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Self-Denial? — Romans 15:1–13

“FOR THE WHOLE LAW is fulfilled in one word, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself”’ (Gal. 5:14).

“We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves” (Rom. 15:1).

Self-abasement? Self-denial? Are they dirty words? Self-assertion, self-fulfillment, doing one’s own thing, the me-generation—are these not the hallmarks of an age preoccupied with self-actualization, with the responsibility for bearing one’s own burdens?

Perhaps lack of self-esteem leads us to compensate by self-indulgence. Hence the question should be raised: Does our age and culture destroy the self by being too concerned with preserving the self? The ancient myth of Narcissus may accurately reflect the poor condition of our modern self-image, namely that the self is consumed by having gazed too long upon itself. Too much egocentricity is not good! What if we were to gaze at Another? What if we were to turn toward this Other and give up some of the self-importance that results in the self-in-isolation, in order to gain the quality, value, and dignity of the self-in-relation?

Paul recalled the self-abasement of Christ, the humility of Jesus, whereby he “did not account equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant” (Phil. 2:6-7). Christ Jesus refused to deify himself, but turned himself into a self-for-others.

It is true that we cannot love others unless we love ourselves. It is equally true, however, that we cannot love ourselves unless we love others. Being loved and loving co-exist in delicate, reciprocal harmony. Each is as necessary to the life of the spirit as bread and water are to the life of the body.

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind….You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt. 22:37,39). Is this not the only way to love? to love the self?

“We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves.” What If, in being obsessed with pleasing ourselves, we are so weakened by self-indulgence that we have no strength to bear the burdens of others? What kind of a world would that be? Perhaps something like the one in which we live.

It is holy paradox that by losing ourselves, and discovering Another, we find ourselves. This is what it means to be self-abased and self-fulfilled. The great hunger in our time is a craving for community larger than ourselves. “Therefore I will praise thee among the Gentiles… (Rom. 15:9). “Gentile” refers to the fact that real community is found only when we embrace the one who is stranger—the other.

“Welcome one another, therefore, as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God” (15:7).

It is the only glory worth living.

Self-Portrait (Dedicated to Paul Gauguin) by Vincent van Gogh, 1888
COPYRIGHT © 2023 (1982)  CHARLES DAVIDSON, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
BIBLICAL QUOTATIONS FROM THE REVISED STANDARD VERSION (RSV), 1952
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED AS “Biblical Insights for Christian Living,” TODAY’S WORD FOR ADULTS,
CHRISTIAN EDUCATION SHARED APPROACHES, VOL. IV, COURSE 3, APRIL 1982