By Gardiner Spring
Another evidence of Christian character is the spirit and practice of self-denial. Self-denial consists in the voluntary renunciation of everything which is inconsistent with the glory of God and the highest good of our fellow men. It does not imply the voluntary renunciation of good, nor the voluntary toleration of evil as being desirable in themselves considered; though it does imply both as being desirable all things considered. There is no absurdity in the proposition that a thing may be very unpleasant in its own nature, but taking all things into view, may be very desirable. Neither does self-denial imply the renunciation of all regard to one's self, for desire of happiness and aversion to misery are inseparable from human nature.
The natural principle of self-love does not constitute the sin of selfishness, for there is no moral turpitude in being influenced by the anticipation of good or the apprehension of evil, provided I am not influenced by these considerations supremely. Nor is there sin in regarding my own interest provided I do not put a higher estimate upon it than it demands. Self-denial is diametrically opposite to supreme selfishness. Selfishness is making a man's self his own center, the beginning and end of all that he does. It is difficult with the Bible in our hands or upon the principles of sound philosophy not to acknowledge the distinction between affections which are supremely selfish and truly unselfish to be both plain and important. There is no need of the aid of metaphysical discussion to establish the proposition that no man ought to regard his own happiness more than everything else and that the man who does so possesses none of the spirit of the Gospel. The affections of men must be placed on some one object which is paramount to every other. Two objects of supreme delight there cannot be. Two paramount principles of action there cannot be.
There is no intermediate object between God and self that can draw forth the highest and strongest affections of the soul. As there is "no such thing as a creature's going out of himself, without rising as high as the glory of God" so there is no such thing as a creature's going out of God without descending as low as himself. Other objects may be loved, but if they are not loved merely as the means of self-gratification they are not loved supremely. Affections that do not terminate on God, terminate on self. Men who do not seek the things that are Jesus Christ's seek their own. Inordinate self-love is the ruling passion of their hearts and the governing principle of their lives. They love themselves, not as they ought to love themselves, but supremely. They set up their own private good as the highest object of desire and pursuit. Their affections operate in a very narrow circle. They have no ultimate regard but to themselves. They have but one interest and that is their own. A supreme regard to their own happiness is the mainspring of all that they do for God, of all that they do for themselves, and all that they do for their fellow men. It is needless to say that with this spirit, Christian self-denial has no communion.
This heavenly grace is the result of a supreme attachment to a higher interest than our own. It terminates on nothing short of the highest good, and in pursuing this, terminates on an object large enough to gratify the strongest desires of the most benevolent mind. He who is not a stranger to the spirit of self-denial has learned to make his own interest bend to the interest of God's Kingdom, and that from supreme regard to the interest of God's Kingdom, not from supreme regard to himself. Once he denied Christ for himself, now he denies himself for Christ. Once he lived to himself, now he lives to God. No duty is so hard that he is not willing and resolved to perform it; no sin so sweet that he is not willing and resolved to forsake it.
Nothing is too dear to give to Christ, nothing too great to be cheerfully sacrificed for the promotion of His glory. He knows he is but a point in the universe of God, "an atom in the sum of being," a single member of Christ's mystical body, and is willing that God should lift him up or cast him down at His pleasure. His own advancement is as a feather when put in the balance against the honor of Christ and the good of His Kingdom. Such is the spirit of self-denial. It is the result of a calm, deliberate, invincible attachment to the highest good, flowing forth in the voluntary renunciation of everything that is inconsistent with the glory of God and the good of our fellow men. That this is the Scriptural idea of self-denial would be easy to illustrate by a multitude of examples. This is the elevated spirit that prompted the father of the faithful to offer up the son of promise, that bore the three worthies of Babylon to the burning fiery furnace, and that led the apostles and martyrs to glory in tribulation. It has borne the test of ridicule and reproach, stood undaunted before the scourge and the prison, triumphed amid the light of the fagot, and smiled at the point of the sword. This is the spirit which shone with such signal luster in the sufferings and death of our blessed Lord. It was eminently the characteristic of this Divine Personage that in all He did and suffered He pleased not Himself. He sought not His own glory, but the glory of the Father who sent Him. "Though he was rich, yet for our sakes he became poor, that we through his poverty might become rich" (II Cor. 8:9).
He often anticipated the day of His death and in itself considered, earnestly desired to be delivered from that fatal hour. He knew the malice of His enemies and expected to feel the weight of it in His last sufferings. He foresaw all the circumstances that would add poignancy and agony. But does He shrink from the dreadful undertaking? You see Him steadfastly setting His face to go to Jerusalem, you hear Him telling His disciples that He must go, He must suffer, He must be killed, but do you hear Him complain? Go to Gethsemane and there behold the Son of God under the most clear and awful view of His approaching crucifixion and learn what it is to deny yourself for the sake of advancing the Father's glory. Listen to the language of a heart already broken with grief, "I am poured out like water, all my bones are out of joint; my heart is like wax; it is melted in the midst of my affections. This body sweats as it were great drops of blood. The hidings of my Father's face are enough to bury me in eternal darkness. The guilt of this falling world will sink my feeble frame to the grave. O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass way from me! Now is my soul troubled. The hour is come and what shall I say? Father, save me from this hour? But for this cause came I to this hour. Father, GLORIFY YOUR NAME!" This was carrying self-denial to its highest pitch.
So pure was the selfless love of the Savior that the sweetest feelings of His heart would have remained forever ungratified without the privilege of expiring on the cross. This too is the spirit which is no less strongly enforced by precept than example. How often are believers exhorted not to seek their own, not to live unto themselves, and whether they live to live unto the Lord, or whether they die to die unto the Lord? That charity which the apostle represents as the distinguishing characteristic of believers is self-denying, it seeks not her own (I Cor. 13:5). "If any man," says the Divine Savior, "will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross and follow me." "Whoever will save his life shall lose it, and whoever shall lose his life for my sake shall find it" (Mat. 16:24-25).
One would think it difficult after such an explication to be long in doubt as to the nature of one of the most decisive evidences of real religion. We can hardly turn to a page in the Bible without being convinced that the grand distinction between true religion and false is that the one is self-denying, the other is supremely selfish. "For whether we be beside ourselves," says the apostle to the Corinthians, "it is to God; or whether we be sober, it is for your cause. For the love of Christ constrains us, because we thus judge that if one died for all, then were all dead; and that he died for all, that they which live should not henceforth live unto themselves, but unto him which died for them and rose again" (II Cor. 5:13-15).
Those who are in the flesh live unto themselves; those who are in the Spirit live unto Christ. There are but two moral characters that are essentially different and this is the radical difference between them. Here then you have another criterion of Christian character. it is not supposed that in the present state we shall find self-denial unalloyed with selfishness. Still in the affections and conduct of every child of God the spirit of self-denial is the prominent feature. He who possesses most of this spirit possesses most of the spirit of his Divine Master. In the same proportion which the glory of God and the welfare of His Kingdom take. the place of persona1 advancement does vital religion predominate in the soul.
The question has often been put "How far must a man deny himself for the good of others and the glory of God?" The thoughts already suggested appear to give us a satisfactory reply to this inquiry. But, if they do not, I answer, just as far as the good of others and the glory of God require him to deny himself. So long as this is the criterion it is impossible that self-denial can be carried too far, either in this world or the world to come. But must it be carried so far as to make a man willing to be damned for the glory of God? I cannot express better my whole soul on this point than by quoting an anecdote which the great Witherspoon introduces as expressive of his own views on this interesting subject. "A man in a high position who had been a great profligate afterward became a great penitent. He composed a little piece of poetry after his conversion, the leading sentiment of which in his own language was to the following purpose: Great God, Your judgments are full of righteousness; You take pleasure in the exercise of mercy, but I have sinned to such a height that justice demands my destruction, and mercy itself seems to solicit my perdition. Disdain my tears, strike the blow, and execute Your judgment. I am willing to submit, and adore even in perishing the equity of Your procedure --but on what place 'will the stroke fall that is not covered with the blood of Christ? The monastery and the cloister are not the only evidences that there is much of the show of self-denial where there is none of its spirit. Men may deny themselves in a thousand instances from no other motive than that they expect to be the gainers by it. You cannot know whether your self-denial is genuine or whether it is spurious without knowing whether it is founded upon a supreme attachment to the glory of God. To deny yourself from a supreme regard to a higher interest than your own is to possess the spirit of the Gospel.
Is this then the principle which regulates your conduct both toward God and toward man? Which do you pursue most, your interest or your duty? Which do you think of most, your interest or your duty? Can you renounce your ease, your profit, your honor when they come in competition with your duty? Can you renounce everything which is inconsistent with the glory of God and the highest good of your fellow men? Are these the natural breathings of your heart--"Your Kingdom come! Your will be done!"? Is the highest interest of this Kingdom identified with the object of your highest wish, and with your most vigorous exertion? Is the cause of Christ your concern? The dishonor of Christ your affliction? The cross of Christ your glory? If so, you are not strangers to the spirit of self denial. You are not without conclusive evidence that you are born from above. The more you forget yourselves in a supreme regard for God's glory, the more will you advance your own interest both in this world and that which is to come. But the more you seek a selfish, private, separate interest in opposition to the glory of God, the more are you seeking an interest which God has determined to destroy.