MY DEAR SISTER,
The duty of self-denial arises from the unnatural relation which sin has created between us and God. The first act of disobedience committed by man was a setting up of himself in opposition to God. It was a declaration that he would regard his own will in preference to the will of his Creator. Self became the supreme or chief object of his affections. And this is the case with all unregenerate persons. Their own happiness is the object of their highest wishes. They pursue their own selfish interests with their whole hearts. When anything occurs, the first question which arises in their minds is, "How will this affect me?" It is true, they may often exercise a kind of generosity towards others. But, if their motives were scanned, it would appear that self-gratification is at the bottom of it. The correctness of these assertions, no one will doubt, who is acquainted with his own heart. All unconverted persons live for themselves. They see no higher object of action than the promotion of their own individual interests. The duty in question consists in the denial of this disposition. And a moment's attention will show that nothing can be more reasonable. No individual has a right to attach to himself any more importance than properly belongs to the station he occupies in the grand scale of being, of which God is the centre. It is by this station that his value is known. If he thinks himself of more consequence than the place he occupies will give him, it leads him to seek a higher station. This is pride. It is setting up the wisdom of the creature in opposition to that of the Creator. This was probably the origin of the first act of disobedience. Satan thought himself entitled to a higher station in the scale of being than God gave him; therefore, he rebelled against the government of the Most High This act of rebellion was nothing more than setting up his own selfish interests against the interests of the universe. And what would be the consequence, if this selfish principle were carried out in the material universe? Take, for example, our own planetary system. If every planet should set up an interest separate from the whole, would they move on with such beautiful harmony? No; every one would seek to be a sun. They would all rush towards the common centre, and universal confusion would follow. God is the sun and centre of the moral universe, and the setting up of private individual interests as supreme objects of pursuit, if permitted to take their course, would produce the same general confusion. This it has done, so far as it has prevailed. Its tendency is to create a universal contention among inferior beings for the throne of the universe, which belongs to God alone. But, the interests of God, if I may be allowed the expression, are identified with the highest good of his intelligent creation. Hence we see the perfect reasonableness of the first commandment, "Thou shalt have no other gods before me." There can be no selfishness in this, because the best interests of the universe require it. But, by pursuing our own selfish interests as the chief good, we make a god of self.
The religion of Jesus Christ strikes at the root of this selfish principle. The very first act of the new-born soul is a renunciation or giving up of self -- the surrender of the whole soul to God. The entire dedication which the Christian makes of himself -- soul, body and property -- to the Lord, implies that he will no longer live to himself, but to God. "Present your bodies, a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable unto God." "For none of us liveth to himself." "They which live, should not henceforth live unto themselves, but unto him which died for them and rose again." "Whether therefore ye eat or drink, or whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God." Self-denial is, then, an entire surrender of our own wills to the will of God. It is an adoption of the revealed will of God as the rule of duty; and a steadfast, determined, and persevering denial of every selfish gratification which comes between us and duty. It is a seeking of the glory of God and the good of our fellow-creatures, as the highest object of pursuit. In short, it is to "love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, might, mind and strength, and our neighbor as ourselves."
By carrying out this principle, in its application to the feelings, desires, and motives of the heart, and the actions of the life, we learn the practical duty of self-denial. This is a very important matter; for the Scriptures most fully and clearly cut off all hope for such as are destitute of the true spirit of self-denial. Let us hear what our blessed Lord and Master says upon this subject. "He that loveth father or mother more than me, is not worthy of me; and he that loveth son or daughter more than me, is not worthy of me." "If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross and follow me. For, whosoever will save his life shall lose it; and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it." "If any man come to me, and hate not his father and mother, and wife and children, and brethren and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple." "He that loveth his life, shall lose it; and he that hateth his life in this world shall keep it unto life eternal." "If thy right eye offend thee, (or cause thee to offend,) pluck it out and cast it from thee." We must follow Christ. Here we are taught that, unless we put away all self-seeking, and willingly surrender the dearest objects of our affections on earth, yea, and our own lives also, if need be, we have no claim to the character of disciples of Christ. The glory of God and the general good must be our ruling principle of action; and we must not gratify ourselves in opposition to the will of God, or the interest of our fellow-beings. Every action must be brought to this test. Here is heart-work and life-work. Self must be denied in all our spiritual feelings, and in all our devotions, or they will be abominable in the sight of God. Here is work for self-examination. Every exercise of our minds should be tried by this standard. Again; we must deny self in all our conduct. And here we have the examples of many holy men, recorded in Scripture, with a host of martyrs and missionaries, but especially of our Lord himself, to show what influence the true spirit of self-denial exerts upon the Christian life. In the passage quoted above, our Lord expressly declares that, in order to be his disciples, we must follow him. And how can this be done, but by imitating his example? He was willing to make sacrifices for the good of others. He led a life of toil, hardship, and suffering, and gave up his own life, to save sinners. His immediate disciples did the same. They submitted to ignominy, reproach, suffering, and death itself, for the sake of promoting the glory of God, in the salvation of men. Cultivate, then, this spirit. Prefer the glory of God to everything else. Prefer the general good to your own private interest. Be willing to make personal sacrifices for the benefit of others. Carry this principle out in all your intercourse with others, and it will greatly increase your usefulness. It will also really promote your own interest and happiness. There is nothing which renders a person so amiable and lovely, in the sight of others, as disinterested benevolence. Think no sacrifice too great to make, no hardship too painful to endure, if you can be the means of benefiting perishing souls. Remember, it was for this that Jesus gave up his life; and he requires you to be ready to give up everything you have, and even life itself, if the same cause shall require it.
But let me caution you against placing self-denial chiefly in outward things. We are not required to relinquish any of the comforts and enjoyments of this life, except when they come in competition with our duty to God and our fellow-creatures. "Every creature of God is good, and nothing to be refused, if it be received with thanksgiving;" and godliness has the promise of this life as well as of that which is to come. The religion of some people seems to consist chiefly in denying themselves of lawful enjoyments; and you will find them very severe and censorious towards others, for partaking freely and thankfully of the bounties of God's providence. This, however, is but a species of self-righteous mockery, characterized by Paul as a voluntary humility. Instead of being self-denial, it is the gratification of self in maintaining an appearance of external sanctity. It may, however, be not only proper, but obligatory upon us, to sacrifice these lawful enjoyments, when we may thereby promote the interests of Christ's kingdom; which requires the exercise of a self-sacrificing spirit.
Your affectionate Brother.