Then Jesus told his disciples, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. -Matthew 16:24
I’ve been thinking about the idea of denying ourselves as Christians a lot lately, and to be honest, I have mixed feelings about it. On the one hand, I think Christianity has been far too heavy-handed in creating a negative environment toward humanity, and toward the body particularly. Deny yourself! preachers yell, as if our primary job is to somehow find a way to wriggle out of our own skin.
I can’t go for that. Jesus certainly didn’t, or he wouldn’t have bothered putting skin on in the first place.
But then again, he is the one who said it, so what did he mean? Did he mean it the way monks have understood him, and we are to live simply and share everything together and not eat too much and pray a lot and fast? All of those are good things, and holy disciplines. But let’s be honest: the ratio of monks to the rest of us is a little deflating. Is this verse just supposed to convict us that we aren’t hard-core enough yet? Is it our ideal, and we just read it over and over to make sure we stay mindful we’re not there?
I guess that would be fine, too, and in some ways I don’t want us to let ourselves off the hook for what Jesus told us to do, even if we aren’t close to doing it.
Here’s the rub, for me: When I look at Jesus’ life, when I read the gospels, when I think about what I felt when I walked in Galilee and imagined Jesus doing the same, I do not get the sense that he was, in a word, restrictive. He was not worried about eating too much or drinking too much or enjoying himself too much or laughing too much or in any way being a human being too much.
I know plenty of Christians who walk through life very hand-wringy about taking the wrong step. I know plenty of Christians who are just to the point of being overstrung about doing something wrong or letting their guard down or not being constantly vigilant. I just don’t think Jesus was like that. And the monks aren’t like that, either.
Which makes me think those of us who are not Jesus and not monks are missing something.
The other day I was reading a book that described a different description of renunciation, of denial. Renunciation is, in Tibetan tradition, the removal of anything that is a barrier between yourself and others. It is the act of making yourself more available to those around you, and to the world in general, in all of its joys and sorrows.
I keep running into this idea lately, and it is totally inconvenient. It’s just not a good time, I argue, for this kind of approach. There are too many things I feel I need to be AGAINST right now, for me to be told over and over again to remove walls instead.
But then I think again about Jesus, and I realize, of course, this is the only kind of renunciation he did practice. Not severity. Not asceticism. Not lack. Openness. Jesus renounced barriers.
At this point I feel I should mention in full disclosure that I wrote an entire book about this idea and yet I still push away from doing it in real life, because it’s totally inconvenient. The idea of GOD being like that is one thing; to practice it in an election year is another.
Deny yourself and follow me. Take up your cross. Be open to others. Reject the walls. Renounce the barriers. Deny your own deep seated desires for defense.
The weird thing is, when I breathe past the “no thank you” part, I know he’s right. I know this is the most honest, beautiful, right thing to do. It is the only thing to do, if we are to be faithful. And I also have a sense of peace that in doing so I will experience the exact opposite of what I expect- not lack, but life. Not a shrinking down but a growing up and out.
The surprising thing is that it doesn’t feel like renunciation at all when you do it the Jesus way. It feels like salvation, like a salve that opens us up to healing and new life.
It is a hard season to be open, because we live in a world where people are far more eager to place targets on our heads. Like I said, this is totally inconvenient. But I think we can be brave enough to do it, if we trust that Jesus told us this not because he has some weird sense of wanting to limit our lives but because he wanted to open them and free them and bring them toward beauty.
We will know what to do once we renounce the walls. We might find clarity, and even, shockingly, peace. But we have to be brave enough first to take up our crosses and deny our own desires for fortification.