wants or what is best for you.This is the first step in making what I call a “Yes List.” It’s starting to think about what you want to say yes to in order to honor the woman God made. It may feel uncomfortable at first. That’s OK. Over the coming weeks, I’ll give you more opportunities to practice "dying" to unhealthy ways of relating to other people and start saying “Yes” to the life God has for you.