Did Jesus Deny Christian Hedonism when He called on us to Deny Ourselves?
When people want to deny Christian Hedonism they often direct our attention to the words of Jesus in Mark 8:34-37. But as you will shortly see, this passage is actually a defense of it. Here is what Jesus said:
And calling the crowd to him with his disciples, he said to them, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? For what can a man give in return for his soul?
Our Lord’s appeal that we deny ourselves and take up our cross is actually grounded upon the concern that each person inescapably has for his or her own soul. The only way you can respond appropriately to his call for “self” denial is if you are wholeheartedly committed to the happiness and eternal welfare of your “self.” If you lacked concern for the eternal welfare of your soul you would lose all incentive for obeying Christ’s command.
His exhortation is persuasive because of the intensely passionate concern you have for what might happen if you don’t obey. Jesus calls on us to deny our “selves” because otherwise we’ll die! We must “lose” our lives if we hope to “save” them. And it is the legitimacy of that personal hope on which Jesus bases his appeal. Clearly, Jesus grounds his exhortation in the inescapable reality of human desire for one’s own welfare and happiness and well-being (let us never forget that self-interest is not the same as selfishness).
Jesus is aware that we desire what is best for our “selves”. He neither rebukes us for it nor calls for repentance as if it were sinful. In fact, he intentionally targets that universal desire and entreats us based upon its undeniable presence in our souls. His somewhat paradoxical advice is that the best thing you can do for your “self” is to deny “self”! Eternal life is the best and most advantageous thing you can obtain for your “self,” but it may cost you temporal life and the passing pleasures of sinful self-indulgence.
I assume you want what is best for your “self”, your own “soul”. And it is good and inevitable that you do. That’s how God created you. So, what is the best thing you can do for your “self”? Jesus answers: The best thing you can do for your “self” is to get me, and know me, and enjoy me, and spend eternity with me in unending and unimaginable joy and happiness. But to get that for your “self” you must deny your “self”. That is to say, you must turn from seeking joy and pleasure for your “self” in the things of this world and instead find joy and pleasure for your “self” in me and the things of the world to come.
Jesus is simply asking that you sacrifice the lesser blessings of temporal and earthly comforts in order to gain the greater blessings of eternal and unending pleasure. To refuse to follow Jesus is to deny your “self” the greatest imaginable joy. His call is for us to renounce our vain attempt to satisfy our souls through illicit sex and ambition and earthly fortune. Instead, do your “self” a favor. Follow Jesus and gain true life, true joy, true pleasure. Jesus, if I may say this reverently, is not a Buddhist! He is not telling us to ignore our needs or to repress our longings but to fulfill them . . . in him!