By David Hegg
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 in order 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″ or”pulling one’s own strings.”
It became commonplace to believe only fools knowingly denied themselves something in order to create something better for others. Nice guys finish last, and we would much rather win than be nice. Only chumps allowed themselves to be taken advantage of, or willingly gave up something in order to help someone else.
It used to be that 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 desire for his or her every wish to be fulfilled. Over time children learned something we used to call “delayed gratification.” This was the virtue of waiting to get your way, which necessitated saying “no” to your own desires. In simple terms, this was taking control of personal desires and denying them their way. Self-denial — the inner ability to say “no” to self — was considered an essential component of maturity.
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 worldview affects those around you.
Despite the far-flung championing of the self-esteem movement, we do still see the value of self-denial in isolated areas, especially when the ruinous consequences of selfishness become visible. The military has long considered it essential to rid their 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 work hard to build this control into them. Even the sports world at times recognizes that when LeBron James 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 service, and some enlightened sports fans understand is that the ability to overcome the biggest challenges in life begins with the ability to overcome 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 in the face of temptations to the contrary, 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.” In order to follow the master, we have to resign the mastery of our lives. And, while on the surface this looks like losing, it is really 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 have lived their lives for self only to realize too late that they lacked meaning, purpose and satisfaction in life. 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” appears Sundays.