Is self-denial the essence of morality?

The question above was posed by Cody Libolt in a discussion group we both belong to. I can’t say that I’ve discussed this topic specifically with very many people, but I think it would be safe to say that the idea that self-denial is the essence of morality is not uncommon. If someone were to read just Matthew 16:24 I could see how they might come to that conclusion: “Then Jesus told his disciples, ‘If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.'”

Of course, Jesus finished that thought:

For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul? For the Son of Man is going to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay each person according to what he has done. Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.

In denying to himself something temporary, the follower of Christ gains thereby a greater reward. Even if one takes Matthew 16:24 out of context, it seems to me that the essence of morality would still be “follow Christ,” not self-denial in the abstract.

Jesus’ call to follow him through self-denial is clear, but that call must not be misunderstood. Biblical self-denial is only possible in the first place through the power of the One who gives us a life that is more abundant than we ever could have imagined. To pretend otherwise is to, in effect, exalt ourselves above God, acting as if he is the one that gains from our fellowship.

As C. S. Lewis put it: “It would be a bold and silly creature that came before its Creator with the boast ‘I’m no beggar. I love you disinterestedly.'” God chooses fellowship with human beings, but he seeks our fellowship not to satisfy some unmet need on his part. We are the ones who benefit from fellowship with God and we need not shy away from the fact that truly following Jesus leads to everlasting reward.

Perhaps no one understood this concept better than Jim Elliot, missionary to the Huaorani people of Ecuador. He wrote in his journal on October 28, 1949 (pictured below), that “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose.”

October 28, 1949 entry from Jim Elliot’s journal

Elliot and his fellow workers for Christ gave up their lives for the Gospel, something many would call the ultimate act of self-denial. It seems to me, however, that they put their lives on the line not for some abstract, disinterested notion of self-sacrifice, but in the full assurance that whatever sacrifices they and their families made would pale in comparison to the reward that awaited them in eternity.

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One response to “Is self-denial the essence of morality?

  1. Pingback: Thursday Thought: Is Self-Denial the Essence of Morality? | Reason In View

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