Wednesday is Ash Wednesday. One of my favorite days on the liturgical calendar. I plan to attend a wonderfully solemn church service Wednesday night, receive the ash cross on my forehead, and kick off my as-yet-determined Lenten "give up" fast.
Lent is a great, ancient Christian tradition, and a favorite of any Christian who likes to dabble in the monastic custom of "going without" for the sake of Christ.
But as much as self-denial and ascetic commitment can be good, virtuous endeavors, they can easily become just another way to puff oneself up, to proudly show the world just how capably you have given up certain pleasures in pursuit of Christ. "Look what I'm giving up for Lent! ... Look at what a martyr I am! Aren't I great?"
One of the central Biblical passages championing self-denial is found in Mark 8:34-38, when Jesus informs his disciples that whoever intends to follow him must deny himself and take up his cross, unashamedly confessing Christ and being willing to forfeit his life in the process.
This "self-denial / taking-up-your-cross" idea has sometimes been interpreted—particularly in the monastic tradition--as being an ascetic denial of all worldly pleasures.
Consider the words of Thomas a Kempis, a monk who wrote, in The Imitation of Christ:
“Learn to die to the world now, that then you may begin to live with Christ. Learn to spurn all things now, that then you may freely go to Him. Chastise your body in penance now, that then you may have the confidence born of certainty.”
Kempis and other medieval theologians often interpreted self-denial in this "spurning the world" sense, arguing that the call of Christ is away from attachment to all earthly things, and that a good Christ-follower should “keep yourself as a stranger here on earth, a pilgrim whom its affairs do not concern at all."
But is Christ's call to "deny" ourselves really a directive to shun all things in this world? In the verse that follows (8:35), Christ says, "whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel's will save it." Essentially he is saying that whoever prioritizes his own happiness in this world ("would save his life") will not find it, while the person who abandons the self-centered pursuit and puts Christ first will find happiness in abundance ("will save it").
There is nothing in there about loathing all the things in the world. There is nothing about denying oneself all pleasures. It's simply a matter of priorities and obedience. Self-denial doesn't mean being imprisoned by pathological self-abasement; rather, it is freedom to let go of narcissism and replace the primacy of our own will with that of obedience and dependence on Christ.
This is not to say that the Christian life is easy. Dietrich Bonhoeffer is correct when he points out in The Cost of Discipleship that there are demands to discipleship; that grace is not cheap, but rather costly:
"Costly grace confronts us as a gracious call to follow Jesus, it comes as a word of forgiveness to the broken spirit and the contrite heart. It is costly because it compels a man to submit to the yoke of Christ and follow him; it is grace because Jesus says: 'My yoke is easy and my burden is light.'"
Bonhoeffer is perhaps the best model we have for how self-denial and "costly discipleship" can be framed in ways other than the somewhat negative, world-avoiding, hyper-ascetic monastic tone of people like Thomas a Kempis.
For all his trials and struggles (being imprisoned and ultimately executed by the SS in Nazi Germany), Bonhoeffer never had an isolationist or escapist view of the world. On the contrary, he loved the world, and felt that the ragged imperfectness of the world was essential for the real experience of grace and God's redemptive work in the world.
In a letter to a friend, Bonhoeffer wrote this:
"...it is only completely in this world that one learns to have faith. One must completely abandon any attempt to make something of oneself, whether it be a saint, or a converted sinner, or a churchman ( a so-called priestly type!), a righteous man or an unrighteous one, a sick man or a healthy one. By this-worldliness I mean living unreservedly in life’s duties, problems, successes and failures, experiences and perplexities. In so doing we throw ourselves completely into the arms of God, taking seriously, not our own sufferings, but those of God in the world—watching with Christ in Gethsemane. That, I think, is faith; that is metanoia; and that is how one becomes a man and a Christian.”
In her essay on Bonhoeffer in The Death of Adam, Marilynne Robinson postulates that there are two ideas essential to Bonhoeffer’s thought:
"First, that the sacred can be inferred from the world in the experience of goodness, beauty, and love; and second, that these things, and, more generally, the immanence of God, are a real presence, not a symbol or foreshadowing. They are fulfillment as well as promise, like the sacrament, or the church. The mystery of the world for Bonhoeffer comes with the belief that immanence is pervasive, no less so where it cannot be discovered.”
Even in the darkest places—a Nazi prison cell in the age of the Holocaust, for example—Bonhoeffer was convinced that the world was full of Christ's immanent grace. His positive view of the world came from his understanding that suffering is not just about "my own personal experience" but rather the larger groaning of the world to be made right. When framed in this light—this "taking seriously, not our own sufferings, but those of God in the world"—we begin to shift "self-denial" away from being anything remotely self-centered but rather a participatory act in concert with the cross, the resurrection, and all that that means for the world. Self-denial is not an inward action; Rather, it's an outward motion of God's grace, and it overcomes all darkness.
In the Cost of Discipleship Bonhoeffer wrote: “Jesus does not promise that when we bless our enemies and do good to them they will not use and persecute us. They certainly will. But not even that can hurt or overcome us, as long as we pray for them. For if we pray for them, we are taking their distress and poverty, their guilt and perdition, upon ourselves, and pleading to God for them. We are doing vicariously what they cannot do for themselves. Every insult that they mutter only binds us more closer to God and them. Their persecution of us only serves to bring them nearer to reconciliation with God and further the triumphs of love.”
"This is the power of Christ that is the weakness of Christ," observes Robinson. "He is present even where he is forgotten and efficacious even where he is despised. Such things could not be known about him except in a world like this one…. Watching with Christ in Gethsemane, Bonhoeffer worked at loving the world. In a letter to Bethge he wrote: “It is only when one loves life and the world so much that without them everything would be gone, that one can believe in the resurrection and a new world. It is only when one submits to the law that one can speak of grace, and only when one sees the anger and the wrath of God hanging like grim realities over the head of one’s enemies that one can know something of what it means to love them and forgive them.”
And so I think, this Lenten season, we should join with Bonhoeffer in recognizing that the spirit of self-denial—so crucial to our Christian identity—isn't so much about our own valiant efforts to avoid things or "go without" as much as it is a call to passionately place ourselves in Christ, finding our identity in him and letting him work through us for the sake of our neighbor and for the world.
As we put ashes on our foreheads on Wednesday and go about the 40 days of Lent, let us not once praise ourselves for the effort. It's not about us. It's about living our lives for another--for the sake of Christ and the Gospel, and gaining true life in the process.