I always avoided Lent as preparation for Easter because of the thought of giving up something! Many people do this, denying themselves something that brings them pleasure like chocolate, wine, coffee etc. The idea of banning something that I enjoy doing has always frightened me.
Walter Brueggemann’s thoughts about this verse are something that I can identify with “And calling the crowd to him with his disciples, he said to them, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?” (Mark 8:34–36 ESV). Brueggemann says that Jesus’ words are stark and starchy. Let them deny themselves. The saying is loaded and dangerous and has often been misunderstood. In more pietistic and moralistic church traditions, it is often understood as saying “no” to something you really want a lot, of foregoing something you deeply enjoy—like giving up ice cream for Lent, or meat on Fridays, or movies on Sundays . . . perhaps not in themselves bad disciplines, but not the point of Jesus’ saying.
He is right. For me, the thought of me giving up coffee is unthinkable! I can not see it happening, and even if I try, I cannot see myself drinking tea (only if it is lemon tea) or hot water or hot milk! I know it is not going to work because I will not be keep up my promise of giving up coffee for a month. I would not gain much wisdom, knowledge, or a more profound spirituality because I realise that the focus in on me, in what I try hard to achieve. Unlike me, there are others with a more determined will and self-inner strength to do it. But at the end of the day, I am trying to do something, risking failing and feeling guilty. This kind of giving up is self-centred.
I think Brueggemann is right. It is not the point that Jesus is making. He says that “The call to discipleship is not a program to make us feel bad or impoverished or uncomfortable. Or pressed more deeply, to deny self is taken too often to mean you should have some self-hate, feel bad about yourself, ponder your failure and your guilt, and reject your worth”.
The call to discipleship is not a programme to be followed but a relationship to be developed with Jesus.
So, what did Jesus mean when he said …“If any of you wants to be my follower, you must give up your own way, take up your cross, and follow me. If you try to hang on to your life, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for my sake and for the sake of the Good News, you will save it. And what do you benefit if you gain the whole world but lose your own soul?” (Mark 8:34–36 NLT-SE) To have a self-centred approach to life is missing life altogether, but we come to life again when we meet the Crucified Jesus. Following Jesus is the only relationship that matters most, and we find him through the Cross. Brueggemann points out that Jesus “is talking about coming to see that God—the generous creator who gives good gifts—is the center of your life and that the self-taken-alone does not have the resources or capacity to make a good life”.
This is the paradox of the Gospel. This is the beauty of the Kingdom. It is not what I am willing to give up but rather if I am willing to meet the Crucified Christ.
By the way I think Jesus likes coffee too, every morning we drink one!