Putting others first isn’t hard when it’s convenient. I can do it happily when it’s something I want to do. But this isn’t how the Bible understands the idea.
In Mark 8:34 Jesus put it this way, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” Notice how denying self is synonymous with taking up the cross and following Jesus.
And this cross is not something imposed from outside. It’s not like when someone moans, “My job . . . . this health problem . . . . my in-law, is the cross I have to bear.” That’s not denying self. That’s complaining to self. One author, Kenneth Wuest, unpacks the language this way,
“Let him deny himself. The word is aparneomai. When used, with the reflexive pronoun as it is here, it means ‘to forget one’s self, lose sight of one’s self and one’s interests.’ The verb is ingressive aorist, speaking of entrance into a new state or condition. It is ‘Let him at once begin to lose sight of himself and his own interests.’ Take up his cross. The cross was the instrument of death. Here it speaks of death to self.”
In their book on the lives and writings of J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, and Charles Williams; Philip and Carol Zaleski share a touching story on an event that took place the day following the death of C. S. Lewis’ wife, Joy. They write,
“Nonetheless, he soldiered on, with a fortitude inspired less by a traditional British sense of duty than by belief in the importance of kind attention to others. Few events exemplify his devotion to this principle more than his activity on the day after Joy’s death. The musician Donald Swann, unaware of the tragedy, came with a colleague to the Kilns that day to consult with Lewis about a projected opera based on Perelandra: ‘It was a quiet morning and we went to Lewis’s home in Oxford for breakfast. We strolled around his lovely garden with him, talking about the opera. After about an hour he said: “I hope you will excuse me. I must go now because my wife died last night.” He left us. I was very moved. Quite overcome. It is just another story of this very gracious gentleman who always looked after his guests. I mean, at a time like that! What did we matter?’”1
If what Jesus said seems too lofty an idea, just remember, it’s actually quite simple. It’s just not easy.
“We who are strong have an obligation to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to build him up.” – Romans 15:1-2.
- Donald Swann, Swann’s Way: a Life in Song, quoted in Green and Hooper, C. S. Lewis: a Biography, 403. Cited in Philip Zaleski & Carol Zaleski. The Fellowship. The Literary Lives of the Inklings: J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, Charles Williams (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015), 476. Italics in original.