Coop's Column - Self-Searching and Self-Denial: A Servant Spirit
In this series of meditations on the work of the Holy Spirit in believers’ lives, we are considering seven features about Christians which the English Puritan Christians said are Spirit-prompted and Spirit-endowed and which ought to mark the lives of those who aim to follow Jesus faithfully. Christians who do display these qualities are LUI, Living Under the Influence of the Spirit. This week we consider the fifth of these marks: “Strong self-searching and self-denial, a servant spirit.”
In this series of meditations on the work of the Holy Spirit in believers’ lives, we are considering seven features about Christians which the English Puritan Christians said are Spirit-prompted and Spirit-endowed and which ought to mark the lives of those who aim to follow Jesus faithfully. Christians who do display these qualities are LUI— Living Under the Influence of the Spirit. This week we consider the fifth of these marks: “Strong self-searching and self-denial—a servant spirit.”
Jesus is clear, forthright, and utterly uncompromising on what he demands of any would-be disciple of his: Everyone who chooses to follow him, he says, is thereby also taking a vow to deny herself daily and to place God’s interests and her neighbor’s needs above her own. Jesus links his call to self-denial with his call to bear the cross, another vital mark feature of Christian discipleship.
Self denial and the Christian life
Self-denial must mark a Christian’s entire life, said 19th-century South African pastor spiritual writer, Andrew Murray. It must embrace one’s mind, one’s will, one’s honor, one’s power, one’s interests.
A Christian’s mind must give open door and comfortable lodging to no other thoughts than those of God alone. Hence, Jesus’ rebuke to Peter when he failed to do so: “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me: you do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men.” (Matthew 16.23)
By choosing to sit at Jesus’ feet and to learn from him, one is thereby surrendering the right to have “a mind of his own.” He must give Jesus—Jesus alone—his proper seat of authority as “Teacher” (cf. John 13.13). “Deny your carnal understanding,” advises Murray, “and bring it to silence … give place to the Holy Spirit; let the voice of God be heard in your [mind].”
Yielding one’s own will
A Christian’s will must be surrendered daily to his Lord. He must resolutely aim, as Jesus did, to seek and to do God’s will alone. Throughout his life, before God’s face and in a posture of full and pure submissiveness to his Father, continually Jesus prayed in the spirit of the psalmist: “I have come to do your will, O God; your law is upon my heart. (cf. Psalm 40.8; Luke 22.42)
Yielding one’s own will in favor of another’s takes no small measure of humility. It demands spiritual strength, too, a fresh resolve daily, and regular recalling of the truth expressed in George Matheson’s prayerful hymn of confession:
"My will is not my own
till thou hast made it thine;
if it would reach a monarch's throne,
it must its crown resign.
It only stands unbent
amid the clashing strife,
when on thy bosom it has leant,
and found in thee its life."
The vice of honoring oneself
A Christian must also give up every desire to honor himself and strive to honor and glorify God alone. Again, no small challenge, because, as John Calvin says, “Everyone flatters himself and carries a kingdom in his breast.”
Giving in to the vice of honoring oneself is easy, because everyone thinks so highly of himself: “To crave wealth and honor, to demand power, to pile up riches, to gather all those vanities which seem to make for pomp and empty display, that is our furious passion and our unbounded desire…..There is nobody who does not imagine that he is really better than others.”
But Jesus summons his followers vigorously to resist every deep-seated urge to build themselves up at others’ expense and to fatten their sense of their own importance by gobbling up and engorging themselves on others’ cheap flattery. He challenges his followers with a question: “How can you believe if you accept praise from one another?” (John 5.44) He holds before them God’s ideal: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom. (Matthew 5.3)
Deny one’s power and own interests
A Christian must deny his ambition for power. He must hold in check every urge to exaggerate his abilities, and his incessant desire to dominate others to their disadvantage. Rather, he must admit that apart from God’s help and blessing, he is weak and powerless. Murray reminds: “[C]ontinuous denial of your own power is the way to enjoy the power of God. It is in the heart which [aims to] die to its own power that the Holy Spirit decides to dwell.” He advises—no, he pleads: “Cherish the deep conviction that it is those who are weak, those who are nothing, that God can use. Be very much afraid of your own endeavours in the service of God…”
A Christian must deny his own interests. He must not seek to enhance himself at others’ expense, nor to satisfy and serve his own desires. Without exception, in every circumstance and situation always he must inquire what are his neighbor’s needs; ranking them as more important than his own, he must work to meet them. Jesus is clear about those who don’t: “He that seeks his own life shall lose it.” (cf Mark 8.35; Luke 17.33)
Holy silence and the Holy Spirit
Murray’s final summons: “Beloved Christian, at conversion you had to make a choice between your own self and Christ, which you should obey. You then said: 'Not I, but Christ.' Now you are to confirm this choice every day. The more you do so, the more joyful and blessed will it be for you to renounce the sinful self, to cast aside unholy self-working, and suffer Jesus to be all. The way of self-denial is a way of deep heavenly blessedness.”
Denying oneself isn’t achieved just by trying real hard. Only Jesus by his Spirit can supply energy and strength to do so. Hence, Murray’s counsel for practicing a life of self-denial: “In holy silence give place to the Holy Spirit.” He accompanies his advice with a prayer: “Precious Saviour, teach me what self-denial is. Teach me so to distrust my heart that in nothing shall I yield to its fancy. Teach me so to know Thee that it shall be impossible for me to do anything else than to offer up myself to possess Thee and Thy life.”