I was at a meeting at the monk house the other night, and as we were discussing the Philokalia, a Bible verse popped up that had always bothered me. It was Matthew 16:24, "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me."
In the past I felt that this verse was convicting me to deny and give up parts of myself that didn't fit into societal expectations to better follow Christ. I took the parts of me that didn't seem acceptable, and tried to hand them back to God. I ended up damaging myself because the personality traits and quirks that I didn't think I should have really didn't go away, I just began to shove them under the mask of a "good Christian". Nobody said I had to do this, or that it was best to be a certain way, I was just uncomfortable with me.
I shared this, and then my friend began to share this verse in a way that was brand new to me. He started at the point, "take up their cross". Our crosses are the selves that God has gifted to us. They are our unique personalities and convictions. They are the people God made us to be. Jesus didn't die on the cross because he was the perfect model Christian, he died on a cross because he refused to give up the person that God made him to be. He was authentically himself to the end. In the same way, we should take up our crosses, refusing to be any less than the people God calls us to be. We are to remain true to ourselves and our God to the end.
The phrase "deny theirselves" or more personally, "deny yourself" then is not about giving up your personality that was given to you. It's about stripping off the masks, about releasing those things that hold us back from being kingdom builders for our creator. It's about refusing to simply try to fit into what society tells us we should be. We have to look to God and wrestle our demons, we have to fight for our authenticity. We have to deny the trap of trying to become who we "should" be, and instead strive to become who we were created to be. "For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?" (Matt 16:26)
This was a healing moment for me. I was brought into a text that I had used to wound myself before and it became a text that I could embrace. It became something that spoke to my experiences and my hopes. I have been striving to truly find my authentic self and speak to my truths, and while God has always been a major part of that journey, I didn't have a sense that Jesus had ever really talked about this. Now I can look to the Gospels and see Jesus speaking these words as well as others to me. It brings me closer to Christ.