At this time of year it is often customary to think about tightening our belts, both literally and figuratively. Christmas is past, and for some that will necessitate spending restraint, for others dietary restraint! For many Christians, the onset of Lent during the coming month will entail restraint in other ways by foregoing particular foods, or activities. Of course, restraint, or self-denial, has been a feature of the Christian life throughout church history, most obviously in the recorded lives of saints and religious communities. But self-denial can be a difficult subject to discuss these days. Perhaps this is because our society values individual freedom and material wealth, or because people can be so sensitive to the implication that they are not living up to expectations. But what are God's expectations of us?

 

Read {bible}Mark 8:31 - 33{\bible}. This story arises from an incident in which Jesus openly predicts his own death and resurrection. Peter takes exception to what Jesus says, and gives Jesus a talking-to, rather as a parent or close friend might admonish someone for suggesting that they would die soon. Jesus responds vigorously to Peter (verse 33), because he knows that Peter's picture for Jesus' life is not God's view, and that the easy course that Peter would prefer is not the course that God wants.

Now read {bible}Mark 8:34 - 9:1{\bible}. At this point, Jesus seeks to speak to the whole crowd on the subject of self-denial. The stimulus for this seems to be the initial incident between Jesus and Peter, but Jesus sees the need to address the point specifically, so that there can be no ambiguity. God's solutions are not those that people would naturally presume should happen, and they are often not easy or convenient ones.

To illustrate the point, in verse 34 Jesus clearly states that, to be his followers, people must deny themselves, take up their cross and follow him. In one sense Jesus' statement would mean literally that, when early Christians were called upon to give up their lives to witness to God's way, since the cross was of course regularly used by the Roman occupation forces to execute dissidents they considered dangerous, However the words also stand to remind us of our calling. At times our Christian lives call us to make sacrifices, and to deny what our human nature would most desire. It can be easy "to go with the flow", but sometimes we are called-upon to stand up for what is right. We have to speak out when we see injustice, both far away, and close to home. Where this happens in, for instance, the workplace this can risk our jobs or careers. We risk deep unpopularity with others for going against the flow, and resisting what is immoral. More than ever perhaps our young people face a tremendous challenge to resist substance abuse, or the urge to treat relationships and sex in a casual manner.

Easy solutions are often not there in our lives as Christians, and we have to let go of a lot of pre-conceived ideas. This can be very challenging, as Peter found when confronted by an indignant Jesus. It can also take a long time to do. One of the hardest things to do can be giving up possibilities for our lives that seemed to offer so much, in exchange for something that we cannot see fully yet. However, as Christians this is precisely what we are called to do. Perhaps you have had the experience of being very happy at a school, or in a job, or in a relationship, or in a place, and yet when you first started you could not imagine what was to come, or how good it was going to be? Perhaps it seemed very daunting to begin with. These experiences offer us the best pointers when we are daunted about denying self: the knowledge that the best is yet to come, even if we cannot yet see it.

Christian discipleship can be a difficult path, but we must remember that we have the help of a power far greater than anything to be found on Earth, and an example through Jesus. More than this we have the support of Jesus as a real friend who has told us "I will be with you always" (Matt
28 v.20). He knows what it is to have to let go of certain ideas to remain (or to get) properly focused in our lives. We know too that God listens to our prayers. It is through prayer that we can connect with our Lord and allow him to work within us, and on us! This is not a quick process - it is ongoing, life-long in fact. We have to admit that there are things that we cannot manage. We have to ask our Lord to transform our lives, and help us with those aspects that most trouble us, and be patient!

Rewritten by Chris Noyce