If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it. (Luke 9:23–24)
The deepest joys in this world — the most durable delights, the sweetest pleasures — come only on the other side of self-denial. If we want the kind of joy that is “inexpressible and filled with glory” (1 Peter 1:8), then we must give what we call “ourselves” wholly to Jesus. And not only in one climactic act of surrender, but every single day.
The trouble is that no one naturally believes that self-denial leads to joy. Naturally, we find ourselves in the grip of what John Piper calls “the number-one lie of the universe”:
The lie, the deception, is that if you give yourself up wholly to God for him to do whatever he pleases to make you holy, God-glorifying, and fruitful, you will be joyless, miserable.
Obedience will make you miserable. That lie is as old as the garden of Eden, as powerful as Satan himself. But Jesus, in one of the most famous passages in the Gospels, goes to war with this ancient falsehood with a call, a warning, and a promise.
As Jesus made his way to Jerusalem, he turned toward his disciples with a call that cuts us to the core: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23).
Surely such words shocked his disciples. “Deny yourself” would have sounded as threatening to them as it does to us. And “take up your cross”? To his hearers, the cross would not yet have evoked ideas of love and self-sacrifice — only of pierced skin and streaming blood, of horror, guilt, and humiliation. Yet here, at the entrance of the Christian life, Jesus gives those two blunt commands: “deny yourself” and “take up your cross.” And not only once, but “daily.”
Jesus wants us to know exactly what following him will mean. It will mean ruthlessly forsaking the “self” that stands in rebellion against God. It will mean persistently dying to every thought, affection, ambition, or desire that resists Christ’s kingdom. It will mean surrender.
If Jesus ended his invitation to follow him here, we might well wonder if self-denial is worth it. But after giving the call, he moves on to the warning.
Why would anyone exchange comfort and security for a life of self-denial and cross-bearing? Jesus tells us why: “For whoever would save his life will lose it” (Luke 9:24).
The alternative to self-denial is self-protection; the alternative to losing your life for Jesus’s sake is to save your life for your own sake. Wrap yourself round with possessions and entertainment. Make a name for yourself in your career or social circle. Devote all your energies to marriage and family. Do whatever it takes to keep Jesus and his all-encompassing commands on the other side of what we call “myself.”
In his mercy, Jesus warns us of the end of that pursuit: we will lose our lives. When Jesus finally returns “in his glory and the glory of the Father and of the holy angels” (Luke 9:26), and when we finally see all we could have had by being his, he will turn his face away from us. The life that we saved for a few brief decades will be lost for all eternity.
But then, in the sober silence of that warning, Jesus speaks a promise.
So far, Jesus has warned us what lies on the other side self-protection. He has not yet told us, however, what lies on the other side of self-denial. What will happen if we deny ourselves and take up our crosses daily? Hear Jesus’s promise: “Whoever loses his life for my sake will save it” (Luke 9:24). If we deny ourselves here, and go on taking up our crosses until we die, then we will live for endless ages.
But we would be wrong to limit this promise only to the age to come. Throughout the Gospels, Jesus assures us that the life we find by losing ourselves is the only life worth living now. Those who leave something precious for the kingdom of God, Jesus tells us, “will receive many times more in this time” (Luke 18:29–30). Those who sell all they have to heed his call will find in him a far better treasure (Matthew 13:44). And those who lose the life they once loved will find a new life in Jesus that is “abundant” far beyond their expectations (John 10:10).
In his call to deny ourselves, Jesus beckons us toward the joy he made us for. “Come,” he says, “leave the safe and small pleasures of a self-protected life for the wild delights of following heaven’s King. Leave darkness for light, hell for heaven, and the life you want to save for a far better life of loving me.” For all the pain that self-denial brings, it is the only path to “exceeding joy” (Psalm 43:4) — because it is the only path to Christ.