Among ancients the greatest honor was given to those who, seeing the greater good of the greater number, chose valiantly to deny themselves certain rights and pleasures to improve those around them.
But somewhere along the line of history, the honorable virtue of self-denial became associated with weakness, as in not “looking out for No. 1” and “pulling one’s own strings.”
In fact, it became commonplace to believe those who knowingly deny themselves something to create something better for others are fools. Nice guys finish last, and we would much rather win than be nice.
But the fact it is not highly appreciated doesn’t means self-denial has lost its value in society. We still see it, and sometimes it is even applauded, but for the most part, it is rarely championed.
Tragically, we are seeing the consequences of a “me first and foremost” mindset all around us.
It used to be only children were allowed to be self-centered. It was their natural bent, and the role of the parent was to banish such foolishness before the child was allowed out into civil society.
This was done by increasingly saying “no” to the child’s every wish … immediately.
Over time children learned something we used to call “delayed gratification.” This taught them the value of saying “no” to self, of denying certain desires to attain a better “good.”
In the long run, they developed self-control this way, and that essential value promoted their success in many realms as they grew and took on life.
And herein lies the stark reality: Our society is increasingly being pulled into the vortex of selfishness because the childish propensity to pamper, indulge, and satiate self has been turned into the virtue of freedom, self-expression and most of all, the crown jewel of modern ethics: high self-esteem.
Our goal, apparently, is to feel good about ourselves, and anything that might bring sadness or suffering must never be allowed to find place in our lives.
Chief among the things we’ve had to jettison in our quest for ever-greater levels of self-love is self-denial. If you love yourself, then it only follows that it is your duty to fulfill your desires as often and as completely as possible, regardless of how this world view affects those around you.
Despite the huge success of the self-esteem movement, and its attendant ruinous consequences, we do still see the value of self-denial in isolated areas.
The military has long considered it essential to rid recruits of the entitlement gene, and the rigors of basic training do just that.
The academies that shape our law enforcement and fire professionals also consider self-denial to be an essential character trait in their men and women, and they work hard to build this control into them.
Even the sports world at times recognizes that when the star player denies his primary desire – to shoot the basketball – and instead passes the ball to his teammates, the team wins more games.
What the military, law enforcement, fire, and some enlightened sports fans understand is the ability to overcome the biggest challenges in life begins with dominating the tyrant of self.
Those who can face down their own desires, making the self their slave rather than their master, are more apt to stay away from addicting habits, more capable of staying faithful to their commitments, and more ready to act courageously in times when the welfare of others threatens the serenity of self.
Jesus put it this way: “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.” To follow the master, we must resign the mastery of our lives.
And, while on the surface this looks like losing, it is, actually, the best option. The selfish life has never created an authentic sense of purpose, satisfaction or accomplishment.
History books are full of men and women who lived their lives for themselves, only to realize too late they were devoid of personal value and satisfaction.
Ultimately, the self-satiated life is not worth living, and we can only hope our world catches on soon.
David Hegg is senior pastor of Grace Baptist Church and a Santa Clarita resident. Ethically Speaking runs in The Signal Saturdays.