What It Means to Deny Yourself

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.’

Matthew 16:24–26 (NKJV)

It’s not really one of those verses that makes you go, “I love it. I feel so loved” or “This is going to be my life verse”. I mean… deny myself? What does that even mean?

The first time I heard these words I felt conflicted and a little burdened. It didn’t sound like something I could live up to. Plus, why would a loving God want me to deny myself? Didn’t Jesus also say He came that I may have life and have it abundantly? (John 10:10).

I used to think that this verse means: in order to follow Christ, I should deny myself of the comforts and pleasures in life. That I should refuse to enjoy and experience the good things this world can offer. But I learned that this is not so. In fact, I believe that while we are here on earth, God wants us to prosper even as our souls prosper (3 John 1:2). That He wants us to enjoy and taste His goodness in this world. And that He wants to bless us so that we can bless others.

So what does this verse mean?

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“let him deny himself…”

My quest for meaning brought me to Psalm 37:4: “Delight yourself in the LORD and He will give you the desires of your heart” (emphasis mine).

The key to this verse is that “give” in this context does not really mean to grant. It’s not about God granting me my own desires. Rather, it’s about God planting the right desires into my heart AND me allowing Him to do so.

To “deny myself” therefore means to empty my heart out so that the LORD can take His rightful place in it. To give Him permission to rule my life. To do, not the things I desire but the things He desires for me. How? By leaning in to Him every day so that I will hear His voice and know His heart. To abide in Him so that His desires will become mine. This is not an easy task. God knows I miss the mark every day. But thank God, His grace is also new every day (Lam 3:22).

I cannot trust my own desires. Simply, no one can. The desires of my flesh can be selfish, prideful, and sometimes just blind because I don’t have the full picture—only He does. Even with the purest of intentions, I can still want the wrong things. And knowing that God is not only omniscient, He is also a good, good Father—there is no other better assurance that His desires for me are nothing less than good and perfect.

This is my prayer:

Align my will with Yours, O LORD 
Plant in me the right desires—Your desires—for my life
Align my heart with Yours

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