There are a few extremes that people hold to on the topic of self-denial. I think A.W. Tozer said it best: “The meaning of self-denial is not an infliction of personal torment nor penance, but it is simply the giving up of the very principle of living for ourselves. It is completely changing the direction of our being and will, so that no longer in any sense do we act with reference to how anything will affect us, but our one thought is how it will affect God or others.” Self-denial then is not principally about doing less for ourselves, but rather doing more for God.
We’ve gotten this whole thing backwards for so long that it can be difficult to turn it around. Our inclination is always to serve ourselves first and then God with whatever time we have left over. We know this intellectually. We even know it to be true of ourselves. That knowledge alone does little to help us rectify the situation. The only way to reverse the tendency of serving self is to place our focus on God. After all, He is the one to whom we have pledged our allegiance and our life. It is He who we profess to be our Lord.
When we first surrendered our lives to Christ, we knew that life from that point forward would somehow be different. Except for too many of us, it wasn’t. We quickly fell right back into our old habits and ways of thinking. We proclaimed to follow Jesus but continued living for ourselves. We continued walking in our own familiar way. If you want to be a true follower of Jesus, you’re going to have to change your direction. You’ve got to exchange the familiar path for the narrow one on which He travels.
It’s so easy to judge every circumstance by what it means for us. Instead, we have to begin looking at the events of life through the perspective of how we can serve God within the circumstances presented to us. It’s not about us. It’s all about Jesus. As a result, our lives are now all about loving and serving others, because that’s what Jesus did. I love the way Tozer put it, “Our one thought is how it will affect God or others.” That should be our only thought. There is no room for another; there is no room for us.
The best part of practicing self-denial, of thinking only of others is that we do not get left out of the equation. We must understand that God is always thinking of us. He is consumed with us. Just as we think only of others, God is constantly thinking only of us! Self-denial should be easy, because we already have the full attention of God. What more could we possibly want or desire? The only thing self-denial will ever cost you is a collection of crude and worthless imitations of the real thing we desire. The more we focus on God the less we will see ourselves. And this is the essence, and the beauty, of self-denial.