Hang out for three days with 1,300 people like yourself, and—if you’re a writer, at least—it’s interesting to hear what words keep coming up.
Over the long weekend at January’s Gay Christian Network conference, I shared a meal with companions from several of my worlds: trans/nonbinary people, Episcopalians, bridge builders across hot-button divides. I took part in a workshop where we applauded as participants acted out stories of their gender journeys. All the people I met seemed genuinely glad to see one another.
And the words kept repeating. Validation. Acceptance. Affirmation. The whole conference exuded welcome and inclusion.
Well it should. Lord knows, we need these places of affirmation. After years of invisibility and shaming and turning our backs on our deepest selves, it’s no wonder we’re all about self-affirmation.
And then Lent comes, and I discover those words of Jesus again. “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34).
Can this possibly apply to us?
For one thing, self-denial sounds too much like self-loathing. The word carries echoes of ex-gay ministries and other attempts to “change” us. For me personally, it calls to mind the fear that I may have to “go back to being (or seeming) cis.”
Maybe, for those of us whose life and health hinge on affirming who we are, the whole idea of self-denial is obsolete. So can we can we consign self-denial to the category of shrimp, cotton blends, long hair on men, and other taboos for another age?
I don’t want to dis this possibility. Different times in history have sparked the Church to stress different practices and, by definition, let others sit on the back burner. Look at the past 50 years, in which Christendom has focused a ton on sexual ethics. In contrast, when was the last time you heard a sermon on sloth?
That doesn’t mean sloth has lost its status as a deadly sin. Neither does it mean that people aren’t practicing sloth anymore. But the times have drawn the Church into responding to the issues at hand, and since the 1960s many of those issues have involved sex. So all those sloth sermons sit in the back of the file cabinet, waiting for another age.
Maybe that should be the case with self-denial too. Goodness knows, we’ve spent so many millennia in a stance of judgment, exclusion, loathing, “othering”—applied to ourselves as well as others—that affirmation could well be one of the highest callings for the Church in this century. The last thing we need is more self-denial.
Except self-denial is so, well, fundamental. The centerpieces of our faith—the Incarnation, the Cross—depend on self-denial. Without setting the divine interests aside for our benefit, God never stoops to become human, and that human never bears the agony of trial and death.
It’s also fundamental to a cornerstone of Christian practice: community. We can’t be deeply connected with one another, to respond as a body to God’s leading, without setting aside our own interests periodically.
So setting aside self-denial feels like setting aside the call to love. Can’t really be Christianity without it. Now what?
Maybe we need a different way to think about self-denial: a way that makes sense in an age that cries out for self-affirmation. Does a way like that even exist?
I think it does. I think it has to do with an invitation that God continually holds out to every one of us: to fall in love with Jesus, to plunge ever deeper into that relationship.
A funny thing happens when we take this plunge: our grip on the things closest to our heart—our vested interests, our attachment to all things “non-God”—begins to relax. We start affirming things about ourselves not just because they’re part of us, but because we hear God affirming them. All the rest starts to pale.
This, I think, is what motivated St. Paul to let go of his substantial religious achievements. “I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ” (Philippians 3:8).
I know what he means. Ten years ago I had a thriving business that I loved and a faith that was one part of my life. Then I became a monastic associate: someone who lives by the Rule of Life the monks follow, but adapted to one’s own life in the workaday world. And faith started to take over. I sensed a call to write about things spiritual, and that call persisted until I was writing part-time (for little if any pay) and running my business part-time.
This call has terrified me. It’s a substantial loss of income for what would seem to all the world like a pipe dream. At the same time, the business I loved so much has paled. Refusing the call, going back to the way things were, is unthinkable. I have “denied myself” business success because I have fallen in love.
And yet—to come full circle—I have followed this surpassing love and I am still queer. Love has never asked me to give up being queer; in fact, it has called me deeper into the experience. Similarly, I know gay people who have followed this love and are in thriving relationships.
Self-denial is not, emphatically not, about denying who we are. It is about following the Divine Love wherever it takes us.
Sounds wonderful, right? Yes, but truth be told, it unnerves me a bit. I’d like to know where “wherever it takes us” actually is. I’d like to think I have a reasonable assessment of what God might ask me to leave behind and what I can preserve as part of who God made me.
But I can’t. I have no clue.
All I can say is that self-affirmation is invaluable—quite possibly the call of Christ to our age—and self-denial is still relevant. All that’s left is to embrace the God behind it all: a God who is love, who is good, who is occasionally disturbing, even frightening at times, who will bring us to a place in which we are our fullest selves.
photo credit: Linda via Flickr, cc
As a regular contributor to Huffington Post Religion and an associate of an Episcopal monastery, JOHN BACKMAN writes on contemplative spirituality and dialogue. He is the author of Why Can’t We Talk? Christian Wisdom on Dialogue as a Habit of the Heart (SkyLight Paths), and his articles have appeared in numerous faith-based publications, including RELEVANT and PRISM. John serves on the board of the National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation, and he has presented internationally at academic conferences and faith gatherings.