"He called the crowd and his disciples together and said to them, 'If anyone wants to follow me, let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it. But whoever loses his life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. After all, what good is it for a man to gain the whole world and yet forfeit his soul?'" (Mark 8.34-36 EHV).
That one of the results of the fall is humanity's self-centeredness should come as no shock to anyone. It doesn't take much to recognize our proclivity to put ourselves and our own interests first. Our sinful nature demands it. The marketing enterprise tries to convince us we deserve it. Our culture flat out rewards it. But that attitude flies in the face of the whole of Scripture, especially Jesus' words found here in Mark 8. On the contrary, he calls us to deny ourselves, choosing a cross-shaped life of discipleship and humble obedience over a life shaped by the self-centered world around us.
Sometimes, however, we misinterpret Jesus' call. Denying ourselves is not a call to a dour outlook or a life that necessarily forsakes all pleasure and joy for a life of servitude. Quite the opposite. Denying ourselves brings freedom from the shackles of selfishness and the freedom to love and serve others. What it does require of us, however, is to renounce the attitude captured so well in William Henley's poem "Invictus"--"I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul." As inspiring as it sounds, that attitude has no place in the Kingdom of God.
Instead, we must recognize, as Bruggemann rightly points out:
To deny self means to recognize that I cannot be a self-starter, cannot be self-sufficient, cannot be self-made or self-securing, and that to try to do so will end in isolation and fear and greed and brutality and finally in violence. It will not work because we are not made that way. It will not work even if all the consumer ads tell us to have life for ourselves. You cannot have the life you want that way. The alternative to self-focus is to move one's attention away from self to know that our life is safely and well held by God, who loves us more than we love ourselves, to relish the generosity of God and so to be free of the anxieties and needs and hungers of those who are driven by a mistaken, inadequate sense of self.
It has always been counter-cultural to be a Christian, even in America. It is becoming more and more so every single day. The call to deny ourselves, take up our crosses, and follow Christ has never clashed more with the prevailing American mindset than it does now. But, thanks be to God, we need not muster up the strength to do it alone or forsake any real reward in his Kingdom to be faithful.