Denying Self and Following Christ
by Martyn Lloyd-Jones
"You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.' But I say to you, do not resist an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also. If anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, let him have your coat also. Whoever forces you to go one mile, go with him two. Give to him who asks of you, and do not turn away from him who wants to borrow from you." Matthew 5:38-42
We have already studied these verses twice. First, we looked at them in general, reminding ourselves of certain principles which govern the interpretation. Then we considered the statements one by one in detail, and saw that our Lord's concern is that we should be set free from all desire for personal revenge. There is nothing which is so tragic as the way in which many people, when they come to this paragraph, become so immersed in details, and are so ready to argue about the rightness or wrongness of doing this or that, that they completely lose sight of the great principle here expressed, which is the Christian's attitude towards himself.
These illustrations are used by our Lord simply to bring out His teaching concerning that great central principle. 'You', He says in effect, 'must have a right view of yourselves. Your troubles arise because you tend to go wrong at that particular point.' In other words, our Lord's primary concern here is with what we are, rather than with what we do. What we do is important, because it is indicative of what we are. He illustrates that here, and says: 'If you are what you claim to be, this is how you will behave.'
So we must concentrate not so much upon the action as upon the spirit that leads to the action. That is why, let us repeat it again, it is so essential that we should take the teaching of the Sermon on the Mount in the order in which it is given. We have no right to consider these particular injunctions unless we have already grasped, and mastered, and have submitted ourselves to, the teaching of the Beatitudes.
In this paragraph we have our attitude towards ourselves presented in a negative manner; in the paragraph that follows it is presented positively. There our Lord goes on to say: 'You have heard that it has been said, You shall love your neighbor, and hate your enemy. But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.' But here we are concerned with the negative, and this teaching is of such central importance in the New Testament that we must consider it once more.
We have already found more than once that the Sermon on the Mount is full of doctrine. There is nothing quite so pathetic as the way in which people used to say some thirty or forty years ago (and some still say it) that the only part of the New Testamerit they really believed in and liked was the Sermon on the Mount, and that because it contained no theology or doctrine. It was practical, they said; just an ethical manifesto, which contained no doctrine or dogma. There is nothing quite so sad as that, because this Sermon on the Mount is full of doctrine. We have it here in this paragraph. The important thing is not so much that I turn the other cheek, as that I should be in a state in which I am ready to do so. The doctrine involves my whole view of myself.
No man can practice what our Lord illustrates here unless he has finished with himself, with his right to himself, his right to determine what he shall do, and especially must he finish with what we commonly call the 'rights of the self'. In other words we must not be concerned about ourselves at all. The whole trouble in life, as we have seen, is ultimately this concern about SELF, and what our Lord is inculcating here is that it is something of which we must rid ourselves entirely. We must rid ourselves of this constant tendency to be watching the interests of self, to be always on the look-out for insults or attacks or injuries, always in this defensive attitude. That is the kind of thing He has in mind.
All that must disappear, and that of course means that we must cease to be so sensitive about self. This morbid sensitiveness, this whole condition in which self is 'on edge' and so delicately and sensitively poised and balanced that the slightest disturbance can upset its equilibrium, must be got rid of. The condition which our Lord is here describing is one in which a man simply cannot be hurt. Perhaps that is the most radical form in which one can put that statement. I reminded you in the last chapter of what the apostle Paul says about himself in I Corinthians 4:3. He writes: 'With me it is a very small thing that I should be judged of you, or of man's judgment: yes, I judge not mine own self.' He has committed the whole question of his judgment to God, and thus he has entered into a state and condition in which he just cannot be hurt. That is the ideal at which we should be aiming — this indifference to self and its interests.
A statement which the great George Muller once made about himself seems to illustrate this very clearly. He writes like this: 'There was a day when I died, utterly died, died to George Muller and his opinions, preferences, tastes and will; died to the world, its approval or censure; died to the approval or blame of even my brethren and friends; and since then I have studied only to show myself approved unto God.' That is a statement to be pondered deeply. I cannot imagine a more perfect or adequate summary of our Lord's teaching in this paragraph than that. Muller was enabled to die to the world and its approval or censure, to die even to the approval or censure of his friends and most intimate companions. And we should notice the order in which he put it. First, it was the approval or censure of the world; then the approval or censure of his intimates and friends. But he said he had succeeded in doing both, and the secret of it, according to Muller, was that he had died to himself — to George Muller.
There is no doubt that there is a very definite sequence in this matter. The furthest removed is the world, then come his friends and associates. But the most difficult thing is for a man to die to himself, to his own approval or censure of himself. There are many great artists who treat with disdain the opinion of the world. The world does not approve of their work? 'So much the worse for the world', says the great artist. 'Men are so ignorant they do not understand.' You can become immune to the opinion of the mass and the mob, to the world. But then there is the approval or censure of those who are near and dear to you, those who are intimately associated with you. You value their opinion more highly, and you are therefore more sensitive to it.
But the Christian must reach the stage in which he surmounts even that and realizes that he must not be controlled by it. And then he goes on to the last, the ultimate stage which concerns what a man thinks of himself — his own assessment, his own approval of himself and his own judgment of himself'.
You will find, in many a biography, stories of men who have delivered themselves from sensitivity to the world and to intimates, but who have found that it means a terrible battle, an almost impossible fight not to be concerned about one's self, and one's own judgment of one's self. And as long as we are concerned about that we are not really safe even from the other two. So the key to it all, as George Muller reminds us, is that we must die to ourselves. George Muller had died to himself, to his opinion, his preferences, his likes and dislikes, his tastes, his will. His one concern, his one idea, was to be approved unto God.
Now that is our Lord's teaching here, that the Christian is to get into such a state and condition that he can say that.
The next point is obviously that only the Christian can do this. That is where we find doctrine in this paragraph. No man can possibly attain to this except a Christian. It is the very opposite and antithesis of what is true of the natural man. It is difficult to imagine anything further removed from what the world generally describes as a gentleman. A gentleman, according to the world, is one who fights for his honor and his name. Although he no longer challenges to a duel the moment he is insulted because it is prohibited by law, this is what he would do if he could. That is the world's idea of a gentleman and of honour; and it always means self-defense. It applies not only to man individually but to his country and to everything that belongs to him. It is surely true to say that the world despises a man who does not do that, and it admires the aggressive kind of person, the person who asserts himself and is always most ready to defend himself and his so-called honor.
We say, therefore, plainly and without apology, that no man can implement this teaching who is not a Christian. A man must be born again and be a new creature before he can live like this. No man can die to himself except the man who can say, 'I live; yet not I, but Christ lives in me.' It is the doctrine of the rebirth. In other words our Lord says: 'You have to live like that, but you can do so only when you have received the Holy Spirit and there is a new life in you. You have to become utterly different; you have to become entirely changed; you have to become a new being.'
The world dislikes this teaching and would have us believe that in various ways man can approximate to it unaided. We used to hear a great deal about the 'word of a sportsman', about being 'a sport' and so on. We do not hear quite so much about that these days, for the obvious reason that we have found men who are famous as 'sportsmen' and who, when they are playing games, are full of a sense of honor and ready to stand aside and not consider themselves, figuring in Divorce Court cases, and displaying there a complete lack of honor, even a lack of ordinary decency, truthfulness, and the sense of right and fair play. Oh no, by being a 'sportsman' you cannot live like this. This is something utterly removed from the world and its sport even at its very highest and best. It is something that is only possible for one who is regenerate, who has received the Spirit of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Having thus stated the doctrine, we must now ask a practical question. How am I to live like that? Someone may say: 'You have confronted us with teaching; but I find it difficult, I tend to fail in practice. How can one live that kind of life?'
Let us, first of all, approach the matter on a purely practical level. The first thing we must do is to face this whole problem of SELF in an honest manner. We must cease to make excuses, cease trying to evade and circumvent it. It is to be faced honestly and squarely. We must hold all this teaching before us and examine ourselves in the light of it. But it is not enough that we should do that in general only; we must do it in particular also.
Whenever I notice in myself a reaction of self-defense, or a sense of annoyance or a grievance, or a feeling that I have been hurt and wronged and am suffering an injustice — the moment I feel this defensive mechanism coming into play, I must just quietly face myself and ask the following questions. 'Why exactly does this thing upset me? Why am I grieved by it? What is my real concern at this point? Am I really concerned for some general principle of justice and righteousness? Am I really moved and disturbed because I have some true cause at heart or, let me face it honestly, is it just myself? Is it just this horrible, foul self-centeredness and self-concern, this morbid condition into which I have got? Is it nothing but an unhealthy and unpleasant pride?'
Such self-examination is essential if we are to conquer in this matter. We all know this by experience. How easy it is to explain it in some other way. We must listen to the voice that speaks within us, and if it says: 'Now you know perfectly well it is just yourself, that horrid pride, that concern about yourself and your reputation and your own greatness' — if it is that, we must admit and confess it. It will be extremely painful, of course; and yet, if we want to rise to our Lord's teaching, we have to pass through such a process. It is the denial of self.
Another thing on the practical level which is of the very greatest importance is to realize the extent to which SELF controls your life. Have you ever tried doing that?
Examine yourself and your life, your ordinary work, the things you do, the contacts you have to make with people. Reflect for a moment upon the extent to which self comes into all that. It is an amazing and terrible discovery to note the extent to which self-interest and self-concern are involved, even in the preaching of the gospel. It is a horrible discovery! We are concerned about preaching well. Why? For the glory of God — or for our own glory? All the things we do and say, the impression we make even when we meet people casually — what are we really concerned about? If you analyze the whole of your life, not only your actions and conduct, but your dress, your appearance, everything — it will amaze you to discover the extent to which this unhealthy attitude towards self comes in.
But let us go one step further. I wonder whether we have ever realized the extent to which the misery and the unhappiness and the failure and the trouble in our lives — is due to one thing only, namely self! Go back across last week, consider in your mind and recall to your conscience the moments or the periods of unhappiness and strain, your irritability, your bad temper, the things you have said and done of which you are now ashamed, the things that have really disturbed you and put you off your balance. Look at them one by one, and it will be surprising to discover how almost every one of them will come back to this question of self, this self-sensitivity, this watching of self.
There is no question about it. Self is the main cause of unhappiness in life. 'Ah!', you say, 'but it is not my fault; it is what somebody else has done.' All right; analyze yourself and the other person, and you will find the other person probably acted as he did because of self — and you are really feeling it for the same reason. If only you had a right attitude towards the other person, as our Lord goes on to teach in the next paragraph, you would be sorry for him and would be praying for him. So ultimately it is you who are to blame. Now it is a very good thing on the practical level just to look at it honestly and squarely. Most of the unhappiness and sorrow, and most of our troubles in life and in experience, arise from this ultimate origin and source, this self!
Let us come to a higher level, however, and look at it doctrinally. It is a very good thing to look at self in a doctrinal and theological manner. According to the teaching of Scripture, self was responsible for the fall. But for it, sin would never have entered into the world. The devil was subtle enough to know its power, so he put it in terms of self. He said: 'God is not being fair to you; you have a legitimate grudge and a grievance.' And man agreed, and that was the whole cause of the fall. There would be no need of International Conferences to try to solve the problems of the nations at the present time — if it were not for the fall. And the whole trouble is just self and self-assertion. That is self regarded doctrinally.
But self always means defiance of God; it always means that I put myself on the throne instead of God, and therefore it is always something that separates me from Him.
All moments of unhappiness in life are ultimately due to this separation. A person who is in real communion with God and with the Lord Jesus Christ is happy. It does not matter whether he is in a dungeon, or whether he has his feet fast in the stocks, or whether he is burning at the stake; he is still happy if he is in communion with God. Is not that the experience of the saints down the centuries? So the ultimate cause of any misery or lack of joy — is separation from God; and the one cause of separation from Him is self. Whenever we are unhappy it means that in some way or other we are looking at ourselves and thinking about ourselves, instead of communing with God.
Man, according to the Scriptures, was meant to live entirely to the glory of God. He was meant to love the Lord God with all his heart, with all his soul, with all his mind and with all his strength. The whole of man was meant to glorify God. Therefore, any desire to glorify self or safeguard the interests of self is of necessity a sin, because I am looking at myself instead of looking at God and seeking His honor and glory. And it is that very thing in man which God has condemned. It is that which is under the curse of God and the wrath of God.
And as I understand the teaching of the Scriptures, holiness eventually means this — deliverance from this self-centered life. Holiness, in other words, must not be thought of primarily in terms of actions, but in terms of an attitude towards self. It does not mean essentially that I do not do certain things — and try to do others. There are people who never do certain things that are regarded as sinful — but they are full of pride of self. So we must look at it in terms of self and our relationship to ourselves, and we must realize again that the essence of holiness is that we should be able to say with George Muller that we have died, died completely, to this self that has caused so much ruin in our lives and experience.
Now, lastly, let us come to the highest level and look at the problem of self in the light of Christ. Why did the Lord Jesus Christ the Son of God ever come into this world? He came ultimately in order to deliver mankind from self. We see this selfless life so perfectly in Him. Look at His coming from the glory of Heaven to the stable in Bethlehem. Why did He come? There is only one answer to that question. He did not consider Himself. That is the essence of the statement that Paul makes in Philippians 2. He was eternally the Son of God and was 'equal with God' from eternity, but He did not consider that; He did not hold on to that and to His right to the manifestation of that glory. He humbled Himself and denied Himself. There would never have been the incarnation had it not been that the Son of God put self, as it were, aside.
Then look at His selfless life here upon earth. He often said that the words He spoke He did not speak of Himself, and the actions He performed He said 'are not mine; they have been given to me of the Father'. That is how I understand Paul's teaching of the self-humiliation of the cross. It means that, coming in the likeness of man, He deliberately made Himself dependent upon God; He did not consider Himself at all. He said: 'I have come to do your will, O God,' and He was wholly dependent upon God for everything, for the words He spoke and for everything He did. The very Son of God humbled Himself to that extent. He did not live for Himself or by Himself in any measure. And the apostle's argument is, 'Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus.'
We see it supremely of course in His death upon the cross. He was innocent and guiltless, He had never sinned or done anyone any harm, yet 'when he was reviled — he reviled not again; when he suffered — he threatened not; but committed himself to him that judges righteously' (1 Peter 2:23). That is it. The cross of Christ is the supreme illustration, and the argument of the New Testament is this, that if we say we believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and believe that He has died for our sins, it means that our greatest desire should be to die to self.
That is the final purpose of His dying, not merely that we might be forgiven, or that we might be saved from Hell. Rather it was that a new people might be formed, a new humanity, a new creation, and that a new kingdom be set up, consisting of people like Himself. He is 'the firstborn among many brethren', He is the pattern. God has made us, says Paul to the Ephesians: 'We are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus.' We are 'to be conformed to the image of his Son'. That is the language of Scripture. So that we may say that the reason for His death on the cross is that you and I might be saved and separated from that life of self. We believe 'that if one died for all — then were all dead.' Why? For this reason, says Paul: 'that those who live should not henceforth live unto themselves, but unto him which died for them, and rose again.' That is the life to which we are called. Not the life of self-defense or self-sensitivity, but such a life that, even if we are insulted — we do not retaliate; if we receive a blow on the right cheek — we are ready to turn the other also; if a man sues us at the law and takes away our coat — we are ready to give our cloak also; if we are compelled to go a mile — we go two; if a man comes and asks something of me I do not say, 'This is mine!' I say rather, 'If this man is in need and I can help him, I will'. I have finished with self, I have died to myself, and my one concern now is the glory of God.
That is the life to which the Lord Jesus Christ calls us and He died in order that you and I might live it. Thank God the gospel also goes on to tell us that He rose again and that He has sent into the Church, and into every one who believes on Him, the Holy Spirit with all His renovating and energizing power. If we are trying to live this kind of life in and of ourselves, we are doomed before we start. But with the blessed promise and offer of the Spirit of God to come and dwell in us and work in us, there is hope for us. God has made this life possible. If George Muller could die to George Muller, why should not every one of us who is a Christian die in the same way to that self that is so sinful, that leads to so much misery and wretchedness and unhappiness, and which finally is such a denial of the blessed work of the Son of God upon the cross on Calvary's hill.