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So, what if we take denying ourselves (for Lent) literally? We deny ourselves because we realize we can’t make it alone. We need someone else to help us carry the cross. Self-denial as the most basic Christian means of asking for help.

Usually, we deny our personhood because it challenges the idea of a relationship. We encourage our autonomy because it rejects the concept of community. We underscore our individualism because it also rejects intimacy. Self-denial creates a safe space for us to hide if we so choose. Lent, by design, isn’t the best season for sharing. It’s that way by design. Lent makes us quiet, private, and shy. This is what happens when we deny ourselves. I’m not so sure it should.

To “deny yourself and take up your cross” invites us into what the cross really means — not just death and suffering, but God choosing human relationships. The cross represents God’s commitment to humanity. The cross represents what we do when we are not in a relationship with the other and think only for ourselves. Because to be ourselves is to be sure of our connectedness. If we reject the cross, we leave each other.

I think that’s what Jesus is saying.

Because Lent cannot be just about ourselves and our sacrifices, somehow, we must define our identity as connected to Christ and a community of believers. We don’t do Lent alone. Lent is a radical communal experience in many ways. People are willing to wear crosses on their foreheads when buying groceries. People are eager to talk about their Lenten disciplines — out loud, even to strangers.

Why? Because we realize Lent is not just about us. Lent is a denial of the self in the best way, not the reclusive self that denies the need for Christian community or the self that thinks it can survive on its own. The solitary self that rejects the most profound challenge of humanity — belonging.

Jesus’ charge is not a demand to deny your true self. Instead, it’s an invitation to realize we need other people. Desperately. Intimately. Because this is what being human is all about — intimacy. Belonging. Relationship. Attention. To what extent do we barely know ourselves without all of the above in our lives, without others acknowledging who we are? We can’t be ourselves on our own. And when we do, it is a self-absorbed existence. It is to become narcissistic in its purest form, where those around us are only pawns to placate our self-perceived power and importance.

Let’s face it. This is easy to do. And this is where many of us go astray. The self-talk of autonomous importance, self-sustained life, and power-driven ideals. And where does this end up? Broken communities and congregations. And for what? Our sense of authority? Perhaps this is one aspect of “denying yourself.” The feeling that our power trumps that of our people, the Scripture, and our God.

So here is our chance. To deny the impulses that demand reliance on us alone and seek the help of others. To curb the expectations that suggest ministry is a singular existence that works out of some skewed assertions that we have all the answers. Finally, to reject the temptations that try desperately to convince us of our worth without the call of God we initially heard.

The denial of self? It’s embracing the truth that we can’t live in this world alone. We need Jesus. We can’t live our lives without being in a relationship with others.

A different kind of self-denial, indeed.

–Richard Bryant

One thought on “A Different Kind of Lenten Self-Denial

  1. And yet it seems that relationships in the church can be the hardest ones of all.

    How is your dad doing? I pray for both of you.


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