By Fr Yacoub
“And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” Romans 12:2
In many aspects of modern day life, there exists a clear disparity between the life Christians are called to lead, and the life lived with the influence of Western culture. This distinction is not seen any more clearly than by looking at the quality of self-denial, a concept that is highly foreign to many Western cultures.
“Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself. Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others.” – Philippians 2:3-4
This idea of denying oneself – forsaking personal desires for the interests of others – is unfamiliar and even unacceptable in most perspectives. Notions of submission have highly attached negative connotations in modern society, and are associated with feelings of weakness and limitation. Contrary to this perspective, true Christianity sees things differently.
Self-denial may be considered a core value in Christian life, led and taught to us by Christ on Earth. With the mindset of “not My will, but Yours, be done.” (Luke 22:42), Christ set the perfect example, a didactic life of denying oneself.
But what benefit does self-denial have? In a modern day society crowded by those blowing their own horns, gloating in their perceived success and absorbed in their own selves, where does self-denial fit? Let’s explore.
Denying oneself allows a grace and gift of true inner peace. How can anything disturb someone, who denies themselves to live for the Lord? Self-absorbed sins of envy, jealousy and bitterness will dissolve. With the “helmet of salvation” Ephesians 6:17, the obsession with oneself is displaced by the focus on the Lord… a recipe for true peace.
One who truly denies themselves will only have forgiveness in their hearts. It is a barrier, a protection of the anger that can lead to grudges and enmity with neighbors. How can you get angry if someone hurts your “dignity or status”, if you deny yourself?! You will be satisfied, no matter what one may do to you.
Loved by all
Paradoxically, the act of denying yourself draws hearts of love and friendship. You will be a friend of Heaven and Earth. Let’s consider a married couple. In the wedding ceremony, they recite vows from St Paul’s epistle. What is this commandment really saying? Self denial. If a spouse truly denies themselves for their partner, the only result is for the partner to submit. In The Paradise of the Monks, it is quoted that “the best thing for two people living together, is self-denial”. Let us use this not only with our spouses, but in everyday life with all. Trial with the grace of God, and see.
Let us shift now to the question; “How do I really know if I am denying myself?”
We see many attempts and examples, most with pure intentions of humility, but oftentimes misguided. Some may say, “On a table with issues being discussed, I do not join in. I keep my opinion to myself, it is a way of humility.” This has many risks – you may sit and feel yourself higher than those around discussing – the exact opposite of intended humility.
Again, one may say “I always wait to be last in anything, it is a way of humility” – of course this may be for some, but again it carries the same risks. So how do we truly deny ourselves?
I heard from a priest conference once, the following words.
The only way to acquire true humility and self-denial is to accept accusation and abuse from others.
There is a reward for those who are truly humble, and that is grace from Our Lord.
In his last visit to Australia, HH Pope Shenouda III came to St Mark’s Church. I needed him to help me in my spiritual life. He invited me in front of the congregation and kept humiliating me. He continued to ask, “What is this?! Where are the youth?!” I knew the youth to be upstairs in the English church, watching the event by TV connection, but I didn’t say so. I responded “I will look for the youth Saydena”.
Meeting him the next day in the monastery, I asked him “Are you truly upset with me Sayedna?”. In his wisdom he responded, “Father, is it better for me to praise you and say ‘you are a good priest, you have a good church’? Or for me to use this opportunity for you to improve in your spiritual life? You can be satisfied that the church if full of youth, but how will you grow? Will you look for the lost sheep?”
This is the culture of the monks in Egypt. They are tough with each other, to allow each other to grow. From Sayedna’s firmness, I have stayed many nights thinking and apply what he said. To survive and strive in this culture if firmness, humility and self-denial is not only beneficial, but completely necessary. Let us adopt these characteristics.
One may ponder on the difference between self-denial and low self esteem. There exists one clear and important difference. Though you may have low self-esteem, it is imperative to know that “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” Philippians 4:13. We are weak alone, but vessels for the glory of God through His grace.
We pray that the Lord grant us grace to deny ourselves as He did. “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.” John 3:16. With His life as the perfect example, let us live for His glory alone.
Glory be to God Amen.