What “Deny Yourself” Means – and Doesn’t Mean
by Kristen Rosser ~ aka: KR Wordgazer
The founders of No Longer Qivering spelled “Quivering” without a “u“ because, as they say, “There is no ‘you’ in Quivering” – there’s no place for self – and they claim this is a bad thing. But Jesus said that a true believer must deny himself, take up his cross and follow after Him. Quiverfull women take the Bible’s admonition to die to self very seriously. We use the acronym J.O.Y., for true JOY comes from putting “Jesus first, Others second and Yourself last.” How can you encourage Christian wives and mothers to turn from Christ’s teachings by making “You” a priority?
The problem with the way Quiverfull followers use the J.O.Y. teaching is that while they claim the “Y” is for “Yourself last,“ what is often actually practiced is “Yourself not at all” – and this particularly applies to wives, mothers and daughters. Quiverfull women believe that in putting their husbands and children first, they are putting Christ first, and that they are not to consider their own needs in any other way than as a means to an end, giving themselves just enough minimal care that they can go on serving “Others.”
J.O.Y. for Quiverfull women, in practice, usually looks more like O.O. – “Others Only.” But is this what Jesus actually taught or practiced?
The story of Mary and Martha is the story of how two sisters understood Christian service. Luke 10:38-42 shows how Martha “received” Jesus into “her house” – which is interesting in and of itself, for Luke apparently didn’t think it necessary to identify Martha in relation to a male authority (such as her brother Lazarus, seen in John 11 and 12). No, it was “her house” that Jesus came to, and Martha did what any good Quiverfull woman would do. Forgetting about herself, she bustled around preparing a meal. But Mary went and “sat at Jesus’ feet and heard his word.” “Sat at his feet” had a particular meaning according to the understanding of that time, which was “to learn as a disciple.” In Acts 22:3, Paul identifies himself as a disciple of Rabbi Gamaliel by saying, “I [was] brought up in this city at the feet of Gamaliel.” (Emphasis added.) What Mary was doing in Luke 10:39 was making herself a disciple of Jesus, sitting at his feet to learn with the other disciples.
Martha was upset. Here was Mary neglecting her womanly duties, leaving Martha to do it all herself while Mary took her place among Jesus’ disciples! So Martha went and complained to Jesus, asking Him to make Mary do her womanly duty and help in the kitchen. What did Jesus say? “Martha, Martha, you shouldn’t be thinking about yourself or your needs. If you have to prepare the meal alone, God will bless you all the more for your godly selflessness. But Mary, what do you think you’re doing? How will you find a husband if you continue to rebel against your God-given role?”
If Quiverfull teachings are to be believed, this is what Jesus should have actually said. But what He did say was quite the opposite. “Martha, Martha, thou art careful and troubled about many things. But one thing is needful, and Mary hath chosen that good, which shall not be taken away from her.”
Jesus was telling Martha that it wasn’t necessary for her to be working in the kitchen at all! Instead, what was “needful” was to sit at His feet as one of his disciples, and Mary was right in what she had done. Jesus neither rebuked Martha for thinking about herself, nor said a word to Mary about forsaking her proper gender role. He made no distinctions for the practice of discipleship according to gender at all.
All right, I can see making an exception to serving “Others” if it’s really about putting my relationship with Jesus first. But isn’t Christian life about denying ourselves? Aren’t we just being self-absorbed if we focus on our own needs or desire things for ourselves?
Jesus did say to deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow Him. But does this mean it’s wrong to prioritize our own needs, to stand up for ourselves, or to ask others to do things for us?
Matthew 16:36-46 is the story of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. He is just about to give His life for the world. A greater example of self-sacrifice could not be shown. But listen to what He says to Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, His closest friends:
“My soul is exceeding sorrowful, even unto death: tarry ye here, and watch with me.” Is that Jesus expressing a deep emotional need, and asking His friends to help meet it?
“And he cometh unto the disciples, and findeth them asleep, and said unto Peter, “What, could ye not watch with me one hour?” Is that Jesus, expressing disappointment, telling His friends honestly that they have let Him down?
Yes, that’s Jesus, thinking about His own human needs and asking for something for Himself. That’s Jesus, honestly telling others how He feels about not getting His needs met. It could not have been wrong for Him to do this– so how could it be wrong for us?
And look at Paul in the city of Philippi, in Acts 16:12-40. He and Silas are preaching, and a group of powerful men arrange to have them arrested, beaten and thrown in jail. When the magistrates send for them the next day, saying “let those men go,” Paul says (verse 37), “They have beaten us openly uncondemned, being Romans, and have cast us into prison; and now do they thrust us out privily? Nay verily; but let them come themselves and fetch us out.” Is that Paul standing up for himself and practicing limits on submission to those in governing authority over him? Is that Paul acting in his own best interests? Is that Paul, asserting his own rights?
Yes. Paul is not sinless as Christ is, and yet the passage says nothing to condemn what he has done, nor does Paul ever express remorse or show in any way that he believes he has done wrong. Paul was taking care of himself as best he knew how. If it was not wrong for him, how could it be wrong for us?
Genesis 1:27 says we have all, male and female, been created by God in God’s own image. His gift to each of us is ourselves. Doesn’t He want us to take good care of the gifts we receive from Him?
Romans 6:19 says, “What? Know ye not that your body is the temple of the Holy Ghost which is in you, which ye have of God, and ye are not your own?” If our bodies are His temple and we are made in His image, then we have a responsibility to take care of ourselves. In fact, each of us has built into us a deep instinct for self-preservation, even as Ephesians 5:29 says: “For no man ever yet hated his own flesh, but nourisheth and cherisheth it.” Jesus said the second greatest commandment was to “love thy neighbor as thyself.” Matthew 22:38 (Emphasis added). It is our nature to want to take care of ourselves and see that our own needs are met, physically, spiritually and emotionally– and this self-love is not sinful, or Jesus would not have mentioned it as part of the commandment. It is merely a part of our stewardship of the creation: stewardship over our own selves, made in God’s image.
In fact, if we say that it is wrong to seek good things for ourselves, or that it indulges our flesh to take care of ourselves, then what are we saying? Since Jesus said, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” then if it is wrong to seek good things for ourselves or to take care of ourselves, then it wrong to seek good things for others or to take care of others. If good things for ourselves indulge our own flesh, then good things for others indulge their flesh, and the best thing we could do for others is help them deprive themselves. But if the Bible teaches us to do good to and give to others, then it is also good to do good to and provide for ourselves!
The Proverbs 31 woman is held up to Quiverfull women as their role model. Women are taught to focus on verse 13: “she worketh willingly with her hands,” verse 15: “she riseth also while it is yet night, and giveth meat to her household,” and on verse 27: “she looketh well to the ways of her household, and eateth not the bread of idleness.” But look at verse 16: “she considereth a field and buyeth it,” verse 17: “she girdeth her loins with strength, and strengtheneth her arms,” and especially verse 22: “she maketh herself coverings of tapestry; her clothing is silk and purple.”
Here we see a woman who thinks for herself, makes decisions for herself, takes care of herself, and even gives herself the very best. She clothes her “household” with scarlet (v. 21) – good, high-quality clothing. But she makes her own clothes “silk and purple” – the very finest! She makes sure her own arms are strong and healthy. She decides for herself what do with money she has earned for herself. Yes, she gives and makes sacrifices for her family. But she makes herself a priority too. And nothing in the passage faults her for self-indulgence or tells her she has stepped out of her role; in fact, she receives nothing but praise.
In Colossians 2:22-23 Paul talks about the kind of service to God which looks good, but is actually “after the commandments and doctrines of men.” This type of service, he says, is characterized by “will worship, humility and neglecting of the body.” “Will worship” refers to a kind of worship which is centered on our own wills – “will power,” if you will, rather than resting in Christ. Humility to the point of neglecting our own bodies is not true worship to God and does not help us become more godly. Instead, it focuses on our own will power in denying ourselves. But this is not the kind of self-denial Jesus wants. The rest of the verse says that this is “not in any honor to the satisfying of the flesh.” We have within ourselves a strong instinct for self-preservation, just as Ephesians 5:29 says. “No one ever hateth his own flesh.” And our will-power is only so strong. If we continually treat ourselves as if we hated our own bodies, it will backfire on us. Our own neglected needs will become so pervasive that we will be unable to concentrate on anyone else; nor will we have anything to give to others.
But the Bible says the heart is deceitful and wicked! Surely you’re not telling us to trust our hearts!
It is true that in Jeremiah 17:9, God says, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked; who can know it?” But in Jeremiah 31:31-33, God adds that He is going to make a new covenant in which “I will put my law in their inward parts and write it in their hearts.“ And Proverbs 12:20 says, “Deceit is in the heart of them that imagine evil, but to counselors of peace, it is joy (emphasis added).” Trusting God means trusting Him to purify our hearts. If our hearts are turned to God, we need not fear them. We can trust that our desires are good and are from God.
So what did Jesus really mean when He said things like, “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me, for whosoever will save his life will lose it, and whoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it” (Matthew 16:25-26)? Or “Verily, verily I say unto you, except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone; but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit” (John 12:24)?
Jesus wanted us to prioritize the kingdom of God, seeking it first, even as He said in Matthew 6:31-33: “Take no [anxious] thought, saying ‘What shall we eat?’ . . . But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness, and all these things [your earthly needs] shall be added to you.” The Greek word for “take thought” there is merimnao, which means “be worried about.” He is saying to let go of having to be first in our own lives and making our own needs top priority. He is not saying to never think about our own needs at all! Notice that He doesn’t say, “Seek only the kingdom of God.” The Lord’s prayer includes a prayer for “our daily bread,” and other needs that we are encouraged to ask God to meet. This is not an “either-or” proposition, but a “both-and” one. The kingdom is to come first, and we are to put it above our own desires and let go of any greedy self-indulgence for its sake– but we are part of that kingdom, we have good desires and legitimate needs that God values, and we need to value ourselves as God values us (Matthew 7:11 &10:31).
But what is this kingdom of God? Are we to be prioritizing a certain earthly lifestyle? Elizabeth Rice Handford, in her book Me? Obey Him?: The Obedient Wife and God’s Way of Happiness and Blessing in the Home appears to believe so. She believes that for a woman, the kingdom of God is all about being married and obeying her husband, and that in obeying her husband, she is obeying God. On page 69, she says: “Why doesn’t the husband have to do his part first? Why? Because you are the one burdened for a Christian home. Having a home where Christ is the head is cheap enough at whatever price you have to pay!” And on page 88, she adds, “There’s a strange paradox in Scripture, echoed in many places: If you would live, you must die (John 12:24). If you would keep your life, you must lose it (Matt. 10:39). . . And there is one more paradox which must be taken by faith as well: if you would know true freedom, you must submit to your husband’s authority. . . . Obedience brings happiness!”
But Jesus never said anything like this to the women who followed Him. Luke 8:3 says that “Joanna the wife of Chuza, Herod’s steward, and Susanna” were among the women who traveled with Him and provided for Him out of their own money. Joanna, at least, was married; but there is no record of Jesus telling her to leave Him, go home and keep house, and be obedient to her husband. In fact, Jesus said nothing about women who followed Him having a different calling than the men, or that anyone in His kingdom had higher status than others.* He never said His kingdom was about obedience to anyone but God. He certainly never said that only some of His followers must deny themselves and serve others of His followers, who would be the recipients of the good things the first group denied themselves!
He said that everyone who comes to him must come in the same way: as a little child. Luke 18:17. Little children had no status in that society and were not recipients of any obedience by anyone else. Indeed, in Luke 9:48, Jesus used a little child as an example of “the least among you.” And we are all to seek to be as that child– not just wives, and not just mothers. In order to follow Jesus, husbands too must do their part, contrary to what Handford’s book says. “Denying yourself” means laying down earthly status for the sake of the kingdom. And it’s for men as well as women, husbands as well as wives.
Nor is the kingdom of God about following a certain earthly lifestyle. Jesus never married or had children. If He wanted to promote the “godly family” as the goal of the kingdom, would He not have provided Himself as an example? Or if not, would He not at least have told us, in addition to “follow Me,” to “follow God’s command to be fruitful and multiply”? But Jesus never says a word about this. Jesus tells many parables of the kingdom, and teaches many things about it – including that for its sake, some could choose never to marry (Matthew 19:12) – but He never speaks of it in terms of “godly families” or the obedience of wives to husbands. Instead, He speaks in terms of mercy, repentance, spiritual change, and a new closeness with the Father in each individual heart.
Self-denial and sacrifice when necessary for the good of others, are different from self-deprivation and self-neglect. Much of the unbalanced self-destructiveness of the “deny yourself” teachings practiced in Quiverfull results from exempting some Christians from self-denial while requiring complete self-abnegation by others, to seek an earthly lifestyle that exalts some believers into higher status than anyone else. But God’s kingdom is not about an earthly lifestyle. No one has any higher status than anyone else in Christ. “Deny yourself” is supposed to be about putting His kingdom first. And the kingdom is supposed to be about loving God, our neighbor and ourselves from hearts changed by God’s grace.
And that applies to all of us.
For more information, read 12 “Christian” Beliefs That Can Drive You Crazy
by Drs. Henry Cloud and John Townsend, 1994, and see “Stewardship of Self for Christian Workers: Biblical Bases.”
[Note: This article is intended for those readers who have chosen to accept the Bible as authoritative for faith and practice. If you are not one of those readers, please be understanding of the intended audience and refrain from commenting on the assumptions on which it is based.]
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NLQ Recommended Reading …
‘Breaking Their Will: Shedding Light on Religious Child Maltreatment‘ by Janet Heimlich
‘Quivering Daughters‘ by Hillary McFarland
‘Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement‘ by Kathryn Joyce