Deny Yourself: The Upside-Down Economics of Christianity


Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane by Sebastiano Conca (1746)

Many have dismissed Christianity by claiming it is based in an ideology of pure selflessness — one in which the truly devoted Christian is destined to a life of pain, poverty, and abandonment. Given how many actual Christians assume this perspective, such a view is understandable. But although the Bible promotes selflessness on many levels, the holistic truth about what God intends for us is a bit more nuanced.

The key to overcoming this confusion is a recognition of the difference between poorly aligned and properly aligned self-interest.

Jesus provides the clearest explanation of these matters in Matthew 16:24-28:

Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”

Jesus then illuminates the profit motive behind it all:

…”For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul? For the Son of Man is going to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay each person according to what he has done. Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”

As counterintuitive as it may appear in natural terms, the choice to “lose your life” and follow Jesus provides the ultimate value. But although the new covenant is not a zero-sum game, we must remember to keep our intentions in selfless mode. That’s the tricky part. We must deny ourselves even while doing so will be in our best interest.

This is a challenge, because we are natural beings prone to natural inclinations. Even when we center our hearts and minds around the Word of God, we are constantly tempted to act according to a natural system. Such acts of disobedience are simply the fruit of poorly aligned self-interest. Blind selfishness is highly irrational in a Biblical sense, but our fallen nature is constantly fighting Biblical logic. We might well agree that we should deny ourselves, but the next step of actually sustaining faith in the overall benefit becomes difficult in application.

As I’ve said before, the Christian pursuit is not a one-stop, altar-call sort of thing. It requires a drastic and constant realignment of our earthly perspective. Jesus tells us that following him is in our interest, but we must remember to define that self-interest as God does, not as the world does. Jesus provided the greatest example of this when he died on the Cross. In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus prayed to “let this cup pass from me,” but despite his flesh being weak, he submitted to the Father’s will and denied himself. This is indeed a sheer act of selflessness, but it is not one without value. It is not sacrifice for the sake of sacrifice.

Jesus’ sacrifice was for the net benefit of saving humankind.

The distinction is subtle, but if we fail to overcome the underlying confusion here, we will severely limit our potential.

Above all, if we continue to view self-interest as narrowly and negatively as we do, we risk the cultivation of a Church that is masochistic and self-destructive, rather than productive and profitable.

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  • http://twitter.com/remnantculture/status/18375438722 Remnant Culture

    Jesus tells us to lose our lives for His sake. Read my new post on the upside-down economics of Christianity. http://bit.ly/cyPKZR

  • annie

    Interesting how the Message translation puts this: “Listen carefully: Unless a grain of wheat is buried in the ground, dead to the world, it is never any more than a grain of wheat. But if it is buried, it sprouts and reproduces itself many times over. In the same way, anyone who holds on to life just as it is destroys that life. But if you let it go, reckless in your love, you'll have it forever, real and eternal.” (John 12:24-25) Selah.

  • Isaac Kremer

    It's amazing how Christians are starting to slip back into the ways of the Pharisees and Sadducees in Christ's era. Standing on the street corners, looking dirty and worn, boasting about how much they give and suffer for God. Is that what Christ wants? Are we to worry so much about following the “exact wording” (* own interpretation) of the … See MoreBible that we ignore what he tells us in our prayer time? Legalism of the Bible removes the spiritual aspect of faith, while Postmodernism picks and chooses what parts of the bible they think apply and which ones should be discredited (essentially discrediting the whole Bible to anyone watching). The church as a whole is too divided.

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  • http://twitter.com/remnantculture/status/18454016848 Remnant Culture

    Jesus made it clear that the new covenant is not a zero-sum game. http://bit.ly/cyPKZR #Christian #tcot #tlot

  • aarondarrisaw

    I like the quote, “It is not sacrifice for the sake of sacrifice.” This is soundly true. I wrestled with this issue last year when trying to examine the Christian's motivation for serving God. The question that arose was this: does the Christian serve God purely and solely because God is worthy of our service and praise? Or, should the benefit we receive in denying ourselves and pursuing the service and glory of God motive our interests? In the end, it seemed impossible to try to construct some ostensibly pious answer by saying that our own interests shouldn't be present in our motivation for serving God.

    So, yes we should deny ourselves and serve and worship God and obey his commands because his is worthy of it. However, we receive supreme benefit in doing so, and we shouldn't ignore that. Rather, it is as you say: we should redefine/rethink our understanding of true self-interest. Properly understood, we will find that mankind's highest self-interest is found in the selfless pursuit of God, his glory, and loving fellow man. Maintaining a proper tension between these two ideas is not easy, but necessary.

  • aarondarrisaw

    I like the quote, “It is not sacrifice for the sake of sacrifice.” This is soundly true. I wrestled with this issue last year when trying to examine the Christian's motivation for serving God. The question that arose was this: does the Christian serve God purely and solely because God is worthy of our service and praise? Or, should the benefit we receive in denying ourselves and pursuing the service and glory of God motive our interests? In the end, it seemed impossible to try to construct some ostensibly pious answer by saying that our own interests shouldn't be present in our motivation for serving God.

    So, yes we should deny ourselves and serve and worship God and obey his commands because his is worthy of it. However, we receive supreme benefit in doing so, and we shouldn't ignore that. Rather, it is as you say: we should redefine/rethink our understanding of true self-interest. Properly understood, we will find that mankind's highest self-interest is found in the selfless pursuit of God, his glory, and loving fellow man. Maintaining a proper tension between these two ideas is not easy, but necessary.

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  • http://twitter.com/josephsunde/status/6929701129949184 Joseph Sunde

    The new covenant is not a zero-sum game. Deny yourself: http://bt.io/GMpD

  • http://twitter.com/remnantculture/status/113349460838461440 Remnant Culture

    Remnant Culture 101: the upside-down economics of Christianity http://t.co/ncIQSIm

  • http://twitter.com/remnantculture/status/113349579180752896 Remnant Culture

    Remnant Culture 101: The Upside-Down Economics of Christianity http://t.co/ncIQSIm

  • http://twitter.com/remnantculture/status/113350306988965889 Remnant Culture

    "For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” -Jesus http://t.co/0cyHesZ

  • http://twitter.com/remnantculture/status/113350698925686784 Remnant Culture

    "For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” -Jesus http://t.co/fNiR6Wk

  • http://twitter.com/justitia_mt/status/113356177705930754 tlelam

    Good thoughts: RT @RemnantCulture: Remnant Culture 101: The Upside-Down Economics of Christianity http://t.co/zqYAM99

  • http://twitter.com/justitia_mt/status/113356177705930754 tlelam

    Good thoughts: RT @RemnantCulture: Remnant Culture 101: The Upside-Down Economics of Christianity http://t.co/zqYAM99

  • http://twitter.com/loweryfinds/status/113369452459982848 Josh Lowery

    From @josephsunde RT @RemnantCulture: Remnant Culture 101: The Upside-Down Economics of Christianity http://t.co/ujPVx72 #theologyofpoverty

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