To deny yourself means to set aside your own personal desires, interests, and pleasures in order to follow God’s will and plan for your life. It means saying no to the self-centered nature we all possess as sinful human beings, and instead living a life focused on glorifying God. Here’s a deeper look at what the Bible teaches about self-denial:
Putting God’s Will Above Your Own
At the core of self-denial is a willingness to surrender your will to God’s will. Jesus said that those who want to follow Him must “deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23). Taking up your cross means identifying with Christ in His sufferings and laying down your life to serve Him. It means dying to self – considering your hopes, dreams, desires, and priorities as expendable compared to living for God’s kingdom purposes. As Jesus later said, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23).
Paul wrote that he had “been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Galatians 2:20). His old self-centered existence was dead, and Christ lived through Him. This meant his priorities were whatever God wanted, not what Paul might have chosen for himself. Jesus reinforced this same idea when He prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane, “Not my will, but yours be done” (Luke 22:42), choosing the Father’s will above His own.
Death to Selfish Desires and Ambitions
Self-denial means putting selfish desires, goals, and ambitions to death. Before coming to Christ, we all tend to live for ourselves, seeking our own advancement and pleasure. But Jesus calls us to die to that old way of living. Paul said, “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry” (Colossians 3:5).
The self-life manifests itself in sinful actions that displease God. So denying ourselves means crucifying selfish behaviors and replacing them with the fruit of the Spirit: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23). This process of spiritual growth is lifelong, as we continually submit more areas of our lives to the control of the Holy Spirit rather than our fleshly desires.
Sacrificing Physical Comforts
Self-denial often requires sacrificing physical comforts and embracing suffering for Christ’s sake. Jesus said that any who follow Him must be willing to “deny himself and take up his cross” (Matthew 16:24). Taking up the cross means being ready to endure hardship and even persecution for living as a faithful disciple. It demonstrates that our devotion to Christ is more important than protecting our own safety and comfort.
Paul embraced this aspect of self-denial, saying, “I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ” (Philippians 3:8). He counted his prestigious background and accomplishments as nothing compared to knowing Jesus. Elsewhere Paul described himself as “afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed” (2 Corinthians 4:8-9). He endured suffering because living for Christ mattered most.
Serving Others Before Yourself
An essential part of self-denial is humbly serving others through acts of sacrifice and love. Jesus exemplified this when He “laid aside his outer garments, and taking a towel, tied it around his waist. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet” (John 13:4-5). Christ, the Lord of all, took on the role of a lowly servant caring for His disciples’ needs. Afterward He instructed them, “If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet” (John 13:14).
As Jesus’ followers, we are called to serve rather than be served. Paul wrote, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Philippians 2:3-4). Self-denial means putting the needs of others before our own, just as Christ did for us.
Being Ready to Let Go of Anything
Ultimately, self-denial means being ready to surrender anything and everything for God’s glory. Our lives, relationships, possessions, jobs, dreams – all we have belongs to the Lord to use however He chooses. Jesus highlighted this unconditional aspect of self-denial when He said, “Any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:33).
This doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy God’s good gifts. But it does require an open hand, not a clenched fist, toward all we have. Job modeled this when he responded to losing all his possessions and children by saying, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21). Everything we think we own actually belongs to God.
Some Practical Examples
Self-denial touches every area of life. Here are some everyday ways it may apply:
- Choosing to fast from food for a time to focus on prayer instead of indulging your appetite
- Waking up early to read Scripture rather than sleeping in
- Serving at a homeless shelter rather than relaxing at home
- Refraining from buying things you want but don’t need
- Apologizing to someone even if you don’t think you were wrong
- Listening lovingly to a friend in need rather than talking about yourself
- Working hard at your job when you feel like doing the minimum
- Holding your tongue when you want to give someone a piece of your mind
- Going to church when you don’t feel like it
- Overlooking an offense when you want to hold a grudge
- Giving generously to someone in need rather than spending money selfishly
These examples illustrate ways we can deny ourselves daily as we seek to submit our attitudes and actions to God’s will. Of course, this requires depending on the Holy Spirit rather than trying to do it all in our own strength. But as we practice self-denial, we will experience greater freedom from sin’s control and a deeper identity in Christ.
Why Self-Denial Is Necessary
The Bible makes it clear that self-denial is not an optional part of the Christian life. It is absolutely necessary for several key reasons:
- Our sinful nature. We are naturally driven by pride, selfishness, greed, lust, and self-promotion. Dying to self is the only way to overcome the clamor of sinful desires (1 Peter 2:11).
- The world’s opposition. The world system opposes God and persecutes His people (John 15:18-21). Carrying our cross is inevitable if we live as faithful disciples.
- Jesus’ command. Repeatedly in the Gospels, Christ commands His followers to deny themselves as the only path to true life (Matthew 16:24-25).
- Kingdom focus. God’s kingdom requires humility and self-sacrifice modeled after Jesus (Philippians 2:1-11). Self-denial expresses loving God above all else (Luke 14:25-33).
- Spiritual warfare. Our battle against Satan demands rejecting worldly attitudes and embracing God’s values (Ephesians 6:10-18).
- Eternal reward. There is an incomparable eternal weight of glory for those who suffer temporarily for Christ (2 Corinthians 4:16-18).
God makes it abundantly clear in Scripture that denying ourselves is necessary to resist temptation, avoid idolatry, grow in sanctification, prepare for persecution, align ourselves with Christ’s kingdom, and glorify God with our lives. It’s the only path to joy in Him.
Blessings of Self-Denial
While self-denial requires sacrifice, hardship, and struggle, it results in deep blessings for those who walk this narrow way:
- Freedom from sin’s control as we put to death selfish desires and are filled with the Spirit (Romans 8:12-14)
- A clear conscience before God as we aim to obey Him fully (Acts 24:16)
- Confidence in prayer as our will matches God’s will (1 John 3:21-22)
- Intimacy with Christ in shared sufferings (Philippians 3:10)
- True humility from seeing ourselves accurately as servants (Mark 10:45)
- Kingdom purpose as our lives align with God’s values (Matthew 6:33)
- Courage under trial as worldly comforts lose their grip on us (James 4:4)
- Eternal reward for those who follow Christ at any cost (Matthew 19:27-29)
Rather than losing our lives, self-denial allows us to discover our true selves in Christ. Paradoxically, dying to self is the pathway to abundant, satisfying life in God.
Depending on the Spirit
Self-denial goes against every natural human instinct and desire. We cannot succeed in denying ourselves without the empowering grace of the Holy Spirit. Paul wrote, “If by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live” (Romans 8:13). Our human efforts alone will fail. We need the Spirit’s supernatural work in our hearts to crucify our sinful nature.
Paul testified, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20). This spiritual transformation requires both “faith in the Son of God” for salvation and the Spirit’s presence to produce His fruit in our lives (Galatians 5:22-23).
The Spirit energizes and motivates us to deny ourselves with wisdom and grace that our human nature lacks. Relying on His strength allows self-denial to become a joyful pursuit rather than a crushing burden. As we submit each area of our lives to His control, the Spirit empowers us to crucify the flesh and glorify Christ through self-denial.
Following Jesus’ Example
Jesus both commanded and perfectly modeled self-denial throughout His earthly life:
- He left the paradise of heaven to take on human flesh and suffer for our salvation (Philippians 2:6-8).
- He humbled Himself as a servant and sacrificed His life to save us (Mark 10:45).
- He denied Himself food during His temptation in the wilderness (Matthew 4:1-4).
- He forfeited earthly comforts and security during His ministry (Luke 9:58).
- He endured scorn, ridicule, and betrayal by those closest to Him (Luke 22:54-23:49).
- He accepted God’s will above His own in the Garden of Gethsemane (Luke 22:42).
- He willingly embraced the excruciating death of the cross (Philippians 2:8).
As the author of Hebrews said, Jesus “for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:2). Christ denied Himself every step of the way to accomplish the Father’s redeeming work.
When we feel tempted to shrink back from the cost of discipleship, we need only look at Jesus. Our Savior beckons us to follow Him along the narrow way of self-denial that leads to everlasting joy in His presence (Matthew 7:14). By God’s strength, and for His glory, we can choose each day to deny ourselves, take up our cross, and be faithful disciples of Christ.