Ingrained in our culture is an unapologetic focus on self. From social media to self-help books, and even casual words between friends who say the phrases, “Focus on yourself,” or, “You do you,” we are indelibly reminded of the centrality of a positive focus on self. Jesus disagrees. His word on the matter is simple: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”  It is the denial of self that enables the believer to follow Christ.
Why is denying oneself so difficult?
Since the very beginning, mankind has famously acted based on desire. Biologically, we observe the primitive need for food, water, and shelter, but we also display desires and decisions that are not simply based on instinct. These are the desires that allow one to choose to be a vegetarian for moral reasons rather than simply disliking the taste of meat. Because of the plethora of complex options for choice in our modern lives, it is increasingly important that the individual analyzes what experiences and desires are fueling their choices. The great theologian Jonathan Edwards in his work Freedom of the Will, explained that we have a necessity to choose what we desire.  If my chief desire is to get a coffee before class, it follows that I must get myself a warm drink on a cold morning. Similarly, if my desire to save money is greater than my desire to get coffee, I will not get coffee because I must act according to my greatest desire. Our desires also shape our choices that subsequently direct the trajectory of our lives. If my deepest desire is fame, any time there is a fork in the road, I will always choose the path that leads to fame. Humanity is in this sense enslaved to desire.
This phenomenon has been observed in the modern era by the writer David Foster Wallace in his speech “This is Water,” in which he notes the simple truth, “You get to decide what to worship […] there is actually no such thing as atheism.”  If you worship power, you will feel weak; if you worship intellect, you will feel stupid. He claims that there is a special kind of freedom that releases you from the cycle of desire and disappointment: “being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over.” 
Understanding Edwards’s point that we act according to what we desire, we are forced to wonder how we can possibly employ the action of caring about other people if it is not our chief desire. In his book, The Soul of Desire, psychiatrist Curt Thompson recognizes that human desire “does not exist merely as some independent phenomenon to which we respond; it is also something that, like any good gardener knows, must be pruned. It must be shaped by whatever practices, habits, or liturgies we develop – liturgies we practice whether we know it or not.”  Thus, he comes to the same conclusion as Wallace, acknowledging that we worship our desires whether we know it or not and that “our greatest relational sufferings – are directly related to misdirected and unmet desire.”  It then follows that desire itself is not the enemy of happiness, but misdirected desires. Clinical psychologist Noam Shpancer discussed the two fundamental needs of every human being: “the ‘need to belong,’ to feel embraced and connected with other humans, loved, protected, accepted and understood, a member of a tribe; and the ‘need to be’—to define and assert a coherent, unique self.”  While these two desires may be true, the question is whether either of these could ever be achieved in the absence of God.
To investigate the “need to belong,” we can look to King Solomon who is famous for his riches and wisdom. Anything he wanted, he kept his heart from no pleasure.  He had a multitude of wives, subjects who adored him, and by earthly standards, he belonged and was loved. However, even in the midst of all of this, he famously came to the conclusion that “all is vanity and a striving after the wind;”  love of these earthly things is chasing after something that you will never catch, and if you do catch it, like air, you realize you have nothing. 
Shpancer’s second claim, the “need to be,” is one that also proves to be void in the absence of God. Shpancer himself grants that “the concept of self emerges in a social context.”  If our identity is shaped by this ever-changing social landscape of values, when will we ever achieve satisfaction with who we are? We will always find our identity one step behind; it is an identity rife with comparison.
In response to both the “need to belong” and the “need to be,” the Christian is shaped first by the denial of the human will or earthly desires, and the subsequent finding of identity in Christ’s abundant love. Jesus meets these two criteria, which gives people the opportunity to escape the cycle of misdirected desires; the believer no longer has to act out of a desire for love or identity but is instead free to act out of “a holy longing” for the kingdom of heaven, which inspires the denial of self given by an identity found in an abundance of love for Christ because Christ first loved us. 
But what does it mean to deny oneself?
Self denial is the joyful sacrifice of one’s will for God’s will. Thus, our desires that are so heavily based on our social context must be surrendered to God in order to produce true freedom in Christ. It is easy to sacrifice our will when God’s will is a good grade on a test or a dream job opportunity. However, that is not always the case. What happens when God’s will is that we suffer?
First, believers remember that they are not suffering alone. Not only is Christian suffering done in fellowship with other believers, but as John Calvin points out, it is a “fellowship of His [Jesus’s] sufferings, being made conformable unto death.”  Jesus’s struggle was very much like our own: under the cover of night, alone, He went to the Garden of Gethsemane and “fell on his face and prayed, saying, ‘My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.”  In this delicate prayer, Jesus humbly reveals His knowledge of the extent of the suffering He is about to endure. He will sweat blood under the stress, He will be mocked, and He will die to pay the debt of sin. Yet, in the midst of his sorrow, He prays for God’s will. The writer of Hebrews describes Jesus, “who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross.”  Taking the cross would not be a joyful act for an ordinary man, and the gravity of Jesus’s looming anguish is only magnified by His prayer. However, He considered it a joy. He denied himself and rejoiced in God’s will with the knowledge and trust that it meant the salvation of all of His children. As theologian A. E. Carson puts it, “‘Not Your will but mine’ changed Paradise to desert and brought man from Eden to Gethsemane. Now ‘Not my will but Yours’ brings anguish to the man who prays it but transforms the desert into the kingdom and brings man from Gethsemane to the gates of glory.” 
How do we have joy in the midst of anguish?
A Christian finds joy in knowing their firmly rooted identity in Christ. Jeremiah Burroughs, a preacher in the 1600s, explains a divine contentment imparted upon the believer that is “contented with its own affliction, yet mightily rises when God is dishonored.”  Like Jesus, rather than focusing on self, a renewing of the mind enables this gladness in suffering. When the Apostle Paul was imprisoned for sharing the good news of Christ, he reassured his fellow Christians saying, “I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ.”  In the midst of Paul’s lack of earthly prosperity, he remained content because his desires were one with God’s; in this situation of perceived affliction, he looked not toward himself, but found the source of his contentment in knowing God was honored.
In addition, the Christian must not forget that what man means for evil, God means for good.  The greatest evil committed on earth was the murder of the Son of God. Completely innocent, He suffered one of the most gruesome deaths by Roman crucifixion. However, God used this great act of evil and turned it into the greatest act of good: the salvation of His children, that the sinner may rest in the security of an identity in Christ. This, however, required Jesus to have an immense amount of faith, knowing that the goodness of God’s plan would only be realized after His death.
Thus, joy in the midst of anguish requires faith. The believer must earnestly seek to remember God’s faithfulness in the midst of their trial. In Psalm 119:71, David says “It is good for me that I was afflicted.”  Burroughs added to the gravity of David’s comment by saying, “Nay, you must come to say thus, ‘It is good that I am afflicted.’ Not good when you see the good fruit that it has wrought, but when you are afflicted, to say, ‘It is good that I am afflicted.”  The reason the Christian heart can have such confidence in God working things for good is because of God’s character; for “if we are faithless, He remains faithful.” 
In community with each other, there is ample opportunity for Wallace’s challenge of sacrifice and self-denial to be expressed through the freedom given by the surrendering of our will to God’s will and embracing our identity found in Christ’s love for us. Prior to St. Augustine’s belief in Christ, his closest friend was severely ill. He was baptized while sleeping, and when he woke up, Augustine “tried to chaff him about his baptism, thinking he too would make fun of it,” but instead, he looked at Augustine “in horror” and warned him that if they were to be friends, Augustine must never speak like that again.  Shortly after that, the friend died. It was this situation that inspired Augustine’s words in retrospect, “For he was rescued from my folly and taken into Your safe keeping, for my later consolation.”  St. Augustine recognized his will to be folly in the eyes of God and was later able to rejoice in the goodness of God’s will which brought about his friend’s commitment to Christ and subsequent passing, assuring St. Augustine that he would see his friend again.
St. Augustine’s reflection provides an example of why a Christian is able to deny himself or herself and rejoice in God’s will. The pain may be great, but the heart of a Christian whispers, “God is greater.” Even if the good is not immediately visible, or ever visible in this life, the character of God is faithful to the end. When Jesus says that one must “deny himself,” He says this that He may give Himself to us instead.
 Matt. 16:24 (English Standard Version)
 Jonathan Edwards, Freedom of the Will (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2018), 7.
 David Wallace, “This is Water,” May 21, 2005, Kenyon College, Gambier, Ohio, 22:37, https://fs.blog/david-foster-wallace-this-is-water/.
 Curt Thompson, The Soul of Desire (IVP, 2021), 11.
 Ibid, 28.
 Noam Shpancer, “The Two Things We All Want and Need Most,” last modified June 11, 2018, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/insight-therapy/201806/the-two-things-we-all-want-and-need-most.
 Eccles. 2:10 (English Standard Version)
 Eccles. 1:14 (English Standard Version)
 Moody Bible Commentary (Chicago: Moody Publishers Chicago), 975.
 Shpancer, “The Two Things We All Want and Need Most.”
 Augustine, Later Works (Great Britain and the United States of America: S.C.M. Press and the Westminster Press), 290.
 Phil. 3:10 (King James Bible)
 Matt. 26:39 (English Standard Version)
 Heb. 12:2
 Tremper Longman III and David E. Garland, Matthew & Mark, Revised: The Expositor’s Bible Commentary (2005).
 Jeremiah Burroughs, The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment, (Idaho: Canon Press, 2020), 19.
 Philem. 1:12
 Gen. 50:20
 Ps. 119:71
 Burroughs, The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment. pg. 24.
 2 Tim. 2:13
 St. Augustine, Confessions, (London: Penguin Classics, 1961), 26.
 Ibid, 26.