What does self-denial have to do with my contentment? Below is an excerpt from my book, Chasing Contentment (pp. 107-110), where I work out some practical considerations of a life ordered by Jesus’s requirement that all who follow him deny themselves (Lk. 9:23). As you’ll see, self-denial is essential for learning contentment.
Remember What Self-Indulgence Brings
Imagine yourself back in the garden. You are standing there with Adam, near enough to Eve to hear the Serpent's crafty temptation. Knowing what you know now about sin and its effects, what would you say? You would rush into the scene and shout, "No! Don't do it! It's a trap! Deny yourself!"
This side of Genesis 3, we know that "the wages of sin is death" (Rom. 6:23). We know the costliness of redemption. We know that, while sin promises fullness and pleasure, it leaves us hungry and hurting. We know that every single problem in the world today traces back to the first sin. Self-indulgence is the mother of hell, and it is the tireless longing of our flesh. Let's not forget that our flesh is the internal ally of the Devil, and it tempts us relentlessly (James 1:13-15). Beware of the endgame of self-indulgence and the insatiable desire of the flesh. When you do, you will want to deny it.
Remember What You Really Need
In the practice of self-denial, I am encouraged by two things. First, we don't need much. Jesus taught us to pray for daily bread. Paul said if we have food and shelter, we should be content. God feeds the birds, clothes the lilies, and cares for his children. But, as Thomas Watson said, "The stomach is sooner filled than the eye." In other words, our lusts are insatiable. Therefore, focus on what you need and be thankful for it.
Second, God has not kept back from you anything you need. When we are self-indulgent, we often pursue things beyond what God has promised--or worse, contrary to what he has promised. How much would our lusts diminish if we restricted them to what God has promised!
Remember What Jesus Died to Bring
We should never forget that Jesus came to free us from our sin and its penalty. In his incarnation, Christ denied himself so we could be freed from sin, not fat from it. The Christian's new life in the Spirit is empowered to continually deny self and pursue God. The sixth chapter of Romans reminds us that we who were formerly slaves to sin have now been set free to be slaves of righteousness (Rom. 6:18-19). Self-denial is central to life in the Spirit.
Remember the Practice of Self-Denial
Thomas Watson helpfully says that we are to mortify our desires and moderate our delights. Mortify simply means kill or put to death (Col. 3:5). When you put a desire to death, you are removing its appetite. A dead man is not a hungry man. To do this, we must do two things well, Watson says.
First, our desires need to be guided by reality. We need to have a biblically formed worldview. What is right? What is true? What is beautiful? When we are convinced of the matter biblically, then we will pursue it.
Second, we need to remember how short life is. Death is coming, whether we like it or not. Sooner than we may estimate, death will "crop these flowers which we delight in, and pull down the fabric of those bodies which we so garnish and beautify." We need a proper perspective on the world. We must also moderate our delights.
Because we were made to love, we love people and things very much. But we should heed the caution: "Rachel set her heart too much upon her children, and when she had lost them, she lost herself too; such a vein of grief was opened as could not be staunched, 'she refused to be comforted.'" If we are not careful, we can turn good things, like close relationships, into ultimate things. God's gifts can, again, replace God himself. And when he then takes them away, we become undone.
Reduce Your Desires to Fit Your Circumstances
Often our desires (even good desires) outrun our experience. This can lead to great disappointment. Consider a young woman who desperately wants to be married, but God, in his providence, has not yet brought her a husband. What if her happiness is bound up in having a husband? She absolutely cannot be content without him. Certainly, God would have this child of his find her contentment in her Lord, even amid this admittedly good desire. In this situation she would need to subordinate her marital desire to the present situation of being single. Subordinating otherwise good desires is hard work, but it is a work of grace. God brings people to a place where they can say, "I want to be married, but God has not yet brought me a spouse. He is good and wise. I trust his timing and pray that he would be so kind as to answer my prayer."
This is the path of humility and trust. It is absolutely contrary to the way most people think. Most people say they'd be happy if they could just have more. But God often makes us content not by giving us more stuff or relationships, but by giving us more humility and trust. We want to be promoted, but the path of contentment is to be brought lower.
As with so much of the Christian life, Jesus is the model and the motivation for our obedience. He denied himself so we could have life in him. He was made nothing that we could be something. He was empty that we would be filled. Now, he calls us to follow him in obedience, hearing again and again his command to deny ourselves and follow him.