When Oscar Wilde said that “Self-denial is the shining sore on the leprous body of Christianity” he could easily have observed almost any professing Christian in any age or place who mistakenly believe their abstinence was the key that unlocked all the blessings of heaven. In Matthew’s, “proof text” for Christian self-denial there is a preposition that is often overlooked in practice and lifestyle that is responsible for spiritual leprosy.
The preposition Wildes’ lepers have ignored is in Matthew 10:39, “whoever loses his life for my sake will find it“: or “because of me“.
There is no gain or merit in a life of self denial, strict discipline, adherence, stoicism, charitable works and the like outside of Christ. If the sacrifice in possession, place or relationship is done now to manipulate or bargain a greater inheritance in eternity, then it will fail. We cannot merit grace. We cannot earn God’s favor.
Rather, if, in the pursuit of Christ, to gain more of him, to know him, love him, serve him or to, in the John Edwards sense, deepen my affectation for him, by him and to him, I suffer some loss here and now in relationships, recognition or reward that will be to my eternal gain. For though I may have lost those things I gained Christ. He is my exceeding great reward; to know him and to experience the power that was at work in his resurrection in my life; that is a true and elegant sufficiency.
The call is not to suffer for sufferings sake as though by my suffering I repay part of an impossible debt. It is a rejoinder that as you suffer “because of me” you are, in fact, finding your life not losing it. Don’t seek to suffer, but when it comes receive it gladly “because of me” and rejoice in the eternal life that Christ has given. Self denial is a wasted virtue because so many think that through their efforts, they achieve or earn God’s gift. “I have suffered so I deserve better.” When that is your posture you are seeking your life on your terms and you only have loss waiting for you. Write it all off for the sake of Christ and gain everything.