Self Denial

SELF – DENIAL

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Whether or not she was aware of it, and I rather fancy she did not, Hannah was a giant of the faith. She penetrated heaven, touched God and aligned herself with the Almighty’s eternal plan. God had Samuel in mind and was about to bring him into this time space world. Hannah just wanted a baby. Her legitimate God given maternal instincts that wanted to embrace and love her own offspring and embrace the fruit of her womb, was sharpened and heightened by the animosity and insults of Penninah. The sharper her pain, the more cutting her prayers. The deeper the despair, the greater Hannah’s reach into heaven. The more she was buried in her circumstance, the higher she arose as a woman of the Spirit.  She finally touched the heavenly throne and received the answer via an elderly man who “happened” to be watching her.

Hannah had obviously made her vow before Eli had spoken. She was driven by a higher power than simple human desire for motherhood. Motives make things clean or dirty, holy or unholy. Hannah’s motivation could not have been purer. In her desire for a son, it is as if she stripped herself of any ulterior motive that would disgrace God and righteousness. As much as Peninnah had stabbed her a thousand times with jibes about her barrenness and twisted the knife in the wound incessantly, Hannah did not just want a child to shut her up. If that was all she wanted she would never have given Samuel to God’s service. She could not have wanted a child just to prove to Elkanah that she was not a “cursed” woman, or to let him know that she was a normal lady. She did not need to make any vows concerning any child that she might have conceived; the whole world was full of mothers who had never made any such vow. The desperation in her heart for motherhood somehow aligned herself with God, that even if she had ten children, they were all primarily God’s gift, and so the principle of the first fruits took hold of her. If God was to give her several children (or even if He was not to do so), she believed it was the right thing to do to give her son back to God.

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Her vow was a very Godly and holy act of self-denial. She wilfully decided that for the sake of God’s own eternal purpose, and the worship of Israel as a nation, she would deny herself the heart filling joy of having her own son to embrace each day and kiss good-night every evening. She denied herself all the outward bounty of being seen by friends and neighbours as a mother with her child. She denied herself the vengeance of being with Peninnah for the rest of her life being able to simply point at Samuel every time she made any snide remarks about her.

I do not believe it is right to see Hannah’s self denial as an isolated character trait that had nothing to do with her prayer-life. It was Hannah’s rationale behind her motivation that desired motherhood that designates her of one of the greatest ladies in the Bible.

In the first part of Luke 9:23, Jesus said, “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself …” Even though Hannah gave birth to Samuel something a little over a millennium before Jesus spoke those words, self- denial has always been part of Godly living. Hannah was, in this respect a woman ahead of her time. It seems to me that she immersed herself in a lifestyle of self-denial. I have no doubt at all that her character, philosophy and general attitude to the subject of denying one’s self was such that impacted Samuel’s world view greatly.

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This term, “self denial,” means a whole range of things to different people. It is my aim in this slot to define not only what Self-denial is, but what it is not, and to see it in the life of both Hannah and her offspring son.

As Charles Grandison Finney would say, self-denial is not giving up one’s favourite form of selfishness for a less liked form of selfishness. To give up selfishly indulging one’s self in, say, over eating, is not helpful if one adopts selfishly starving one’s self. Such things have nothing to do with the kingdom of God or His righteousness. It is not the victory over lying giving way to silent deception. Self-denial is nothing to do with stopping a certain sin because one fears one may be discovered and found out. Anything that indulges self, or seeks self protection by unrighteous and secretive motives cannot be self-denial as Jesus Christ defined it. To be sure, externally, one may be complemented for self-denial when people hear of what one has given up or denied themselves of. People in general hear of a person denying some pleasures and they measure it by their own internal yard-stick of what is righteous and what is not. They would be utterly unaware of the motivation behind such self-denying – if indeed it was self-denial. Self- denial is not stopping one thing because other people are doing such a thing and one wants to be one of the main stream of people in a certain fellowship. And needless to say Self-denial simply cannot be the cessation of some action or deed for the sake of being congratulated for so doing. By its very nature such an action is in no way self denial, but very much self indulgence.

We need to add that cessation of any form of self-indulgence because the doctor has said that a practice is ruining one’s health, or shortening one’s life, cannot, in the context of the words of Christ, be termed as self-denial. It is in its primary motivation, self-protection, and therefore a form of common sense and healthy self-indulgence.

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If in any action, or the cessation of any action, there is the slightest motivation for self indulgence, self-interest of self-promotion, it must be crossed off the list as being in the process of self-denial. Quoting Finney again, he said, “It is impossible to deny self for selfish reasons.”  Could it be plainer? One cannot deny self for the benefit of self. One cannot reject self for the promotion of self.

We are born selfishly crying. “Feed me!” “Hold me!” “Indulge me!” I am not being silly when I say this. I am very much aware that a child fresh out of the womb has no concept of self-denial, nor selfishness, but simply does what comes natural on the arrival into a strange new world. However, crying out in the same way when one is an adult, asking to be noticed, fed, indulged, and/or loved is exactly the same motive.

Common sense tells us not to do things, say things, or use things that will harm or hurt us. That is common sense, not self-denial. If I give you a book that I have owned for forty years, yet never read more than the Preface because I dislike it so much – I am not denying self as I hand it to you. The constituent parts that comprise self-denial simply cannot be soiled with anything that is done with self indulgence as part of the motive. Even giving oneself as a sacrifice can be done as a selfishly motivated act.  If Paul says that one can give oneself to be burned without love, and that if one was burned without love that action it would be worthless toward God and/or man, we have to examine the biblical definition of self-denial and work at it. Christ’s own definition of self-denial has love towards God and man as its primary constituent. Love and self-denial were what built His entire life. One cannot love as Jesus loved without self-denial. One cannot deny one’s self as Jesus did without love. They are conjoined twins. They are two separate bodies of truth with the same heart, the same backbone and they walk on the same legs.

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Hannah’s act of returning Samuel to God, by placing him in the hands of a feeble old man who could not parent his own sons properly, noting that she did so without pressure or prejudice towards any other reason of gain in any way, apart from doing it wilfully for the glory of God, gives us an incredible glimpse of true Christ-like self-denial. She gained nothing in the action. In the end of it all she gained the satisfaction that she had seeded her son for the elevation of the nation of Israel and God’s people.

Notice also, that living a life of self denial could not possibly be anything to do with forsaking sin or pernicious habits and ways. Why do I say this? I declare it, simply because Jesus Christ lived a life of total self-denial. He had no sin to forsake. Having said that, we have to also see that sin, by its very nature is self indulgence. We commit sin because we have pleasure in doing so. That is self surfacing. Self-denial must by its very nature be the act of choosing to deny one’s self the pleasure of sinning.

True self-denial is to do something for God and to other people, with absolutely no motivation for self gratification, other than the satisfaction of having done something that was right to do. Self-denial is to commit an act, that is utterly free of self-interest, self-indulgence, self-glorification.

True self-denial loves God for His own beauty and magnificence. Make no mistake that when Jesus talked of denying self, supremely selfless surrender to God was the primary presupposition in the words of the Master. If we love God in such a way that we do things to exalt Him and please Him, and that we do these things whether we like it or not, such an action is solidly founded on the rock of self-denial. When we deny ourselves of some quite legitimate blessing in order to bless other people, and that act of denial is done happily, and contentedly because it is making somebody else more content or to know that they are appreciated, we have touched the heart of Christ. This is exactly what Hannah did in her surrender of her beloved son Samuel. It needs to be seen in its Old Testament context, and to be noted as one of the greatest characteristics of an incredibly great woman – Hannah. Jesus said, “It is better to give than receive.” Long before Jesus said such a thing, Hannah gave the most precious thing she had.

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From Hannah’s example we can see that true self-denial could commonly mean giving up something that is both useful and precious to us.  We see from Hannah, also, that there was no pressure upon the giving of the child, other than her own heart wanting to do that which she considered to be right and good. Hannah gave Samuel freely. If it had been done under pressure or moral blackmail of any kind, the heavenly ingredient of self-denial would not have been in the soup of her gift at all.

By reading the text of the presentation of her son, and her annual visits, we are made to be keenly aware of her acute joy in the gift. That in itself is a vital ingredient in the recipe of Christ-like self-denial.

The end of Luke 9:23 is the call of Jesus to take up our cross daily, and follow Him. In this we see the ultimate statement in the defining of biblical self-denial. It comprises the merciless death of selfishness. Self-denial and selfishness are like oil and water, they are incapable of mixing or living together.

Hannah’s self denial was an act of the purest selflessness. But this spirit of self-denial ruled Hannah’s life before Samuel was even conceived. Her self-denial in the face of her enemy and rival was also a remarkable example of a human spirit submitting to God and the circumstances He had created, and not responding to the fallacy of Penninah’s interpretation of the situation. The appetite of selfish justification must have been staunched at the root as Penninah taunted Hannah about her womanhood in being childless. Selfishness as a general trait was what dominated Hannah’s rival. Self-lessness was Hannah’s prime characteristic.

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The selflessness Hannah shows us, and manner in which she was discovered praying by the elderly Eli gives us the knowledge that her beauty of character was rooted in a firm faith and confidence in Yahweh. The gift of the son to God’s service was, by the very life and impact of Samuel’s life, vindicated as a thing of the Spirit.

She now was without a son at home for a while, yet had silenced the other woman who could taunt her no more. Hannah had taken the higher ground. In giving up the privilege of bringing up Samuel, Hannah selflessly gave up the most precious thing in the entire world. Elderly Eli announced another blessing on Elkanah’s erstwhile barren wife, and she conceived 3 more sons and 2 daughters, making six in total (1 Samuel 2:20-21). As already mentioned in our notes, Jewish tradition has it that Peninnah lost all her children. That is Jewish tradition for you, not the scriptures.

Self- denial is one of the basic graces of proof of following Christ. It was basic to Abraham, even though he was not always consistent with the principle. It is the overriding grace that determined the character and motivation of the apostle Paul. And no matter how out of synch’ the biblical teaching of self denial is with the spirit of the world, we need to take note of its importance to us in determining our Christian life-style. Christ’s crucifiction and death was the greatest act of self-denial ever. We all need to take up our cross and follow Him with a life of self-denial.

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