Deny Yourself to Follow Jesus: Impossibly Hard?

Jesus asks: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves, take up their cross daily, and follow me”. [Luke 9:23] We want to be Jesus’ disciples and so this is something we know he asks of us, but it sounds so hard: the stuff of heroes and saints. Too often, we admire the sentiment, but don’t actually do it.

But we are being overanxious about what Jesus is really asking. We often seem to think Jesus is asking: “Say No to yourself everywhere and in everything all at once, no matter what, or else!” We forget about the story of Zacchaeus in the Gospel [Luke 19:1-10]. Zacchaeus was a short, rich man with a troubled past, who wanted to see Jesus¬†but couldn’t see over the crowd. So he climbed a tree. When Jesus saw him in the tree, all Jesus asked of him was a visit to his house. It was Zacchaeus himself, out of the generosity of his own heart, who offered to give half of what he owned to the poor, and to repay all he had defrauded, and Jesus, hearing this, joyfully exclaimed that “Today, salvation has come to this house!”

Jesus asks of us what he asked of Zaccheus: to “stay at our house”. What we do when he is there is up to us: it is our own free gift. A gift is a form of self-denial, yes, but one we offer freely: it is not a price or payment. So let’s look at what we can offer him. To deny yourself is to say “no” to something you like. To pick up your cross is to say “yes” to something you don’t like. We can choose some things we like, and say “no” to them, as a free gift to Jesus. Also, we can choose some things we don’t like, and say “yes” to them, as a free gift to Jesus. Jesus does not insist that you embrace everything you don’t like and give up everything you do; he is there simply to receive whichever of these gifts you choose to give him.

So what does this mean, concretely? Unlike Zacchaeus, we are not talking about one visit. For us, following Jesus is a journey. During that journey, Jesus will inspire us to give him gifts: things we like that we give up to get closer to him, or things we don’t like that we embrace to get closer to him. This will happen at various times, not all at once: it is a journey. Each time, Jesus does not force or insist, we offer. If our hearts are frightened at first and that makes us stingy with our gifts, that is not the end of the story, it is only a spot on the way: as our walk with Jesus continues and we get to know him better, we will increasingly see that he is worth the sacrifice. As time passes, as we keep trying to be close to him and as he rubs off on us and we become more like him, we will see better and better that we are doing this thing that we thought was impossibly hard: we are denying ourselves, taking up our cross, and following him.

© Agapios Theophilus. 2016

Agapios Theophilus

Agapios Theophilus

Agapios Theophilus is the "nom de plume" of a catholic layman who has loved Jesus from when, as a young boy in the 1970s, he first learned about him. His First Communion, at the age of seven, was the happiest day of his life, and he celebrates its anniversary each year. He lives in a large city with his beloved wife, two wonderful children, and an affectionate orange and white cat. He has no formal qualifications whatsoever to write about Jesus: he writes only because he has been given the great gift of knowing and loving him, and he would like others to come to know and love him too. See Agapios' posts at and follow Agapios on twitter at

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