Deny Your Soul
Matthew 16:21-27, NKJV
21 From that time Jesus began to show to His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem, and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised the third day.
22 Then Peter took Him aside and began to rebuke Him, saying, “Far be it from You, Lord; this shall not happen to You!”
23 But He turned and said to Peter, “Get behind Me, Satan! You are an offense to Me, for you are not mindful of the things of God, but the things of men.”
24 Then Jesus said to His disciples, “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me. 25 For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it. 26 For what profit is it to a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul? 27 For the Son of Man will come in the glory of His Father with His angels, and then He will reward each according to his works.
Jesus addresses self-denial as a pre-requisite to following Him. Most people—in fact I hope all—can relate to having to deny oneself in particular instances. A young man might give up his seat for a woman, a parent might make personal sacrifices to pay for her child’s education, or a churchgoer might put a little extra in the offering plate to go to missions. All of those, and others, are instances of a person denying their own comfort or wants and needs for the sake of someone else’s good. Believers ought to be well acquainted with these types of small sacrifices. But I’d like to suggest that I believe the Lord wants something bigger and more all encompassing when He tells us to deny ourselves.
In Jesus’ initial rebuke, He tells Peter that Peter cared for the things of men rather than the things of God. He didn’t correct an individual error, He addressed an overall attitude. Now, Peter was quite religious. Obviously He was committed to Jesus’ teachings, for he remained with Jesus and was the first to declare that Jesus was the Christ. So it would seem that Peter is very much concerned with the things of God. But it wasn’t the things that Peter associated himself with that were the problem, but rather the driving force within Peter. (The fact that Jesus addressed Satan within Peter should be a big indicator of that!)
The Apostle Paul in Ephesians tells us that the word of God divides between soul and spirit. Here, Jesus, the Word of God, does precisely that. Peter, for all of his religious zeal and ostensible commitment to Christ, was still operating in the realm of his own mind, will, and emotion. Such is the soul of man, and in such consists the “life” of man as natural man experiences it. Without God, man lives by and for the gratification of his own mind, will and emotion. Man will approach God, approach Scripture even, depending on his own thoughts and ideas about what it says and its meaning. He will take up causes that fit with his understanding of the world. He will set goals that seem good to him and use his willpower to carry them out. He will form relationships and make decisions based on how people and situations make him feel. Yet all of this is but “self,” and as Jesus instructs us here, one cannot follow Him and operate out of self at the same time. We cannot attempt to follow Christ while remaining loyal to our own mind, will and emotion.
I use the word “loyal” because to be loyal to someone would be the opposite of denying them and Jesus spoke of denying oneself. All people are born loyal to themselves. What they think, what they want, and what they feel dictates their lives. Even if those thoughts, desires, and feelings change over time, people stick by whatever thoughts, desires and feelings are theirs. It’s natural to think that the goal is to get ourselves to the right thoughts, the right goals, the right desires. But to be natural is not to be spiritual. Jesus is telling us to forsake our thoughts, our goals, our desires and instead to simply follow Him. Be disloyal to your own thoughts and feelings and will. Don’t stand by them. Don’t do what they dictate. It really doesn’t matter if we think that our will is good, that our desires are good, or that our feelings are justified. What matters is whether we are doing what God has commanded. Had Peter been simply following Jesus instead of his own thoughts and feelings about Jesus, he would not have resisted Jesus’ words, but rather he would have simply accepted them and continued learning.
We cannot walk in obedience to the Father when we are living out of self (our own mind, will, and emotion). This is because as soon as the Lord tells us to do something contrary to what is pleasing to us, we will balk. Or, we won’t hear God’s voice at all because we are tuned into our own frequency. Peter balked at Jesus speaking of His suffering and death because suffering and death were not on Peter’s agenda. Peter had an idea of what he thought the Messiah would do, and dying was not a part of that vision. Likewise, Peter did not see his own suffering as a part of the plan because when Jesus was arrested, Peter denied Him three times in order to avoid being punished alongside him. Peter had known Jesus truly, but his difficulty was in laying down his own self in order to follow Jesus all the way to the cross.
We may not find ourselves in a situation where obedience to God will cost us our physical lives. But anyone who desires to walk with the Lord must experience a radical paradigm shift within themselves. We cannot live for self. Even if we don’t technically commit the “big” sins (a false distinction, by the way), we cannot even attempt to serve God by bringing our own thoughts, ideas, feelings, goals and desires to Him. The driving force within us must be the word of God carried out in us though the Spirit, and that alone.