If the first words I heard from Jesus were these, I’d probably follow someone else. “If any want to become my followers,” he said, “let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Matt 16:24). Another time, I heard him say he came so we might have abundant life, more and better life than we ever dreamed of (John 10:10). Now he says I’ve got to deny myself and accept my death to follow him to abundant life?
I first learned about denying myself from my father. During childhood and adolescence, he taught me that to please him, to be considered worthy, to be acceptable, I had to be the person he expected me to be, I had to model myself after him. Really, I had to model myself after the person he wanted to be but was never able to become. He taught me so well that, at his funeral in February my senior year in high school, I wore his coat and hat, the perfect symbol that his lessons had been effective.
For years after, the lessons held. Through college, into young adulthood and the beginning of a working life, I played the role well, denying myself and pretending to be what I thought my family and classmates, employers and colleagues expected me to be. It wasn’t until my early thirties that the pattern broke and my unique, authentic self began to emerge and blossom. Why on earth, Jesus, would I want to return to denying myself? I waited so long to discover it.
Well, in a wonderfully paradoxical way, it turns out the self Jesus calls me to deny is not the person I am, it’s the person I pretend to be. He calls me to deny the role I play to please people, the mask I wear pretending to be someone I’m not. Jesus invites me: Take off your father’s coat and hat. Take off the persona you’ve been wearing to please others, and learn to be the original person God is creating you to be. Find and live out your own vocation in life, your own calling.
“Vocation,” Thomas Merton wrote, “does not come from a voice ‘out there’ calling me to be something I am not. It comes from a voice ‘in here’ calling me to be the person I was born to be, to fulfill the original selfhood given me at birth by God.” “For each one of us,” he wrote, “there is only one thing necessary: to fulfill our own destiny, according to God’s will, to be what God wants us to be.” If you want to follow Jesus, stop playing the role the world assigns you, deny that self, and learn from him how to live your true self.
A few people may benefit from professional therapy to begin doing that, but for most of us it boils down to learning to listen to our inner voice before any other. “Before you tell your life what you intend to do with it,” Parker Palmer advised, “listen for what it intends to do with you. Before you tell your life what truths and values you have decided to live up to, let your life tell you what truths you embody, what values you represent (from Let Your Life Speak).
How do you learn to listen to your life? Here’s a good way to start. Learn to stop what you’re doing and sit in silence. Observe a sabbath day every week, not a fake one when you trade one task list for another but a real one, since most of what we need to be fully and authentically alive grows not from busyness but from resting in God. If it’s hard to start taking a full sabbath day all at once, start small; start by taking a half day, a couple of hours, even twenty minutes if that’s all you can do. Immerse yourself in nature, God’s original scripture, and listen deeply to what arises from within.
That original self, though long unlived, still waits within, waits for us to notice it, waits for our return, still whispers its invitation. And it’s as potent now as it was at its beginning. To close, here are some words from a poem by Adelaide Anne Proctor:
Have we not all, amid life’s petty strife,
Some pure ideal of a noble life
That once seemed possible? Did we not hear
The flutter of its wings, and feel it near,
And just within our reach? It was. And yet
We lost it in this daily jar and fret,
And now live idle in a vague regret;
But still our place is kept, and it will wait,
Ready for us to fill it, soon or late.
No star is ever lost we once have seen,
We always may be what we might have been.*
*Adelaide Anne Proctor, “A Legend of Provence,” The Poems of Adelaide A. Procter (Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1864), 191.