“First, God works; therefore you can work. Secondly, God works, therefore you must work.” ~John Wesley (On Working Out Our Own Salvation)
“God helps those who help themselves.” Well, not exactly direct biblical doctrine, but I will say this. God helps us so we can do the things we are called to do. God gives us the grace-fueled abilities to accomplish the tasks that He wishes for us to accomplish.
Therefore, if we have the means to truly improve our selves for the sake of the Kingdom and our witness in any area, chances are, God has given us these abilities for a reason. We should never take our privileges for granted.
Yes, there are times that we must deny even our talents and gifts for His sake, but such occasion is most often a difficult decision that reflects upon the needs of the Kingdom over the needs of self, not simply ignoring our gifts because we are too “busy.” Not taking care of self (i.e. putting self in harms way for others) should be about real sacrifice, not about taking the easy way in some areas because our concerns are elsewhere.
We cannot simply ignore our physical health by giving into our appetites because our minds are concerned with spiritual matters. This makes no sense. We are not divided beings. If we are enslaved in one area of life, we are fully enslaved. No man can serve two masters. If one is the sort of person to bow to every desire he or she has, he or she is a slave to those base wants. We cannot be free if we can and do whatever we want.
Discipline, then, becomes our true key to freedom, for it is through denying self that we become who we are called to be. It is when we place our impulses under our higher calling that we have proper perspective. While natural impulse can be followed to a fault, this is not, in itself, evil.
In a Christian culture heavily influenced by the Reformation, “discipline” can seem like an ugly word. To be disciplined means that “I” do something to mold myself into the image “I” wish to obtain. This is not merely the case, but it is the case, nonetheless. But, making a real and conscious decision to deny self (because God will not simply force us to do so) is not a denial that it is God that empowers us to do so. In fact, it is His empowering that demands we do act.
Isn’t the Christian life not about what I do for myself, but what God does for me? Certainly this is the case, but it is precisely God’s will for our lives that calls us to take responsibility for ourselves, that calls us to discipline: “And he said to them all, If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me” (Luke 9:23).
In the end, we can all, by grace, deny self. This is our calling if we truly wish to be followers of Christ. To deny self is a conscious decision to orient ourselves towards His grace, which empowers us to live in His will. This is not easy. It is work. But, it is fully possible because God is at work in our lives.
A Final Note on Denying Self:
Remember that being able to do better with our life is a privilege. Being able to have choices between real food and junk food is not to be taken for granted. As such, we should feel even more compelled to take advantage of our ability to discipline our selves in such areas.
In the last post, I mentioned the low-income family, which raises the question: What about people who cannot afford real, healthy food or access to a gym? This is an issue I face all the time. My ministry works with the Navajo people of the South West, and fresh produce is not something they have right down the street at the local grocery store, and I have never seen a gym anywhere near where I work.
So, what do we do, we who promote health as a Christian practice? Do we tell them that they are incapable of living rightly before God if they cannot discipline themselves as we do?
Well, there are two things that must be considered. First, we must consider what Christ told us when He said there would always be poor persons in this world. What does that mean? It means we, as individuals, cannot help them all, and it means that we cannot hold them to the same standards we would hold ourselves to since we do have means. “To whom much is given, much is expected.” So, this is a call to discipline for those who can say “no,” not a burden to those who cannot. We should not project this responsibility upon our friends of lesser means. But, that does not mean that we cannot lovingly call them to be all they are gifted to be.
Here is the bottom line: We can ask of all Christ followers, “Are you living in the full power of grace that God has afforded you?” But, we should never be so calloused to ask any more.
Second, if we as the church are in the business of reconciliation, and I think we are, we cannot use Christ’s reminder about the continuing issue of poverty to be a crutch to dismiss the needs of the poor. We who have means should not simply use those means to better self. We need to do what we can to help persons of lesser means live well. What this always looks like, I am not sure. But, I hope our conversation here might strike the right hearts of persons that do have ideas to share with the church on such matters.