“A common religious pathology is a twisted understanding of “self denial.” Jesus said “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself.” Lets start with what this does NOT mean.
The religious understanding of “self-denial” is based on the false notion that our humanity is bad, and that in order to know God we must suppress it. In this view, practically everything we feel or desire is suspect, and the chief characteristic of following God’s will is that you shouldn’t be enjoying it. This view also tends to shame the body. Hence the often unhealthy religious views about sexuality. This is why in many religious traditions, the mortification of the flesh is viewed as a sign of being devout. Self-denial is not an obliteration of your body, identity, individuality, sexuality, interests, needs, or desires.
The whole notion of denying yourself to please others, including God, is misguided. Is it any wonder that codependency is so widespread in human relationships when it’s the underlying premise of our relationship with God – deny yourself in order to make God happy. You were born out of the image, likeness and being of God. Your true Self is complete, whole, and connected with God. There is nothing you can ever do to improve or diminish your true Self. You don’t need to do anything to make God happy. God is happy, and happy with you. The only thing left is for you to know and walk in the truth of this.
When Jesus spoke of denying oneself to follow him, he was referring to letting go of our insistence that the spiritual path be a certain way or coincide with our comforts and preferences. In other words, it’s setting aside all the things we think we know and the willingness to start from a place of not knowing. This is not an easy thing because we are attached to the things we think we know, and have likely constructed our identity around them.
The central message of Jesus was that the Kingdom of God had come. But no one could find it. Why? Because they had a notion of what the Kingdom of God should look like and what it would be when it came. That’s why the complete declaration Jesus commonly spoke was, “Repent, for the kingdom of God has come.”
In the religious context, “repent” usually means acknowledging and grieving your sinful condition, turning from your wicked ways, throwing yourself on the mercy of God, and pledging to do better… or else! “Repent” is one of those religious words that conjure up images of judgment, condemnation, and fear.
The word “repent” (metanoia) actually means a change of mind or having a new mind. The word suggests a radical transformation of how we process reality. Metanoia literally means “beyond the mind.” It’s the idea of stretching or pushing beyond the boundaries with which we normally think and feel. It often involves pressing beyond our religious conditioning about ourselves, God, others and life itself.
When Jesus said, “Repent, for the kingdom of God is near,” he was saying that peace, freedom, fulfillment, and wholeness is present in every moment but it can’t be accessed or grasped in the typical way we understand things. “Repentance” as a way of life would mean acknowledging that what you most deeply want in life lies beyond what you already know or think you know. It involves approaching life from a place of “not knowing.”
Denying yourself is setting aside your preconceived notions. It’s a willingness to approach Truth as a beginner, a place of not knowing. It’s setting aside your preferences that Truth has to look like and line up with what you already know or is comfortable. Following Jesus’ Truth can be discomforting and an affront to everything we think we already know. Our ego is threatened by Truth and will fight it kicking and screaming the whole way.”
– Jim Palmer, Notes from (Over) the Edge