Is "self-denial" the right way to understand "take up your cross"?

This is from the interview with Vaughan Roberts, Rector of St. Ebbes Church, Oxford, by Julian Hardyman, found via Andrew Brown’s article.

Julian: That’s encouraging. But what about the pain, surely that’s very real? What do you do with that?
Vaughan: Yes, the pain is real — I can’t deny that. The world, the flesh and the devil all conspire to make sin appear very attractive, so it will be hard for believers to remain godly in this area for the sake of the kingdom of God. To do that you need a clear understanding of the call to self denial in the kingdom — and the dynamic of resurrection life proceeding out of sacrificial death. Christ does call us all to a life of costly suffering as we take up our crosses for him, but, just as it was in his experience, that way of the cross is the path to life: ‘Whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it’ (Mark 8.35).

And here is another article, found via Peter Ould:

The reality is that I acknowledge my same-sex desires. I talk openly with family and friends about homosexuality, especially as it relates to my commitment to Christ. More importantly, I’m honest with God about my struggles with same-sex attraction. I don’t pretend the feelings aren’t there; on the contrary, I consider them very real temptations. The only denial happening here is self-denial, the daily charge to take up my cross and follow Christ (Luke 9:23). That’s the calling of every Christian, not just those who fight against homosexual desires.

For me there is something significant being missed in this sort of language and the understanding of “taking up our cross” that is being assumed. I am not persuaded that what these two articles are describing counts as the denial of self that Jesus is talking about.

What, after all, is the key point to understand about the crucifixion? Is it about Jesus denying himself, or is it about Jesus being rejected by society? I am sure that there is some mileage in talking about Jesus denying himself on the path to Golgotha, but if we want to say that when Jesus was crucified he was denying what was most central to himself then I think we have misunderstood what was happening. I would, in contrast, want to say that on the cross Jesus was most truly himself, he was most authentically keeping faith with his core vocation and destiny. To me, the crucifixion – why it was necessary for Jesus to be crucified – centres upon the contrast between what is acceptable by society and what is called by God.

This came up in the lectionary reading set yesterday (Mark 9.42-48) when Jesus is saying that it is better to be maimed and enter the Kingdom, than to be whole and not enter it. I understand this to be about drawing a contrast between being a fully accepted member of the community (which at the time necessitated being bodily whole) and being a member of God’s community, where being the person God has called us to be is more important than any particular physical attribute. The contrast repeatedly drawn in the gospels, so far as I can see, is between what it means to follow God, and simply falling in with what society sees as acceptable.

I believe that when we interpret ‘deny yourself and take up your cross’ as being about the repression of a part of ourselves, we are misunderstanding what Jesus is describing. I understand Jesus to be saying that if we are to follow him then we have to let go of any desire for social approval and acceptability. This is why in the context of the Mark 8 passage that Vaughan Robert references, Jesus rebukes Peter and says ‘Get behind me Satan’ (ie prince of this world, society) ‘you do not have in mind the things of God but the things of men’. That is the contrast we are to have in mind when understanding this teaching.

To take up our cross is to embrace the necessity of social rejection. Each of us has a tailor-made cross – it is what happens when we follow the law of love, accept Christ’s invitation into the Kingdom, and are rejected by society as a result. The cross as I understand it is about what the wider society will do to us; it is not about what we do to ourselves. In other words, taking up the cross looks more like Matthew Shepard than these other commenters.

20 thoughts on “Is "self-denial" the right way to understand "take up your cross"?

  1. Hi Sam. I think you are asking a really important question of the assumptions that underlie the V. Roberts interview. I hope everyone would commend him for his attempt to get conservative evangelicals to be more honest about sexuality. However he maintains the party line about celibacy. For those who don’t agree with that line (including you, by implication in this piece), nothing then has changed on that front.

    However I don’t see how you can move from that to the point you are trying to make at the end of your post. The problem is that in your reading of Luke 9, you are assuming a meaning of the phrase “deny yourself” which doesn’t mean “deny yourself”.

    You give two interpretations of what it might mean to “take up your cross”, and suggest that we must choose between them. I don’t agree. Jesus in Gethsemane is clearly portrayed as denying his own will in obedience to the Father’s. As well as the obvious “not my will ..” , there is the exhortation to the disciples “to watch and pray that you will not fall in to temptation”, signing to the reader that we are to follow Jesus’ example. However that’s not to say that Jesus did not also accept the scapegoat role, the “necessity of social rejection” as you put it. Both are aspects of the cross and its pattern for discipleship.

    Christians do have to deny themselves sometimes, even in quite painful ways. We may not always agree on what that means in practice, but those who are sincerely attempting to follow the example of Jesus surely deserve respect and support?

  2. Surely we all deny ourselves daily? We all have vices, hangups and temptations, not giving in to them is something purely personal and we don’t give in to them because we know that they are wrong or harmful to us and even to others.

    I’m not sure if that is carrying a cross, but it’s about trying to be the best we can and to follow Jesus who resisted temptations during his 40 days in the desert. Mind you, he had the answers to give to the devil, while I can only use the old one of ‘get thee behind me Satan’.

    Giving up everything and following Jesus is such a total step, that not many of us could emulate that. We take a pragmatic look at that call and think, that he can’t mean that I leave my spouse and children and run off to work in Africa with the poor? Can he?

    We take the path that seems to us to be the one, which allows us to be comfortable and safe, while others who are always available to do the hard stuff, we’ll cheer them on!

    I think that if someone struggles with their sexuality and represses it, that is an issue which will cause personal meltdown – but if they are open about it, while continuing to struggle, they will be supported by others – they shouldn’t have to face it alone, or alone with God. That’s why we care for each other, why we live as part of God’s body, his Church. Our acceptance of that difference and struggle is a sign (for me anyway) of a loving and vibrant church. It’s when we choose to ignore it, or persecute others for it that we stand condemned.

  3. “if we want to say that when Jesus was crucified he was denying what was most central to himself then I think we have misunderstood what was happening”

    I think the error you are making in this post is that you are assuming that sexual attraction would count as “what was most central to himself”. This is of course the propaganda from the gay lobby. But I don’t think it is what Roberts or Ould would agree with. I suspect they would see, as I do, sexual attraction, whoever it might be for, as a part of their personality, but not the central part, and as one which needs to be kept under control if that personality is to be balanced and glorifying to God. Sex addiction, again regardless of orientation, should not be considered as good, but rather as something to be rejected. And surely this is part of what Jesus meant be denying oneself.

  4. Let’s see. The very ordinary desire of human beings to love and be loved in return – something one would think “glorified God,” now that I think of it – is first mischaracterized as “sexual attraction” (instead, I notice, of “sexual orientation”).

    Then, in a further mischaracterization, an immediate jump is made to “sex addiction,” without any intermediate steps or corollaries. Amazing how that always happens!

    It seems to me that heterosexuals are absolutely consumed with thoughts of sex. That seems not good, to me, and ought probably to be kept strictly under control….

    • bls, I said nothing at all general about “The very ordinary desire of human beings to love and be loved in return”, so how could I mischaracterize it? I was talking about one very small aspect of love, sexual activity. Nor was I talking about sexual orientation, a word I deliberately avoided as I was trying to make a point equally valid to heterosexual and homosexual relationships. I was talking about erotic sexual activities, and about people who refuse to control their sexual desires, of whatever “orientation”, and so offer evidence that they are sex addicts.

    • Peter Kirk: you dehumanize gay people by referring to us as merely “the gay lobby” and then referencing “sex addiction” – which is a total non sequitur in this conversation. “Same-sex attraction” has nothing at all to do with “sex addiction.”

      The fact that you said “nothing at all” about the human desire for love IS THE WHOLE POINT. That is the evangelical problem, in fact: you reduce gay people to sex, sex, sex – when in fact I’ve never met a gay person who isn’t, I assume, just like you: somebody who’d like to find another person to love and to be loved by.

      The fact that you can’t think about people this way IS THE WHOLE PROBLEM….

    • Gay people want to form intimate relationships with people of the same gender. And forming intimate relationships is indeed quite central to the human experience, and I’d think could in fact be called “most central” to human life. Heterosexuals glorify this fact in their own lives – first dates, first loves, marriage (weddings!), family, partnership – and then turn around and condemn gay people for the very same thing.

      “The gay lobby,” as you put it, is telling you to stop fixating on our genitals and start recognizing that we, too, are human beings and want these things. That is what this post is about – and the fact that you see “sex addiction” where nobody’s mentioned it is the core of the problem.

      All this dehumanization, merely to defend your interpretation of 3 or 4 references in the Bible! We’re all frankly sick of being tormented and annihilated for your pleasure – and lots and lots of people are growing up now hating Christianity because of your blithe comments about “the gay lobby” – as if people were nothing more than obstacles to your politics….

    • BLS, you are jumping to a whole lot of conclusions about me and my position because you are responding to your imaginary stereotype of a fundamentalist Christian, and not to me.

      First, my reference to “the gay lobby” was not about all male homosexuals, but about a small number of them, and others, who are actively promoting homosexual activity.

      Second, I made it very clear that I agree with you that sex addiction is nothing to do with same sex attraction, but is a problem among heterosexuals just as much as among homosexuals.

      Third, you accuse not just me but apparently ALL heterosexuals!!!! of condemning gay people for “first dates, first loves, marriage (weddings!), family, partnership”. I have not condemned any of that, on this thread or elsewhere. If you choose to celebrate such things, you are free to do so. I have no issues with state recognized gay marriage as long as churches are not forced to solemnize them against their beliefs.

      I agree with you that “forming intimate relationships is indeed quite central to the human experience”. I want to form close loving relationships with friends regardless of gender. The problem comes when certain people are “fixating on our genitals” by insisting that the only true loving relationships are centered on fulfilling sexual urges. If you are in a relationship just to get orgasms for yourself and your partner, that is not love but sex addiction. And, just in case I haven’t made myself clear enough before, this is a problem for heterosexuals just as much as homosexuals.

    • Peter Kirk: I have been listening to these “positions” for my entire life. It’s in no way “imaginary.” You yourself opened your comment with a snide dismissal of “the gay lobby”; don’t tell me I’m “imagining” this.

      And of course, the phrase, “promoting homosexual activity” is another perfect example of the problem. Can I refer to your own marriage, then, as “the promotion of heterosexual activity”? Is that the sum total of what you’re doing in your life? That’s a pity – but it’s your problem and not anybody else’s. At least recognize that others might think that love is rather an important aspect of our relationships. I’m pointing out the implications of the things you say; I’m really not inventing this. Wake up.

      Nobody gives a damn what Evangelicals do in the privacy of your own churches. In fact, the more you talk, the better it is for us. I’m simply pointing out what your statements here are all about, and what they mean for gay people – because apparently your interpretation of a few Bible passages has trumped your ability to understand the reality under your nose – and your ability to see other people as human beings, rather than as political enemies (or sex addicts).

      And no: I wasn’t talking, quite obviously about all heterosexuals. I was talking about the ones that condemn gay people for wanting exactly the same things they do, since that was the secondary clause. That seems easy enough to work out, to me…..

    • And while we’re at it: who, exactly, is this “gay lobby”?

      Name them, please – these individuals who are “promoting homosexual activity.” These must be the same “small number” of people who are merely out “just to get orgasms for themselves and their partners.”

      And then, please do tell us what they have to do with this post, and why you brought them up – since I doubt very strongly that Rev. Sam agrees with them in any way, or that they have been actively “lobbying” him.

      Spill. Inquiring minds want to know….

  5. BLS, for the third and last time I will try to explain my “gay lobby” comment. I am NOT referring to ordinary homosexual couples who enjoy their relationship without making an issue of it. I am referring to campaigning organizations, such as the organizers of Gay Pride activities, who actively promote homosexual activity as normal and try to use legal sanctions against those who disagree. Some of these people do “give[] a damn what Evangelicals do in the privacy of your own churches” because they want to make it illegal for churches to refuse to marry same sex couples or to employ those who do not accept their moral teaching on this matter.

    Do you know what my “interpretation of a few Bible passages” is? Have you bothered to read my blog to see what I say on this matter? Or, again, are you simply jumping to conclusions based on my possibly unwise use of the term “gay lobby”?

    I should also point out that no church has ever objected to two men, or two women, having a relationship of non-sexual love. That is precisely what Jesus taught his followers to do. The objection which some have is when that love is expressed in sexual activity, outside marriage between a man and a woman.

    Now I will read Sam’s new post.

  6. I’ve really never come across somebody so completely deaf and blind to the implications of their own statements.

    Apparently you simply can’t draw the very ordinary conclusion that most people in your country have: there’s nothing “abnormal” about “homosexual activity,” for homosexuals. People have accepted the failure of basic logic in your position; after more than 40 years of failed attempts at “reparative therapy,” and in the face of the obvious fact that almost nobody is called to lifelong celibacy, they recognize that there’s no truth in what you’re saying.

    I mean, you could say “we regard homosexuality as a sin, because that’s our tradition,” and that might be reasonable; I’d be very happy to avoid your tradition at all costs – just as I might avoid traditions that once preached that dancing and card-playing were sins. Who cares?

    I’m sorry to tell you that I know everything you think about this topic from the very statements you’ve made on this thread. Your problem is that you don’t recognize, even now, that what you’re saying is both illogical and offensive. I’m sure this is because in your world, people are very used to making offensive statements without thinking about them much. One of my relatives recently posted a whole long “research study” on Facebook that she claimed proved that gay people are mentally ill; that isn’t what the study actually said, but of course she didn’t actually read it. She knows she has gay relatives, but apparently just doesn’t care. Well, I’ve stopped caring, too; I just “unsubscribe” now, as do more and more people in your country and mine, to the church. When the church is seen to be actively on the side of persecution, violence, and annihilation – well, I’m not surprised.

    BTW, I’d like to see some proof that there’s a viable movement that “wants to make it illegal for churches to refuse to marry same sex couples.” Churches can now refuse to marry opposite sex couples if they decide to – and of course Catholics can refuse to marry divorced people. So, how about a link?

    • BLS, I did not use the word “abnormal”. You don’t know my position on this issue. When you write “your country”, which one are you referring to, my country of citizenship or my country of residence?

      “I’m sorry to tell you that I know everything you think about this topic from the very statements you’ve made on this thread.”

      That is EXTREMELY OFFENSIVE! You don’t know me at all. You don’t even know which is my country. Yet you presume to know my innermost thoughts. Please apologize!

      Sam, please can you moderate the comments made here.

  7. Wow, yeah – it’s certainly OFFENSIVE that I take you at your own word. How awful that must be for you.

    I can see you’re never going to actually address any actual issue here, or answer any question straightforwardly. And the attempt to escape from the implications of own statements on various absurd technicalities (I’m sure most people can see a vast, vast difference between “abnormal” and “not normal”) has grown more than tedious by now. No link to back up your wild claims, I see, and no “gay lobby” names, either; gee, what a shocker.

    You’re right – I didn’t know what country you live in, and didn’t care. (I assumed England, but now I read you’re just another damn Yankee. Sad for us, but good for Blighty. But now that I know that, I also know that you are completely full of it, because there IS NO SUCH MOVEMENT IN THE UNITED STATES. Only the vast right-wing conspiracy nuts make this claim, but as I’ve already pointed out: priests can turn down anybody for marriage in this country. What a complete pile of crap you are selling here.)

    How about this, instead: “most people in England, Canada, New Zealand, and dozens of other places, and many in the United States,” all places where same-sex couples can marry or have some means of legally recognizing their partnership? Does that help you feel better?

    If you don’t want people to question your statements on blogs, there’s a simple solution: stop commenting on them. I’ve been vigorously called out on this blog, BTW, and have never even considered calling for Daddy. You are acting like a baby.

  8. So let’s be clear, Peter Kirk: I don’t give a damn, anymore, about how “offended” Evangelicals are by the “gay lobby.” (FitzSimmons Allison uses that word, too, and I’m betting that’s where you got it, since you don’t seem able to defend your use of it. Allison has indignantly claimed that “our church is being stolen by a lobby!” What a nasty, nasty guy that one is; so incredibly arrogant and superior and hateful.)

    That “lobby” is a group of human beings defending themselves from violence and persecution. I’m sick to death of listening to petty, trivial complaints, and all the whining about “what’s happening to OUR church.”

    Evangelical “offense” is subordinate to the death and destruction YOUR tradition has caused real human beings, and that it continues to cause to gay people who are unlucky enough to live in places like Uganda and Nigeria, where the church continues to openly support their destruction. And which no Evangelical ever, ever speaks against, BTW.

    I don’t respect Evangelical indifference at all. So please: do be offended. It’s about time you were.

  9. BLS, I utterly abhor and condemn the African governments who criminalize homosexual activity, and any churches which support that criminalization. Did you read that? Did you expect that?

    And I did not say anything was “not normal” either.

    You lose your bet. I have never even heard of FitzSimmons Allison. So I will not attempt to defend him from your nasty, nasty accusations.

    And I am definitely not a Yankee! Nor any kind of American. I currently reside in a place where “Yankee” is by no means a positive term. So try again! My comments anyway referred primarily to the UK situation as described by Sam.

    You think there is no “gay lobby” in the USA? Have you ever heard of the Human Rights Campaign, whose tagline is “Working for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Equal Rights”? They were recently described by the Washington Examiner as “The nation’s largest gay lobby”. Surely I can point out the existence of such an organization without assumptions being made that I oppose those equal rights.

  10. Peter Kirk, if you’d care to address the topics actually under discussion – and if you’d like to stop denying that you’ve said the things you’ve said here – I’ll be glad to continue.

    Till then: thanks, but no thanks.

  11. BLS, if you would care to address the topic of this post, which is the meaning of self-denial in the context of sexual abstinence, and if you would like to stop putting words into my mouth, or keyboard, which I have not written, I’ll be glad to continue.

    Till then: thanks, but no thanks.

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