Thursday, March 09, 2006

Losing Life to Find It

Self-denial is a counter-cultural idea. It is very hard for Christians to espouse it when all around us we hear siren voices promising us happiness and fulfilment through various forms of self-gratification. If we live a life of self-denial, which Jesus acknowledged would be very hard to do, it can be difficult to escape the sensation that life is slipping away from us and we are missing the best that it has to offer. [1] Far from saving our lives, we can all too easily appear to be losing out.
Yet, at the same time, modern communications make us uncomfortably aware that, for the majority of people in the world today, self-denial is not a life-style choice, it is simply inevitable – part of their fate. If Western Christians moan about the hardships of self-denial we make ourselves look self-absorbed, shallow and self-pitying in comparison with the vast majority of our fellow Christians, and fellow human beings, who must cheerfully embrace a far harsher existence than we do.
Of course, we also know deep down that money does not really buy happiness – or, at least, it buys a very precarious and fragile kind of satisfaction. But if we dare to romanticise the sufferings and hardships of the world's poor and disadvantaged majority, by insisting that they are in many ways more likely to be content with their lot and more alive to what really matters than wealthier people are, we risk looking complacent and unconcerned about the tremendous, and tremendously unjust, disparities in life chances between the different people living on our planet today.
So, despite the protests of various revisionists, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that denying ourselves is a more authentic way of being a Christian than pleasing ourselves. But self-denial is only authentically Christian if we deny ourselves by living for others. This is what Jesus means by taking up our cross and following him. He does not mean that we need, literally, to seek out martyrdom and intense suffering because these things are intrinsically good. He means that we must adopt his priorities and goals if we want to find the fulfilment, peace and self-understanding which he knew and which are the birthright of every human being.
His priority was the well-being, what he called 'the salvation', of other people. By helping others we can truly follow Jesus' example and more surely help ourselves than by a narrow focus on self. The search for self-discovery will always prove elusive until we forget self and focus on our neighbours and on God.
[1] Mark 8.27-38

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