There is a thought that has been stirring in my heart for such a long time — not in a good way. It lights my fire. It makes me mad.
Our culture is steeped in self-promotion.
It has permeated all of our lives. Whether you are scrolling on social media, reading a self-help book, or listening to a leadership podcast — we are being asked to promote ourselves. It can be subtle. Maybe you read how someone picked themselves up by their bootstraps and worked their way into a dream job. Or you hear a leader’s 5 steps to get what you want in life. Or your instagram feed is full of perfectly posed selfies with captions about being your most authentic self.
We find ourselves taking photos for “content” or trying our hand at an artsy “quote” we wrote on Canva. We plan our outings around what would look most Instagram-worthy. We feel this desire to let the world know how pretty, accomplished, busy, wise, fun, [fill in the blank with your adjective of choice] we are. Nothing can happen without everyone knowing. And we don’t just want them to know, that’s not the issue. We want them to affirm us. We need them to affirm us.
It’s so ingrained in our culture that we don’t even notice it anymore. We don’t even know it’s bad. I even have a hard time definitively saying “it’s bad.” But here’s how I know it’s bad: it’s not the way of Jesus. Jesus didn’t promote himself. In fact, he did the opposite. He denied Himself.
That smacks me in the face every time. Especially on the heels of Holy Week.
We just celebrated Easter Sunday. But before Sunday, there was Friday. We’ve started a new tradition in our church where we observe a Good Friday service to remember the death of Jesus together with the utmost intentionality. It has become my favorite service. Not because of anything we plan or perform, but because of the time set aside to meditate on Jesus’ sacrifice. It’s easy to brush past the death of Jesus because we know the story doesn’t end there. It’s easier to celebrate the resurrection than to grieve the torture and execution of our Savior. But there isn’t a better picture of self-denial than the death of Jesus Christ.
The events leading up to his death set the stage for the greatest sacrifice of all time.
We begin at the last supper with Jesus and his disciples. He knows he is about to be turned over to Rome to be crucified. He instructs his disciples in the first observation of communion. The bread representing his broken body, the wine his poured out blood, all for us to establish a new covenant. But before the taste of wine was gone from their mouths, the disciples asked the question we are still asking today.
“A dispute also arose among them, as to which of them was to be regarded as the greatest. And he said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them, and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you. Rather, let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves. For who is the greater, one who reclines at table or one who serves? Is it not the one who reclines at table? But I am among you as the one who serves.”
Luke 22:24–27 NLT
Who is the greatest? How can I be the greatest? How can I be noticed above everyone else? That’s the question we are asking today, and we answer it with self-promotion. If no one else is going to make me great, then I will.
But Jesus tells us, “I know that is how the world operates, but not us — not you.”
Greatness comes from service. Service comes from humility. Humility comes from self-denial.
“And [Jesus] said to all, ‘If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.’”
Luke 9:23 NLT
The disciples didn’t have to wait long to watch Jesus become the living example of this principle. After dinner, he went to pray in the garden moments before his arrest. Overnight and into the next day, Jesus did not come to his own defense, and Jesus did not serve his own needs, Jesus did not save himself. Even with his dying moments he served others. He forgave his oppressors, took care of his loved ones, and welcomed another disciple into the Kingdom of God. Not one moment was he concerned with his appearance, his status, or his glory.
This is our King, our God, our example.
Self-denial doesn’t come naturally to us, especially in our culture. It’s hard for me. But self-denial is exactly that — saying “no” to myself. “No” to what I want, to what feels good, to my way, to being in control, to putting myself first. No one said it would be easy. In fact, Jesus taught that this life would be hard — a camel through the eye of a needle, narrow road, persecution and suffering kind of hard.
So I’ll keep asking myself why I feel the need to post on Instagram. And I’ll keep asking until I get down to the core motivation. And if that motivation is for someone to think more highly of me than of Jesus, I’ll pass.
And at work when I want to suggest my own name or feel the itch to grab credit for a successful project, I’ll pause.
And in my heart when I’m struggling with being stuck, feeling down about myself, and wanting to make some moves on my behalf, I’ll pray.