Enjoying God and denying yourself


One reason we struggle with enjoying God is that it seems so selfish. We have been taught that the acme of Christian living is unselfishness. The suggestion that Christianity looks as if we are pursuing pleasure—be it in God or anyone else—seems blasphemous. We can even come up with proof-texts. Jesus said,

Then Jesus said to his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” (Matthew 16:24)

How does this square with enjoying God? It sounds, on the surface, that Jesus is saying that the pursuit of enjoying anything—God or anything else—is selfish and repulsive. It sounds like what we have often been taught, that the noblest act is to put aside all desire for pleasure. To want anything for oneself taints our motive and calls into question the sincerity of the act.

But, let’s read on. And as we do, apply the “I don’t want anything at all for me” interpretation to the verses that follow.

For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it. What good would it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul? Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul? For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what he has done. ( Matthew 16:25 – 27)

It raises several questions, doesn’t it? For example, if I don’t want any pleasure at all, what do I care about finding my life? Wouldn’t it be more noble if I lost my life and got nothing in return? Doesn’t “finding life” as a result of losing it refer to a kind of return on investment?

And what about rewards? For the person who wants nothing, what do these matter to him? If I am basking in a sea of unselfishness, why be motivated by the buoyant labeled “reward.”

This points to a classic case of confusing method and purpose. Denying myself is means, not end. The end is following after Christ. Denying myself is the means. Follow Christ for what reason? This verse does not speak to a person’s motive for wanting to follow Christ, it only speaks to the method of following Christ.

A person who wants to find ultimate pleasure must find it in God, and to do so, he must deny himself and follow Christ.

Let me summarize where we have been: A person who wants to find ultimate pleasure must find it in God, and to do so, he must deny himself and follow Christ. Denying self is not denying our hunger for pleasure, any more than it is denying our hunger for food. It is taking our hunger to God. It is recognizing that only in God is true pleasure found. It is tenaciously going after the pleasure in God that only God can provide. This is the living water of John 4 and the bread of life of John 6. It is seeking this pleasure in God as a thirsty deep pants for water. ( Psalms 42:1) Denying self is panting for pleasure in God.

This still leaves the question, “What does it mean to deny yourself, if it does not mean set aside all desire for personal want?”

Let’s return to the context. If we check the previous verses, we see that Jesus has just explained to his disciples that He is going to suffer and die. In context, we could paraphrase verse 24, “As a matter of fact, you too are going to have to deny yourself and do some dying of your own.” Just as Jesus was about to die, I too must die. Isn’t that what Bonhoeffer taught us, “When Jesus calls a man, he bids him come and die”?5

The question is, “Why did Jesus die?” What was in it for Him? Or did He consider that? Did He do it wholly for us? Or did He have benefits of His own? We know why Jesus died in terms of us—He died for our sins. But what was His motive for Him? Or did he have any?

I have always thought that He probably did it just for us, with no motive for him at all. That would fit my definition of love and Christian living and what it means to be Godly. That is what Sunday School taught me.

Jesus did not just die for us.

He did it for Himself.

But that is what I would think. Here is what the Bible says:

Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. (Hebrews 12:2)

Jesus did not just die for us. He did it for Him. He did it for the joy that was set before Him. He did it so that He could be seated at the right hand of the Father. He did it so that the angels and seraphim and redeemed humanity would sing His praises. Before you disagree and get angry and throw this book across the room, read Hebrews 12:2 again. The Bible says Jesus died for the joy that was set before Him.

And Jesus never got fogged about how to get that reward. He knew the way to do it was to deny himself and go to the cross. He asks us to deny ourselves so that we can receive the greater reward of the joy of the selfless life, as well as the rewards that will be ours in heaven

The point is that the person who enjoys God never gets confused about the difference between ultimate desire and the means by which he gets to that desire. A grid might look like this.

Ultimate Goal: Ultimate joy
Intermediate method: Deny yourself
Result: Abundant living

I have heard believers piously assert we should not be at all interested in rewards. Some think it is not spiritual to think about rewards. Jesus was not so “spiritual”; Jesus was real big on rewards. He mentions them nine times in the sermon on the mount alone. Here are some examples:

Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. (Matthew 5:12)

“Be careful not to do your ‘acts of righteousness’ before men, to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 6:1)

So that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. (Matthew 6:4)

So that it will not be obvious to men that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. (Matthew 6:18)

The problem comes when we confuse the intermediate method with the ultimate goal. If a person’s ultimate goal was to have no joy at all, Christianity would be the wrong faith for them. We are told over and over of the joys of the righteous: Psalms 16:11 “You have made known to me the path of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand.”

But, in the short run, denying self is God’s means to the end of enjoying God: abundant living. The person who enjoys God denies himself so that he can enjoy God. He sets aside the placid chalice that serving self provides to drink from God’s great golden goblet.

A study done by psychologist Bernard Rimland at the Institute of Child Behavior in San Diego verified the truth of this. He conducted an experiment where he asked 216 college students to list the names of ten people they knew well. After each name, he instructed them to write either H (for Happy) or U (for Unhappy) depending on the word that best described this person. Then, he asked them to go back through the list and write either S (for Selfish) or U (for Unselfish), again depending on which better described them. Of the 905 that were described as happy, 827 were also described as unselfish. Only 78 were considered selfish.6 Unselfishness is the best road to happiness. Putting others first really does work.

This principle can be applied to other passages that speak of denying self. For example, Philippians 2:3 “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.” This seems to contradict the idea of enjoying God. It would seem that the person who is enjoying God would need to take a careful look at this passage. Enjoying God or anything else seems to qualify as vain conceit and selfish ambition that should be avoided. We should set aside our interests and serve others.

Once again the context sheds enormous light on the subject. The very next verse says, “Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 2:5 ) Paul goes on to describe Christ’s sacrificial setting aside of the things of God to become man and pay the penalty for our sins. He goes on to describe God’s response to Jesus’ sacrifice: “Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, And every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Philippians 2:9 – 11 )

Our mind wanders quickly to the well worn argument, “Yes, being exalted was the result of Christ’s humility, but it could not be the cause of it, the motivation for it. That kind of selfishness would spoil everything.”

But that is not what the writer of Hebrews tells us, remember? “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Hebrews 12:2 ) Denying self is a means to great joy, and there is nothing wrong with wanting—desperately wanting and longing for great joy.

We ask our youth to deny themselves sexually, not because we want to keep from them the joy of sex, but because we want to enhance it. We believe that the Biblical model of saving yourself for your one and only spouse serves to make the sexual encounter more special, removes the element of comparison, removes guilt, strengthens trust, and enhances the sexual experience. We do not ask our youth to deny themselves for the sake of denying themselves, but so that they may have the greater joy of sex within a monogamous relationship.

Health enthusiasts would argue that they are not denying themselves pleasure when they don’t eat sugar, salt, and saturated fats. (The rest of us may feel differently.) They feel that by denying the short term pleasure they are, in fact, gaining more than they are losing. They are gaining the long-term sense of invigorating health and well being.

When Jesus said we find life by losing it, this is precisely what he meant. He most assuredly did not mean that we forget about our own enjoyment altogether, but rather that we not settle for the puny pleasures of this world when God would give us the pleasures of Himself.

There is something wrong with a relationship that is too altruistic. Suppose we met personally and I had you over to my house or took you out to eat and we did it again several times. We began spending a good deal of time together so that you thought we were becoming friends. Then you sensed from me that I was only doing this because I wanted to be nice to you. I didn’t really like being with you. I didn’t enjoy being with you. What is your reaction?

You would be understandably disappointed. You thought it was a mutual relationship. If I am just doing it to be nice, and don’t really want to be with you for the sake of being with you, it spoils the whole thing. Friends want to be enjoyed by friends.

The highest compliment we pay to another, the greatest praise we give the praise of enjoying being with another.

The same is true with God. When we say we want to be with God and serve God and do for God and give to God because we should, and we don’t really want anything in return, we don’t really enjoy it at all. . . something is wrong. It seems like no motive for gain would be good. But the highest compliment we pay to another, the greatest praise we give the praise of enjoying being with another. We compliment a friend by enjoying being with them. We worship God best when we enjoy Him the most.

Now or later?

This only leaves one question. Are the pleasures of God experienced in this life, or do we have to wait for heaven?

God has put us within sight of the Himalayas of His glory in Jesus Christ, but we have chosen to pull down the shades of our chalet and show slides of Buck Hill.

The short answer is yes, the pleasures of God are experienced now, and yes, we do have to wait on some pleasures until we get to heaven. In the same way that a couple can enjoy dating and there is pleasure in that, but the real pleasure of love comes after marriage.

We worship God best when we enjoy Him the most.

There are some pleasures in knowing God that we will not know until we get to heaven. This is why we are taught to long for his appearing. (2 Timothy 4:8 ) “Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day–and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing.” This life never will be heaven. There will always be tribulation in this life, Jesus promised that. There will be the constant battle against sin, the struggle for health, relational strains, persecution, financial difficulties, natural disasters, and personal failures. This is not heaven. There are pleasures reserved for us that we will never know on this shore. That is why Jesus is preparing a place for us. One of the quickest ways to lose your joy is to demand this we be happy all the time right now with no tainting of the sadness in this world. He has not wiped every tear from our eyes yet.

But all of the pleasure of knowing God is not on lay-a-way. “Delight yourself in the Lord” is a current command. It is to be done now, and the benefits accrue now. “Rejoice in the Lord always” is a current, present tense command. The tense implies continual action at the present time. We are given the spirit as a down payment of what is to come, but the down payment can be enjoyed now.

John Piper has such a way with words. This is the best paragraph in that magnificent book, Desiring God:7

Sure, we have to give up our rags to follow Christ. But the big deal is not the giving up of rags; it is the receiving of riches.

The irony of the human condition is that God has put us within sight of the Himalayas of His glory in Jesus Christ, but we have chosen to pull down the shades of our chalet and show slides of Buck Hill—even in church. We are content to go on making mud pies in the slums because we cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at sea.

Piper is clearly speaking of pleasures in this life—thus the reference to church. And those who have walked with God more than a moment know it is true. We can all remember times when the taste of His pleasures was so sweet we thought we would never leave. We must learn to deny ourselves the pleasures of this world so that we may taste and see that the Lord, is indeed, good. That is what God wants for us in this life. And in the next life, to depart and be with Christ, which will be better by far (Philippians 1:23).

But to get this, we must deny self. In a sense, God is saying to orphans in the street: you can come into the mansion, eat at my table, play with ponies and merry-go-rounds and be entertained by magicians. But, you must, I mean you must, check your rags at the door before you can enter. You cannot come in with the rags.

Sure, we have to give up our rags to follow Christ. But the big deal is not the giving up of rags; it is the receiving of riches.


5Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, p. 7, (Macmillian Publishing, New York) 1959.

6C. Cox, “A Golden Rule Test”, Psychology Today. Quoted from The Pryor Report, July 1992, p. 12.

7John Piper, Desiring God, p. 83

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