Monday, March 17, 2008

Whatever Happened to "Self-denial"?

This past weekend, as Camille and I journeyed to the somewhat-remote location where my church's Pathfinder club was camping, we got to talking about snow mobiling. Quite a number of my family members and friends who live in the colder and snowier climes of New England have snow mobiles, and it's a regular pastime for them in the winter months. This has been an especially good year for the activity since we have nearly set a record in New Hampshire for snowfall.

There has been a little bit of peer pressure, from certain individuals, for Camille and I to get a snow mobile of our own. This way, we could all go out together on a beautiful afternoon and enjoy some pure, innocent fun.

To be sure, that would be fun. But as we talked about it, Camille (thankfully) said, "You know, when we have kids, I don't think I would want them to have these types of 'toys.' " I was glad to hear her say that. Growing up, neither Camille or I had these types of "toys" in our families. We didn't have snow mobiles, jet skis, big screen TVs, boats, pools . . . This is not to say that these things are "bad," but that our parents never made them a priority (nor probably had the money).

And I got to thinking: whatever happened to the doctrine of self-denial? Far too often these days we are more than willing to spend thousands of dollars on such items, never giving it much more thought than whether we have enough money in the bank. Instead, we have whetted our appetite for luxurious living, constantly craving the next gadget or toy; the next cruise or resort vacation. Self-denial has become a four-letter word.

In her book, Help Your Self: Today's Obsession With Satan's Oldest Lie, Stephanie Forbes writes that today's culture "tells me that it is my human birthright to be the center of my own universe. I have the right to my feelings and their full expression. I have the right to pursue my heart's desires. I have the right to love myself. I have the right to do what I want, be what I want, accumulate what I want. Self-help tells me that putting myself first is healthy; sacrificing myself to any person or any cause is unhealthy. To be fully human is to be fully me, to be full of me. The justification for all this self-ness? I AM my own justification" (p. 16).

Yet I believe it was Jesus who said, "Whoever desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me" (Mark 8:34). He isn't speaking only about the aforementioned things, of course, but it certainly doesn't exclude them. Most of the time, when faced with a decision to indulge ourselves in some of these things, we often ask the question "why not?" rather than asking "why?" We just assume that there is nothing wrong with such an action or purchase - so long as we keep putting our 10 or 15 percent in the offering plate each week.

I like the way C. S. Lewis put it in Mere Christianity, though: "I do not believe one can settle how much we out to give [to charities, etc.]. I am afraid the only safe rule is to give more than we can spare. In other words, if our expenditure on comforts, luxuries, amusements, etc., is up to the standard common among those with the same income as our own, we are probably giving away too little. If our charities do not at all pinch or hamper us, I should say they are too small. There ought to be things we should like to do and cannot do because our charities expenditure excludes them" (p. 86 - 1980 edition, emphasis added).

I am not at all implying that I have achieved such a lifestyle. There are others who could probably look at my possessions - my two computers, my fairly-expensive camera, my guitar, etc., - and say the same about me. At the same time, I am not judging others who have more than I have. I am saying, however, that each of us need to evaluate our own lives and ask the Lord to show us how we are not practicing self-denial. Perhaps we need to simplify our lives. Perhaps we are too married to attaining more, to always desiring the next toy or luxury vacation.

Perhaps, though, we need to look at the cross instead.

(Please note that the above picture was not taken by me. It was taken from


Mecro108 said...

I used that exact same CSL quote in an offering call a couple of weeks ago.
Good thoughts - I appreciate "hearing" them... and knowing there's others out there like ourselves.

Shawn Brace said...

Yeah, it's a great quote.

Good stuff! Something I need to remember more often.

LarryandJean said...

We agree with you Shawn. In our case we see the faces of the starving children being rehabilitated in Honduras ( where we have volunteered at twice in the last year and weigh the value of those children against our proposed purchase.

Larry LaClair - Brunswick, ME

Shawn Brace said...


Thanks for your thoughts! It is probably very helpful when you can have a tangible reference in mind as to our expenditures. Thanks for sharing!

Bulworth said...

It's good that you're able to critique yourself in light of this observation. Many people can only note the speck in someone else's eye and not the beam in their own eye.

That being said, you're right that self-denial has gone out of style amid such abundance as we enjoy in the West. There are also, unfortunately, many popular "Christian" preachers who make a virtue of followers of Christ having material prosperity.