What’s the Difference Between Healthy Self-Denial and Unhealthy Self-Destruction?

Multiple times in our work journey, Kathy and I have been faced with very difficult environments and sought the Lord’s wisdom whether we should persevere in unjust circumstances or find a better place for our gifts and skills. Years ago, a good friend and prayer partner intoned, “You cannot leave something just because it is hard.”

How do we distinguish when the current toxicity at work is a sign for fidelity under trial or providential indication of a change of location? Here are insights that have helped us make several transitions under trying circumstances. How do we distinguish when the current toxicity at work is a sign God wants us to stay and faithfully bring about change, or a providential nudge that we should leave our current situation? Read more here. Click To Tweet

Deny Yourself and Take Up Your Cross: the Biblical Call to Self-Denial

When our Lord Jesus Christ demands we “leave all and follow” and “deny yourself and take up your cross,” it is an urgent summons for kingdom obedience—and no excuses will do in light of the Master’s call. No institutions, relationships, or internal fears should hinder our obedience to the Gospel (Luke 9:57-63).

It is important we understand the focus of this summons to suffering.

At its core, Christ’s invitation to take up our cross as we follow him means we relinquish our sovereignty in favor of God’s. We choose the Lord’s will over our independent (and often sinful) one. Self-denial is focused on taking off the old nature, putting on the new nature empowered by the Spirit, and submitting to the ways and will of God (Ephesians 4:22-24). Theologian Dale Moody once observed:

Human sovereignty leads to frustration. Divine sovereignty brings all responsive persons to fulfillment.

This is the mysterious reality we find as we follow Jesus by offering him our selves completely: in losing our lives (self-denial), we get our real lives back.

How to See the Distinction between Biblical Self-Denial and Ungodly Self-Destruction

It can feel confusing to discern the distinction between self-denial and self-destruction. One is an invitation to life; the other robs us of life. Yet in the day-to-day of ministry, it is easy to confuse one for the other.

It’s important to understand: Biblical self-denial is NOT the eradication of God’s callings and gifts, nor is it a repudiation of the very good works preordained for the believer (Ephesians 2:10). We are accountable to our Lord for how we use all the resources he has entrusted to us (Matt 25). We are accountable to keep God’s commands; therefore, any call to cross-bearing will not violate other eternal commands! For example, God may take our families through deep waters; however, he will not call a believer to stop caring for her or his marriage and family in the interests of work.

Here are some other helpful distinctions I have learned in my own journey with Jesus.

Self-denial looks like:

  • unselfish service
  • blessing those around us
  • not resenting the success of others
  • seeking the good of others
  • cooperating with God in our battles against sin
  • learning new skills to adjust to rapid change
  • learning emotional intelligence that helps us discipline our responses

Self-destruction looks like:

  • the pressure to cease being the person of God’s design
  • subjecting ourselves to unnecessary harm
  • accepting toxic and unjust environments that harm ourselves and others
  • trying to be someone else
  • refusal to change, learn, or grow
  • consenting to being crushed in spirit
  • neglecting our own emotions

In challenging work environments, we need the help of the Holy Spirit for the application of the above insights. Prayer with trusted family, spiritual leaders, and peers will help us “understand the hour.”

In one difficult church we served, we persevered, helped shape a new staff, and prepared a fiscal pathway for flourishing. All of this was in the midst of unfair attacks and dysfunctional relationships among some leaders. We stayed the course and things improved. Then all the pathologies reappeared in a moment of administrating benevolence and we realized that we could no longer function as faithful stewards of God’s calling. In another setting, we persevered through multiple transitions, including moments of unfair accusation and saw the community weather the storms and come out healthy. We left that parish due to a new call, not a need for healing.

God Promises Wisdom

There is no formula for guidance in difficulty at work, but there are biblical promises of wisdom as we seek God with all our hearts and cry out for grace (Proverbs 2; James 1, 3). God delights in giving wisdom and its fruits are peace and justice for ourselves and others. Before we leave a trying situation, ask: have we done all we can to bring change that benefits the whole and not just our position?

Self-denial is not self-destruction. We are called to one, but not the other.

God allows tribulation so the character of Christ is formed in us (Romans 5:1-11). God is also faithful in guiding us to our fields of fruitfulness as we are yoked with Jesus and fulfilling our assigned callings (Matthew 11:28-30). Our personalities, natural and spiritual gifts, sense of purpose, and opportunities are for God’s glory and the good of others.

May the Lord guide you with wisdom as you seek to follow Jesus faithfully. Self-denial is not self-destruction. We are called to one, but not the other. Click To Tweet