Lesson 4: Self-Denial

Lesson 4: Self-Denial

Remember when I announced I was going to do something on church and society, Lupe and Myron offered some examples that have to be addressed. Lupe pointed to the death of hundreds of people in Pakistan who died of thirst during the Ramadan fast. Myron sent a New York Times article about India’s prime minister refusing to put eggs on the government diet for malnourished children for fear the kids would be taking life if the eggs were fertilized. Of course, we can, also, offer examples from Christianity ranging from self-flagellation to not eating red meat on Fridays. Lupe felt this kind of “renunciation” is worth considering, because people associate it with Christian discipline.

Lupe’s word choice jumped out at me. “Self-denial” long ago replaced “renunciation” in my Protestant vocabulary. Our branch of the Church has long regarded renunciation as meaningless. We thought of it as punishing the body in order to purify the soul, a form of works righteousness. We smiled when our Roman Catholic friends insisted it was really a form of discipline that helped them focus on their faith.

We thought of self-denial as giving up something for the common good. You did not buy something for yourself, so you could give that money to someone else. However, even that kind of self-denial is very controversial in contemporary society. During my ministry, I received more adverse comments to sermons dealing with self-denial than with any other theme. Usually, they spoke of it as being out of touch and old-fashioned. In our post modern society, there is no concept of a common good. Charity like every other act must bring a benefit to the giver.

This attitude is reflected in much contemporary spirituality being defined as wellness. You contemplate, because it promotes awareness; you give thanks, because it is healthy; you walk in the woods, because it helps you relate to the creation; you give, because you will get something back in return. There is something to be said for this. It certainly corrects the negative features of some forms of “renunciation.”

Nonetheless, self-denial is basic to Christian faith. In his encyclical Lumen Fidei, Pope Francis insists faith is a light illuminating the way for both the individual and society. It always draws us out of ourselves and into community. That means a Christian always is called to share with others in pursuit of the common good. When Jesus claims we have to lose ourselves in order to find ourselves, he means we find ourselves in the Beloved Community in which everyone cares for one another. Paul describes love as not insisting on your own way and returning good for evil. It always involves some form of self-denial in which people give of themselves, so that all might have enough.

My experience is that many people appreciate this message. While it is true my sermons on self-denial received a lot of opposition, they also brought some of the most positive responses I received. That support was evident when more people talked about appreciating “living below your economic peers” than any other item in the Company at Kirkridge lifestyle.

Of course, if most people in our society do not acknowledge any common good, the Christian voice in social affairs will always involve a prophetic element, a point John makes constantly. Repentance, defined as rethinking, is inherent in any attempt to transform our world or ourselves.

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  1. Rita says:

    I have to say that from my “ultra-Catholic” background, the idea that renunciation or self-denial was abhorrent amused me. How can one read the Gospel and not see that it’s at the heart of Jesus’s message? Denying oneself for mere self-denial with no ulterior motive is thoughtless, but the core of renunciation of self to either find spiritual peace or give of self to others is certainly justified by Scripture. I realize that modern society is fueled by satisfying our every whim (just watch TV ads or read a magazine to prove that), but I have always believed that the Christian counter-cultural message was that we should go out of our way NOT to always follow the “ways of the flesh.” Surely the American problem with obesity is a good indication that a little self-denial might be healthy, disregarding any spiritual motivation.

    I’m the first to agree that the saints occasionally had deep psychological problems that left them malnourished and peevish from steady fasting, sleeping on two tree trunks with ground glass as “filler” between them (St. Rose of Lima) and the list goes on, but I have never seen learning self-discipline even as a child as a bad idea. America misunderstands freedom sometimes. As a quick aside, yesterday one of my colleagues was sharing that in the middle of her class, another student from a second summer class just walked through the door and began to ask her a question about the coming final–oblivious that she was teaching a class and that this would be a rude, unacceptable social gaffe. Somewhere along the way, the student never learned that sometimes we think of waiting until the class is over so as not to interrupt others’ chance of paying attention.

    Two year-olds learn to say no with a vengeance, but it doesn’t take long to say yes to just about anything that strikes our fancy. We have lost the sense of how doing without can be virtuous. Literature is filled with heroic characters who do for others at the cost of self. Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and.follow me.” Tough language, but I believe it is the heart of what it means to be Christian.

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