In his interactions with others, Jesus often got straight to the point. His call to discipleship in Mark 8:34 is no exception: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” Discipleship equals self-denial and cross-bearing. Period.
But what does Jesus mean by “deny himself”? What does the ultimate cross-bearer mean by “take up his cross,” since Jesus’s cross and our cross cannot accomplish the same thing? And why does he use such a harsh metaphor to describe discipleship?
Supplying Our Own Definitions
We vaguely understand self-denial and cross-bearing to mean that discipleship is probably difficult and the self is somehow a problem. But if we rely on our associations with these ideas to flesh them out, we will likely misunderstand Jesus’s meaning.
For instance, if we consider how we pursue self-denial, we might find that we associate denying ourselves with denying our desires. Because “self” refers to us and what we want, we add a direct object to “deny himself,” so that it becomes “Deny himself . . . things.” Whether that be material objects or immaterial things such as success, love, or meaningful work, denying the self’s desires is a common misunderstanding of self-denial.
If we consider how we pursue self-denial, we might find that we associate denying ourselves with denying our desires.
But sometimes we take it further: we ignore the self. Because we know ourselves to be inherently sinful, we may consider anything originating out of the self as at least suspect, if not threatening or wrong. Fearful of being too self-focused and inward-gazing, we create a false dichotomy in which we have to choose between focus on Christ and self-examination.
Cross-bearing is, perhaps, even more misunderstood. “We all have our crosses to bear” is applied to a variety of difficulties, from being used in jest (“I’m going to a conference in Florida next week—we all have our crosses to bear”), to expressing frustration over minor inconveniences (such as the habitual lateness of a family member), to describing truly difficult situations like temptations, long-term sickness, or difficult relationships.
Believers can tend to allegorize any unpleasantness as a “cross” and then spiritualize it as part of discipleship. Or even more extreme, cross-bearing becomes a reference to how discipleship is tantamount to pain—not as including suffering, but as its essential nature.
These readings are dangerous because they’re based on partial truths. Of course, we should be wary of the self. Of course, the Christian life is one that involves suffering. But each of these misinterpretations misses what Christ is asking for.
What the Text Says
Two considerations, in particular, can guide us to a correct understanding of Jesus’s meaning in Mark 8:34.
1. Closer Look at ‘Deny’
The Greek verb translated here as “to deny” is aparneomai. Although this word can simply mean to deny the truth of a statement, it almost always has overtones of association or connection to a person. Denial in the New Testament is the intentional disassociation from relationship with a particular person. Another translation, then, might be to “disown” or “renounce.” For example, this is the verb used when Peter “denies” Jesus. He denies that he knows Jesus or has any association with him.
Self-denial, then, is intentional disowning of the self, or stepping away from relationship with the self as primary. Jesus is not making a statement about whether the self is bad, but about who we are most closely associated with. Who is our primary allegiance to—him, or ourselves?
2. Historical Practice of Cross-Bearing
Jesus made this statement about taking up one’s cross before he was crucified. Although the metaphor would certainly gain a fuller meaning after his death, it must have meant something to his listeners beforehand as well.
Crucifixion was reserved specifically for offenders who had rebelled against authority. To “take up one’s cross” referred to the practice of forcing a condemned person to carry the cross beam to his execution site. This showed that although he had rebelled against authority, the condemned person was now so completely conquered that his last act in life would be to carry the instrument of his demise to the place of his death. It was a show of complete and utter submission. A call to bear one’s cross as part of following Jesus, then, is a call to be as submitted to Christ as the condemned criminal was to his death.
Therefore, when Jesus calls for self-denial and cross-bearing, he’s claiming authority. Following Christ means disowning the self and giving allegiance to him instead. And it means giving him allegiance down to the very depths of our being.
More Than a Slogan
Instead of borrowing these biblical words as self-defined slogans for discipleship (as one of my seminary professors once said), what does Jesus’s call mean for our lives?
First, self-denial is not merely a periodic practice. We aren’t occasionally called to pick up a certain cross; we are called to an entire way of life. We often speak of whether we are willing to “count the cost” of discipleship. But the real issue is not the costliness of following Jesus—it’s our willingness to follow him regardless of the cost. The greatness or littleness of the cost is no longer emphasized; rather, all of life is to be surrendered to him.
We aren’t occasionally called to pick up a certain cross; we are called to an entire way of life.
Second, a right understanding of the self is necessary for discipleship. If self-denial and cross-bearing are actually calls to surrender the self, then the self must not only be present, but well-known and well-examined. How can we submit what we do not recognize? How can we surrender what we are unaware of? Spending time examining our hearts, studying our motives, desires, and sin, is not only permissible in discipleship, but necessary to it.
Third, all discipleship is extreme. The seemingly harsh language of Jesus’s call is intended to make this clear. There are no halfway measures in following Christ. It’s all or nothing. By definition, it’s not a hobby but total and complete allegiance to him in every corner of the heart.
Christ calls us to exclusive allegiance and complete submission to him. Although extreme and all-encompassing, self-denial and cross-bearing do not eradicate or repress the self. Rather, the Holy Spirit works through them, restoring the image of God in us as we grow in Christlikeness and become more fully who we were created to be.