Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”—Matthew 16:24
Jesus replied: “’Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment.”—Matthew 22:37,38
My wife Carey has declared that this week our family will observe a “sugar fast.” No candy, no desserts, no sugary drinks, no treats of any kind. After several weeks where it seemed like we were all stuffing our faces with Halloween candy all day long, followed by the feasting of Thanksgiving, it seemed like a good idea to take a break before we jump back into several more weeks of feasting for the Christmas season. She’s convinced we’ll all enjoy the next round of goodies that much more if we allow our systems to detox a little first.
So we are all denying ourselves for a few days, and it has been an interesting experiment. I have had to face the fact that sugar is a bigger part of my life than I realized. It comes up several times a day, actually. I’m so used to finishing off a meal with a treat, or breaking up the afternoon with a piece of chocolate, that it feels strange to go without those things. I have gotten into the habit of rewarding myself with sweet things, and it’s harder to deprive myself than I expected.
Although we don’t like to admit it, there is real value in denying ourselves. While it’s not a common practice for us, Christians of previous generations understood that fasting was an important way of letting go of the things of this earth to give our full attention to God. “Prayer and fasting” go together in the Bible, often when God’s people are seeking to draw close to Him to express repentance, or to seek guidance for a major decision.
Christian author Dallas Willard points out that disciplines like fasting serve another important purpose, which is to strengthen our ability to deny ourselves in the face of temptation. When Satan blindsides us with the temptation to sin, we stand a better chance of staying strong and saying no if we are in the habit of denying our flesh the things it wants. If we always say yes to our bodies, we shouldn’t be surprised when we give in to sinful desires. One of the best defenses against sin is to build up our self-denial muscles through spiritual disciplines like prayer, fasting, solitude, and silence, so we learn what it feels like to say no to something we want and come out the other side better for it.
And there is another important benefit of learning to deny ourselves: saying no allows us to say yes. What I mean is this: there is only so much time in our lives. There is only so much room in our stomachs. There are only so many things we can give our energy to. Every time we say yes to one thing, we have less time, less space, less energy to give to something else. If we want to give ourselves to the right things, we have to make room by saying no to other, less important things.
In economics, there is a concept called “opportunity cost.” Opportunity cost means that every time I buy something, it doesn’t only cost me a certain amount of money, it also costs me the ability to buy something else. If I only have a hundred dollars and I want to take my wife out to a fancy dinner for our anniversary, but I also want a nice new pair of running shoes, I have to make a choice. If I decide to take my wife out to dinner (the right choice), it costs me a pair of shoes.
Opportunity cost shows up everywhere. At Thanksgiving dinner, if I have stuffing AND mashed potatoes AND macaroni and cheese AND sweet potatoes, I might not have room for pumpkin pie AND apple pie. But if I say no to the sweet potatoes (the right choice), I get to enjoy more pie.
Our time works in the same way. Many people would say that God is a priority in their lives, but what they really mean is that they know He should be. Their actual choices, the things they say yes to, reveal that they have prioritized other things and left no room for God. If I say yes to this commitment and that sport and that extracurricular activity and that club and that community service opportunity, one day I wake up and realize that by being afraid to say “no” I have made my life far more stressful, less enjoyable, and less spiritual than it would have been if I had denied myself. My yes to all of those good things was actually a no to God, my family, and my own spiritual and physical health. There is only so much of me to go around. I am a finite resource, a precious, limited commodity, so I want to spend myself wisely on the things that are truly the most important.
Which means, of course, saying no to perfectly good things. There is nothing wrong with running shoes. There is nothing wrong with sports and clubs and community involvement. There is nothing wrong (I guess) with sweet potatoes. But if I can’t deny myself some of these things, I will miss out on better things. Things like time alone with God, time in worship and service, and time with my family. It’s only after we learn to say no to good things that we are truly free to say yes to the best things.
The happiest people in life are not the people with a houseful of toys and a pile of credit card debt. The happiest people are not the people who gorge themselves on ridiculous amounts of food, or who fill their schedules so full they are pulling their hair out trying to keep up. Joy isn’t found in having everything, it’s found in having Jesus, and letting Him show us the things He is truly calling us to. This season, may He give you the courage to say no when you need to, so you can say yes to Him and everything He wants for you.