Question: "What does it mean to deny yourself? What is self-denial?"
Answer: Jesus taught that to be His disciple—His follower—the spiritual discipline of self-denial is required: “Then Jesus told his disciples, ‘If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me’” (Matthew 16:24, ESV). Denying yourself is an essential part of the Christian life. Jesus called upon those who wish to be His followers to reject the natural human inclination toward selfishness. The Lord Himself exemplified self-denial (John 13:1–17).
The Dictionary of Bible Themes defines self-denial as “the willingness to deny oneself possessions or status, in order to grow in holiness and commitment to God.” The words Jesus used in the original language for “deny yourself” were strong terms similar in meaning to Paul’s wording in Philippians 3:7–8: “But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ” (ESV, emphasis added). The purpose of self-denial—counting as “loss” all earthly gains—is to become more like Jesus in holiness and obedience to God.
Denying yourself includes overcoming the persistent fleshly demands of the body, also known as the carnal self or the natural man, and bringing them into submission to God’s Word so that you don’t give into sin: “And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (Galatians 5:24, ESV).
Self-denial for the Christian means renouncing oneself as the center of existence (which goes against the natural inclination of the human will) and recognizing Jesus Christ as one’s new and true center. It means acknowledging that the old self is dead and the new life is now hidden with Christ in God (Colossians 3:3–5).
From the moment of our new birth into Jesus Christ, self-denial becomes a daily exercise for the rest of this life on earth (1 Peter 4:1–2). With the Holy Spirit now indwelling us, we are thrust into a conflict between the divine Spirit of God and the carnal self. Paul describes this ongoing struggle in Romans 7:14–25. Only by God’s grace and the power of the Holy Spirit can we learn to deny self: “For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people. It teaches us to say ‘No’ to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the blessed hope—the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ” (Titus 2:11–13).
Through daily self-denial and crucifying the flesh, our life in Christ grows, strengthens, and develops more and more. Christ now becomes our life. These famous words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer help us understand the meaning of self-denial: “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” A follower of Jesus must be prepared to die if death is where the path of discipleship leads: “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20; see also Romans 6:1–11).
Fasting is one of the disciplines of self-denial that Jesus practiced Himself (Matthew 4:1–2). Giving to the poor and needy is a form of self-denial that Jesus encouraged (Matthew 5:42; Luke 11:41). Watching in prayer is another way to deny yourself in service to God, as Jesus demonstrated (Matthew 14:23; 26:41). Likewise, living modestly rather than indulging in excessive luxury is an area in which believers can exercise self-denial (Matthew 8:20; 10:10; 1 Timothy 2:9).
Perhaps the most significant way we practice self-denial is in how we love and esteem our brothers and sisters in Christ. Self-denial is the basis for Christian fellowship and service within the church: “Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:4–8, ESV; see also Matthew 5:38–48; Mark 10:42–45).
Denying yourself means seeking the good of others before looking out for yourself (1 Corinthians 10:24). When Ruth followed Naomi, she practiced self-denial for the benefit of her mother-in-law (Ruth 2:11). When Esther put her life at risk to save her people, she demonstrated self-denial (Esther 4:16). Scripture teaches us to deny ourselves for the sake of those who are weak in the faith (Romans 14:21; 15:1–3; 1 Corinthians 8:13; 9:23). When you are willing to sacrifice your time, energy, rights, position, reputation, privileges, comforts, and even your very life for the sake of Christ, you exemplify what it means to deny yourself: “Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 10:39; see also John 12:24–26; 2 Corinthians 6:4–5).