Deny yourself

Another Sunday, another sermon, this time on the theme of 'deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me.'

The preached commended the goal and ideal of self-denial, of emptying one's self before God.

Without care, without nuance or subtlety, this is an hypocritical and pernicious teaching.

Hypocritical: how can clergy who enjoy their title and social status, who robe, process in to church, order worship, put words into the mouths of those who pray, who pronounce absolution and bless people, possibly preach self denial?

Pernicious: it is a denial of responsibility to say, in words or by implication, 'listen to what I say because it's not me saying it, it's God speaking through me' or 'not my command, but Scripture's.' The actual working out of this teaching serves to infantalise the laity, who must deny their selves, and deify the clergy who speak God's word (even if neither reach extremes). It is to equate godliness with the right to exercise power while denying responsibility for its exercise. It leads to claims to unchallengable autocracy and thence, in my book, the denial of God.

To be a child of God, even an obedient child of God, is not to be an infant. The task is surely to be a grown-up child of God, acting as a responsible adult amongst other adults, all listening for the prompting of God and all knowing that we act in ignorance, with very limited knowledge of past events and none about the future. It is to act faithfully, accepting responsibility for the consequences of those actions, and giving God neither the credit nor the blame.

Self-denial is a central and powerful spiritual discipline. It is precisely for these reasons that it is capable of being misused.

To her credit, when I put to the preacher after the service the question 'how does self-denial as a goal or ideal relate to being a responsible Christian?' she said she didn't know, she'd have to think that through further.


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