How to ‘Deny Yourself’ Without Destroying Yourself

“Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it.”
— Mark 8:34-35

Have you ever been in a relationship with someone who was too demanding? Perhaps they wanted so much of your attention that you felt like you were slowly vanishing? This kind of co-dependency can be toxic. So what do we do with the demands that Jesus extends to His followers? Does He ask too much of us? Does following Jesus require us to be self-deprecating?

Consider this passage from the middle of the Gospel of Mark, the climax of the story. Jesus asks His disciples who people are saying He is and what they think about his mission. Then He asks them who they think he is. Peter answers, and his answer is right on. But as one of my Pepperdine theology professors would tell us, small theological boats should stay close to shore. Peter should have quit while he was ahead.

Jesus begins to elaborate on Peter’s answer, and Peter quickly corrects Him, earning sharp words from Jesus. But the story doesn’t end there. It ends with an invitation. You can’t follow Jesus by doing anything less than losing your life. Jesus is saying that through weakness, powerlessness and death grow victory, strength and life. That what might look nonsensical or like a stumbling block or scandal actually holds the key to being a follower of Jesus and being part of transforming the world we live in.

When I first presented these ideas in a course I was teaching, my students challenged this self-denial. Many of them were familiar with relationships that seemed to suck the life out of them and asked why endorse a Christian idea that simply enables unhealthy relational dynamics? And they were rightly cautious of a “depraved” view of the self that in the name of self-denial felt simply like self-deprecation. I am a Christian so I have to give up everything including myself. So the question is how does this spiritual call of denial not become co-dependency or self-deprecating?

Let me clarify. Co-dependency is what we call it when someone attends to the desires and needs of another person at the expense of one’s own needs, often found in relationships. Co-dependency is often found where addiction and violence are present...........................