What does Jesus mean when he tells us to “deny ourselves”? How does this commandment fit with the two great commandments of loving God and loving neighbor as ourselves? Is Jesus suggesting we look for suffering and hardship?
The Greek word that is translated as “deny” is one that has more depth to it than might meet the eye. The Greek word is ἀπαρνησάσθω (aparnēsasthō) means to deny, disown, repudiate, or disregard. The beginning of the Greek word starts with a preposition that suggests “away from.” So the word in Greek has a sense of turning away from ourselves. So, why does this distinction matter?
Simply put, the notion of denying yourself could be understood as seeking out suffering for its own sake. But that is not the intent. It is not about suffering as a value or something good in and of itself. Rather, it is good to the degree that it helps us to convert, to change, to grow. And the word “conversion” also includes this idea of “turning,” meaning to “turn with or turn to”.
To deny ourselves is really to turn away from ourselves for the sake of turning to God. And when we turn to God, the concerns of God, the desires of God, and the love of God become primary for us.
So in the context of this Sunday’s gospel, what is the point that is being made when Jesus tells us to deny ourselves? To understand, we must consider the entire story, the entire encounter, which really requires us to go back to last Sunday’s gospel. Jesus has challenged the disciples to consider who he is in their lives. Who do YOU say that I am? And it is Peter who gives the right answer. You are the Christ.
But, even though he gives the right WORDS, he does not yet understand the right MEANING of the words. He still thinks that being the Christ means glory and triumph. While that is not untrue, Peter does not yet understand the pathway to that glory and triumph. It is not a pathway of military victory but is rather a pathway of sacrifice and suffering that pays the price for our sinfulness and shows us a better way to happiness and fulfillment. But this pathway is counter intuitive. To find ourselves, we must lose ourselves. It is in giving that we receive. It is in dying that we are born to eternal life.
And so this turning away is to acknowledge that the earth revolves around the sun, and it does not revolve around me. This idea of denying, of turning away from, is a challenge to each of us to see that we really find our true selves when we turn away from ourselves and toward God.