One climbs, one sees. One descends, one sees no longer. But one has seen. There is an art of conducting oneself in the lower regions by the memory of what one saw higher up – Rene Dumal
I’m on the plane, having left a week of wonderful teaching and fellowship in Southern California as I return, refreshed and sun drenched, to the wonderful work I’ve the privilege of doing in Seattle. The work, as most of you know, is the work of shepherding the flock – and as I finish my sermon on this airplane, I’m thinking a lot about that pesky part of the faith life called self denial. I’m thinking about it, because I had lots of pastoral conversations about fidelity in marriage when sickness or loss or betrayal make exit appealing. Other conversations were about what it means to embrace the utterly contrarian view of sexuality that says, “no…I’ll deny my desires to sleep with you, because my faith tells me that sex is blessed, joyful, a gift – in the context of covenant and commitment.” Still other conversations had to do with willingness to relocate when they felt like staying, or serving and loving children when every fiber of a person was spent because their spouse is in Afghanistan. I heard, time and time again, stories of people doing exactly the opposite of what they felt like doing, and that is, much of the time, the essence of what it means to follow Jesus. Here’s what I’m learning, again and again….
Self-Denial is essential. Jesus speaks of the cross, suffering, denying himself. It’s not cheap talk either, as we know from the cross he carried and bled on in his own execution. I get annoyed, no really irritated, no really angry, when the call to Christ’s ethic is met with, “but to deny my sexuality would be inauthentic”, or “to forgive would be unnatural”.
“Precisely the point” is my response, as I tell people that if I give in to every appetite in the name of authenticity, I’d no longer be married and my children would have a long list of reasons to hate me. My appetites don’t exactly lead to the straight and narrow road, which by the way, is designed ‘straight and narrow’ by Jesus, not me. We’d do well to remind ourselves, and each other, that following Christ means doing things that point us, often, in exactly the opposite direction of our appetites. It means:
Giving when you want to keep.
Loaning out when you’re afraid they’ll break it.
Forgiving when you want to hold it against her
Seeking community when you want to hide in disengaged solitude
Withdrawing from people when you want to numb your pain with parties.
Worshipping together because we’re called to gather, when you’d rather not
Loving co-workers fervently, which means ending sarcasm and politics behind closed doors.
…and o so much more. This is the Christian life.
Without the “Why”, self-denial is meaningless and destructive
Hebrews 12 reminds us that Jesus didn’t welcome the cross as a long lost lover. He ‘endured’ it, and the only reason he endured it was because something glorious is born out of self-denial.
But why do we say no to our appetites, be they sexual, monetary, retaliatory, or whatever? What’s the reward? When the apostle Paul shares his story of what it means to live faithfully, he talks about sharing in the fellowship of suffering so that he might also share in his glory. Inherent in this is the sense that there’s a glory and satisfaction that can only be known by walking on this narrow, counter-intuitive, ‘inauthentic’ path.
When Conrad Anker came up short on his attempt to climb Meru, a peak that was ripe with meaning for him, he went home and let go of the dream – until someone called a couple years later and invited him to try it again. It was risky. It was painful. It was filled with suffering and self-denial, hunger pains and aching cold. And now, he had the opportunity to walk that path of suffering again.
Of course he said yes. Here’s what he writes about it:
After a year I’d forgotten the cold feet, chapped face, parched throat, and dry swollen hands. I only remembered the sunset illuminating the glaciers and the spires, the forest of giant pines, and the men whose faces bore…the patina of wind and sun and cold mountain air.
It’s the same reason women usually give birth to more than just one child, in spite of the pains; the same reason people return to frontlines; the same reason Elizabeth Elliot returned to live among the Auca Indians who murdered her husband; the same reason a teacher gives up her summer vacation to volunteer in the inner city tutoring homeless children; the same reason someone chooses the path of chastity, or returns to it in spite of the ache. The reason: joy!
Consider Jesus, who for the joy set before him, endured the cross. The joy isn’t in the cross and suffering and self-denial; it’s on the far side of it. This brings me back to Pascal’s comment that the main problem with humanity is that we can’t sit quietly in our own room. We’re empty and believe that our appetites will bring us what we need. The truth of it is this: Christ will bring us what we need.
Our problem is that we’ve not seen this, and don’t experience it – or not very often. We’ve seen self-denial as an end in itself, but that’s not the Christian life; that’s boring, fear based fundamentalism. We’ve seen people hold their appetites in check for a ‘little while’ and decide it doesn’t work. Rather than doing the hard work of swimming deeper into the ocean of Christ’s intimacy, finding contentment through creation and fellowship – they exit the narrow road and head off on their own. They’ll fill their appetites, but not their longings – fill their stomachs but not their hungers. It’s the wrong place to be.
The good news is that it’s never too late return to the narrow road, rejecting the lie that every appetite is the ‘end of the rainbow’ – choosing instead to suffer with Christ, that you might know the glories of his resurrection life.