“Self-denial.” wrote Cardinal John Henry Newman, “is a subject never out of place in Christian teaching.” It is never out of place because it is a way of putting the cross, the pattern of Christ’s sacrifice, at the very center of our daily lives. It is especially appropriate during the forty days of Lent. “If anyone would come after me,” said Jesus, “let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” Let him deny himself–this is not just refraining from sin; nor practicing what earlier Christians called mortification, that action through the Holy Spirit of putting to death sin in the Christian’s life (Rom. 8:13; Col. 3:5): though certainly it includes this. Rather it is walking in the way of sacrificial obedience to Christ’s call. This includes at times giving up what one might rightly and legitimately use. As St. Paul writes “‘All things are lawful’ but not all things are helpful. All things are lawful but I will not be enslaved by anything.” (I Cor. 6:12-14; see also I Cor.10:23)
The Ash Wednesday liturgy includes self-denial, along with self-examination, prayer and fasting, as one of the disciplines for the observance of a holy Lent. Yet self-denial is rarely even mentioned these days within the Church. Is it any wonder in this increasingly indulgent society that it is not at the top of most lists or dimensions in Christian discipleship? To be sure this discipline, like the other spiritual disciplines can fall prey to a form of perfectionism which denies the grace and freedom we have in Christ; yet, nevertheless, when employed from grace and through God’s grace there is godly freedom, even delight, in these disciplines, especially the discipline of self-denial.
What is self-denial?Self-denial or the discipline of abstinence is refraining in some degree and for some time from what we generally regard as normal and legitimate desires. While fasting from food or drink can be subsumed under self-denial, it is usually treated as a distinct spiritual discipline. Often, self-denial can include refraining from TV, radio, IPod, Face book, one’s over fascination with news; practicing frugality in spending; simplicity (such as set aside a day to walk or ride the bus, use fewer gadgets); practicing silence (such as going a day or part of a day without speaking, not using the telephone/cell phone during certain hours, or checking emails, etc.); sacrifice (taking the farthest parking place and praying while you walk to the store, the Church or restaurant).
Why practice self-denial? Certainly not to achieve some spiritual one-upmanship, or supposed works-righteousness. There are two helpful reasons for practicing this discipline-one, is a negative movement, akin to mortification; the other a positive movement, and is for cultivation. The “negative” purpose is stated well by Dr. Dallas Willard. “The Christian denies himself in things lawful (or legitimate) because he is aware of his own weakness and liability to sin: he keeps himself from walking on the edge of a precipice.” He therein practices temperance. St. Paul writes, “Everyone that strives for mastery is temperate in all things.” It teaches the soul discipline; thereby we enable ourselves to be better able to stand in the time of testing or temptation. A positive reason for such self-denial, is described well by a Bishop of the Isle of Man, “those who deny themselves will be sure to find their strength increased, their affections raised, and their inward peace continually augmented.” I prefer to say it more simply, it enkindles love. For instance, the lover who makes some sacrifice for his sweetheart, or the parent who gives up some personal time for his son or daughter’s performance at the school concert does not find his love lessened by this self-denial or sacrifice. Quite the contrary, one’s affections are enkindled by such personal sacrifice. So it is with our self-denial for our Lord; it increases our affection for Him.
Self-denial is a discipline that God can use for strengthening your life with him. If you haven’t already embraced some Lenten discipline ask him to guide you in this. What normal or legitimate practice might you refrain from during this season? What divine-human cooperation might He lead you to embrace that his grace might prevail more fully? Many disciples have found that self-denial can be a delightful and godly refrain.
–(The Rt. Rev.) Mark Lawrence Is Bishop of South Carolina