“No one comes to the father except through me.” (John 14:6)
“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” (Matt 25:41)
“If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters – yes, even his own life – he cannot be my disciples.” (Luke:1426)
“I did not come to bring peace but a sword.” (Matt 10:34)
There are plenty of candidates for the most unpopular, most offensive, most awkward or embarrassing sayings of Jesus. There are plenty that we sometimes wish were not in the Bible, or at least wish other people wouldn’t notice. But as for the things that Christians wish he’d never said for our own sake, well the verses we read at Church on Sunday are right up there on the list:
“If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me.” (Luke 9:23)
As Vaughan, our rector, pointed out, comfortable middle class Christians have a tendency to water this statement down. Self-denial means giving up chocolate for lent. Carrying our cross means putting up with a bad back. Trivial things, but perhaps enough to make us feel that we’re suffering for the gospel, box ticked. Unfortunately, Jesus was never the comfortable middle class Messiah we’d make him out to be, and just saying no to that extra piece of cake doesn’t come close to the radical life of discipleship that Jesus called his followers to. Being himself radical in every way, in love for enemies, in welcome of prostitutes and lepers, in holiness of life, in intimacy with God, we shouldn’t be surprised that the lifestyle Jesus expects from his disciples is just as radical. When Jesus talked about self-denial and taking up our cross, he was talking about crucifixion. Following him as far as the cross if it comes to it. He means crucifying every part of us that isn’t following him: the selfishness that holds us back from being loving and generous, the proud ambition that stops us being humble, the lust and the greed that stops us being pure. To use the words of John the Baptist, it means daily deciding that we will decrease so that he can increase. (John 3:30)
So far so good. Challenging, yes, terrifying sometimes, but simple enough to understand.
But Vaughan also pointed out how counter-cultural the call to self-denial is, and he’s right. The buzz words which used to be confined to a few self-help books – self-worth, self-actualization, self-confidence, self-fulfilment, self-esteem – these words are now the language we speak. Their message permeates everything, from careers advice to glossy magazines, teenage PSHE classes and counselling courses. That’s when I realised. To me, these words aren’t just the titles of women’s magazine articles on how to survive without a man or get your dream job. When I had therapy last year, this self-speak all got very personal.
Of all the useful things I learnt in therapy and of all the “a-ha” moments, it was one of the first things my therapist told me near the end of my first proper session, that made the biggest impact and set the tone for everything else we did. She said to me, “it doesn’t sound like you’re always very kind to some parts of yourself. What would it be like to show yourself a little bit more compassion?” From there on, I learnt what it meant to be a bit more compassionate and loving towards the parts of myself I didn’t like and just wanted to get rid of before. It didn’t mean making excuses or indulging everything that any part of me wanted to do, but showing some understanding for my own motives and feelings, treating myself kindly rather than harshly when I felt something I didn’t like feeling. Being a good friend to myself. Learning to do that has been one of the most helpful parts of therapy, it’s really changed things for me.
So sat in Church, I was left with this conflict: Jesus tells me to deny myself, to take up my cross, to crucify the bits of me that are not following him fully, to be that radical about loving him first not myself. Christians are meant to denounce this culture of self-centredness that says I’m most important and focuses on my happiness, making sure I’m fulfilled. Yet one of the things that has helped me most in becoming the person God says I can be is a principle that seems to come right from that culture, treating myself kindly. Loving each part of myself, if you like.
Here was the biggest surprise of the week. St Augustine, the fourth century Latin Church father who had such a massive guilt complex and some deep-seated mother issues, helped me work out something like a resolution. I was writing an essay this week on the relationship between love and happiness in Augustine, and part of it was on the paradox of self love. For Augustine, happiness is the deepest and most natural human desire, it’s an unquestionable given that every human being seeks happiness. True happiness is the fulfilment of desire for the good; loving and attaining a true, permanent, stable good. Essentially, it is love of God that leads to happiness. So we have this situation where self-love, the desire to make ourselves happy at the deepest level, is the most natural thing for us. It’s part of what it means to be human. It seems like unavoidable selfishness, and yet for Augustine, this is how God created us. He made us with this natural self-love because it’s the desire for happiness that drives us to love him. Because God is the only ultimate, permanent good, the self who searches for happiness should realise that it can’t be found in anything or anyone but the God who satisfies.
That’s what I found too when I started to put this lesson from therapy into practice. When I was feeling something I didn’t want to feel, when a part of me that I didn’t like started to have a tantrum and make demands, I tried to show understanding and love and compassion to myself. At those times I found that I pointed myself to God. Like in the Psalms, I spoke to my soul and took myself to the God who satisfies every desire. True self-love is fulfilled in loving relationship with God.
So, back to those difficult words of Jesus:
“If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me.”
The relationship that I was learning to have with myself was a bit like that of parent and child. To be a good, loving parent doesn’t always mean to give your child what they want and indulge them. Sometimes it means denying their demands and doing what is best for them, really best for them, even if they don’t like it at the time. That’s what I’m learning to do with myself, not to give in to every whim or desire, but lovingly to know and to do what is really best for myself – to deny myself and trust what Jesus says is best. Sometimes that means doing things that feel painful, getting rid of parts of things that stop me following Jesus, being prepared to go even to the cross if it came to it.
This doesn’t mean that we only follow Christ for the sake of our own happiness. It doesn’t mean Christianity is essentially a selfish exercise. It seems to me that God is so good, so loving and so gracious that he’s designed us so that worshipping him and honouring him and living in obedience to him, which is everything we ought to do because of who he is, also produce the happiness and satisfaction that we deeply want, because of who we are. So denying myself, taking up my cross and following him is a call to trust the character of God. It’s an exercise in trusting God with my very self, knowing the he knows how to look after me better than I do. It’s being a good parent and friend to myself to sometimes deny that troubled, troubling part of myself what it wants and instead ask it to trust God and follow Christ, whatever the cost.