Back in the days when I was a corps officer in Bradenton, I was allowed to have one of the retired Salvation Army computers in my home so I could work on my writing. The kind IT folks at divisional headquarters recommended some upgrades on software and brought those to me. That evening as I was leaving the office, a young mother with a small child was going home. Judging from the large bag of groceries she carried, she had just seen our caseworker. I held the door for her and we both walked to our cars. Hers was one of those rattle traps with bald tires, a cracked windshield and a coat hanger holding the muffler on. As she was putting her little one in the car she also put the groceries in the backseat while I put my box of software in my backseat. I realized as I did so that what I had in my little box was likely worth more than her whole car. I felt ashamed. When this software was discussed with me I said I needed it. By the difference between this lady and me I realized that I had forgotten what real need was.
This was part of a continuing process to this day when the Lord spoke to me about how I lived compared to the world. I drove a car that was really too big for one person. I lived in a house that had a living room considered terribly important to have but which we hardly used. We had a dining room that was visited on Sunday and left vacant the rest of the time. Was that really necessary? If I needed medical attention I simply got it. No worries while so many could not afford the basics. How could I possibly speak to anyone about self-denial?
When the Bible speaks about taking up our cross, about denying ourselves, about losing our lives to find them, most often the statements are set against material things. Jesus challenged the rich young ruler to give away what he had (Matthew 19:16-23). To those who would seek power, Jesus replied that it was a cross that was promised before any crown would be issued (Matthew 16:24-18). Paul, in assessing his life, spoke of all he had acquired and accomplished, but he said, "I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ" (Philippians 3:8). It was the widow who gave her all, the churches of Revelation that struggled in their poverty that Jesus commended. Whether we want to admit it or not, self-denial is as much action as attitude. Self-denial means putting it aside for the sake of the Kingdom.
We need to be careful not to confuse charity with self-denial. Charity shares a meal, self-denial cleans out the cupboards. Charity gives our old clothes, self-denial scours the closet for the best that we have. Charity spares a dime, self-denial cleans out the bank account. It isn’t self-denial until it cuts into us and we feel the cost of sacrifice. We kid ourselves into thinking that self-denial is a part of our budget – it is our budget. It is to be like Matthew who, when Jesus called him to follow, left behind the tax collectors table and never turned back for the receipts.
Christ is our example in this. The Bible tells us He chose to be born in a home of poverty. But even after this He left it to be a homeless person for three years. He poured Himself into the disciples who would run from Him when they were challenged to pay the price. Not even dignity was left Him. Then on the cross He finished emptying Himself out in the audience of mockers and blasphemers. There was nothing held back for a rainy day, nothing in reserve.
Am I saying that everyone should run out and empty their bank accounts? Only the Holy Spirit has the authority to make that kind of demand. What I am saying is that soon, maybe today, you will be confronted with a choice of whether to take care of yourself or lay down what you have in obedience to the Spirit. Like the rich young ruler you will have to make a decision about what is more important. If it pains you to think of giving what is asked for you have reached the place beyond charity. This is the place of sacrifice. This is the moment when the altar will either be empty or you will lay your Isaac upon it.
When our hands are completely empty we can open them to receive what only God can give.